Sunday, October 25, 2009

who you calling 'we'? Part 2: Peggy Orenstein version

I, good little revolutionary that I am, have been reading Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Some of my colleagues find this fact cute. Cute like this: "Oh, lookit Jenna getting all outraged again. Now she's even carrying Freire around with her. That's so cute."

That's okay. Other cute things include: anteaters and baby pterodactyls.

Reading Freire can make a guy excessively aware of anything that gives off even the faintest whiff of colonizing tendencies: Actions or words that ignore, dismiss, or (intentionally or unintentionally) distort or misrepresent the interests of oppressed groups.

A good recent example of this is Peggy Orenstein's recent New York Times piece Stop Your Search Engines. The piece, which focuses on "our" struggle to control overwhelming levels of information inundation, offers a peek into how even the best writers so often end up re-colonizing marginalized voices by treating personal issues as if they were universal concerns. It's a common trend in writing about new media, which coincidentally happens to be the topic of Orenstein's piece. She explains that, much like the irresistible urge of the Sirens' call in Homer's The Odyssey, the internet and the knowledge contained therein can drain "our" spirit, energy, and very lifeforce away. "It is heartening," she writes,
that the yearning for learning is the most powerful of all human cravings (though it applies equally to obtaining the wisdom of Zeus or the YouTube video on how to peel a banana like a monkey). Yet the sea surrounding the Sirens was littered with corpses. Can increased knowledge really destroy us?

Well, yes.... [T]he trap is more of a bait and switch: the promise is of infinite knowledge, but what’s delivered is infinite information, and the two are hardly the same. In that sense, Homer may have been the original neuropsychologist: centuries after his death, brain studies show that true learning is largely an unconscious process. If we’re inundated with data, our brains’ synthesizing functions are overwhelmed by the effort to keep up. And the original purpose — deeper knowledge of a subject — is lost, as surely as the corpses surrounding Sirenum scopuli.

There's a lot of "we"-ing and "us"-ing in this article. The piece, after all, is part of a regular feature called "The Way We Live Now," a feature intended to represent personal approaches to larger cultural issues. And this is exactly what Orenstein attempts to do. She cites Fred Stutzman, the inventor of an internet-blocking application called Freedom, as saying that "we’re moving toward this era where we’ll never be able to escape from the cloud." (emphasis mine)

The internet, Orenstein argues, "has allowed us (emphasis mine) to reflexively indulge every passing interest, to expect answers to every fleeting question, to believe that if we search long enough, surf a little further, we can hit the dry land of knowing 'everything that happens' and that such knowledge is both possible and desirable. In the end, though, there is just more sea, and as alluring as we can find the perpetual pursuit of little thoughts, the net result may only be to prevent us from forming the big ones. (emphasis mine, emphasis mine, emphasis, emphasis mine)

We sure do spend a lot of time talking about what the internet means to us, don't we? I've been as guilty of this as the next guy--it's a nice rhetorical move, a way of enlisting allies around a cause and demonstrating an awareness of cultural trends.

It also silences people who aren't part of the "we" in question.

One of the most exciting aspects of the internet as an information and communication source is that it offers the promise of real revolution: of tools for dancing along with and in resistance and opposition to dominant cultural forces. We feel inundated, overwhelmed at times, by information, but when information is necessary, useful, and used it feels anything but. They--people who, for example, have used Twitter as a tool for revolution; who have used cellphones to document the most abominable acts of cruelty and degradation; who have used news sites and blogs and forums to gather information they couldn't otherwise access--are less likely than "we" are to feel like limits must be set, like too much knowledge is a dangerous thing, like "self-binding" is the only path to true productivity.

Pervasive among members of dominant groups, writes Paulo Freire, is a fear of freedom: a fear that liberating the oppressed--making possible true conscientizacao, or critical consciousness and the will to resist oppression--will threaten the status quo.

"We" would do well to remember that the internet serves many purposes, some revolutionary and others not, but the leisure and reflexivity with which many of "us" approach consistent internet access is a long, long ways from universal. It's the old Tree of Knowledge issue again: Eating the apple only constitutes a fall from grace if you had the luxury of grace in the first place.

No comments:


All content on this blog has been relocated to my new website, making edible playdough is hegemonic. Please visit and update your bookmarks!