Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Can online networks replace national identity?

In many paintings the commissioning patron, in full burgher or noble costume, appears kneeling in adoration alongside the shepherds. What seems incongruous today appeared wholly natural to the eyes of medieval worshipers. We are faced in a world in which the figuring of imagined reality was overwhelmingly visual and aural. Anderson p 23

Because of the increased availability of digital cameras and camera phones, we are returning to an age where imagined reality is constructed visually and aurally. We all recognize this Time cover, that news clip, this youtube video, that presidential speech.

Programs such as photoshop that allow us to insert ourselves or others into famous images (e.g. Bert is evil, Forrest Gump), recall the practices of medieval worshipers that Anderson describes. Unlike Anderson claims, we do still enjoy the somewhat bizarre and self-indulgent practice of seeing ourselves quite literally as part of history.

This narcissism has ballooned into the rise of citizen journalism, blogging and reality TV. Every person has the opportunity to become the producer, recorder and archiver of history. One man caught at ground zero takes out his camera to record the devastation of 9.11, while somewhere and sometime else a student shooter tapes his own hate-filled ramblings to send to a major TV station. Instead of inserting ourselves into pre-existing historical footage, we have begun creating historical footage around ourselves. Finally, unlike the printer-journalist (61), the blogger archives his or her postings, leaving the possibility of ulterior popularity.

Nevertheless, each blogger or citizen journalist generally enjoys only momentary notice. And the online communities we join do not replace our national identities. (There is some interesting research being done by Harvard professor Nicholas Christakis on the link between obesity and social networks. While his original study focused on 'real' networks such as towns and groups of friends, he has begun a second study on virtual networks such as the facebook. If obesity can spread over a virtual, social network, then maybe we should re-evaluate the strength of online social bonds.) When asked how we identify, we still reply I'm an American, or I'm a Canadian, and not, I'm a facebooker, or I'm a myspacer. (Although there was an article in Wired described a UC Berkeley study on class and social networks--apparently popular kids prefer Facebook while geeks turn to MySpace.)

For now, communications technology seems to serve to reinforce national identity--using cell phones to help organize national protests or promote democracy, political blogs, etc.--instead of redefine how we self-categorize.

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