This intriguing article comes from Triple C (cognition, communication, co-operation), an open access journal for a global sustainable information society - Vol 10, No 2 (2012).
My reflections in this paper concern revitalizing the critical potential of certain core concepts of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (first published 1944) and bringing it to bear on the digital era in general and in particular on the phenomenon of modern social media. I find that the central philosophical critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment runs deeper than just a critique of contemporary (and perhaps now out-dated) media technique and cultural habits. It is a critical view of the process of civilization, economy and enlightenment as such, a critical view of the seemingly self-evident notion of pure reason, science and technology. What Horkheimer and Adorno are trying to capture and reflect is the very process of rationality backlashing into irrationality. We seem to have reached the era of mathematics and exact calculation, but this leaves us with no sense of control or meaningfulness, and in the face of crisis and systemic contradictions in the now global society we tend to regress and rely on older, more primitive forms of sense-making and coping: magic, mythology and metaphysics - even ritual behaviour. But these philosophical reflections, can they help us evaluate the role of today's social media?
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Here is a brief excerpt from the article:
For me as a young student of philosophy even that strange notion of dialectic began to make some sense, once I got well into the book and the worst of the Hegelian fog lifted. Thus while it was invigorating and enlightening, I also felt the dialectic of it and I found its account of history, civilization, and rationality to be both quite captivating and disturbing. And certainly it was a very, very critical philosophy. So what would happen if I tried to let the critical theory of that book meet with the phenomenon of modern social media?
On the face of it that did not seem likely to turn out as a peaceful encounter. It is well known that The Dialectic of Enlightenment features a very pessimistic and condemning section devoted to "The Culture Industry". Horkheimer and Adorno wrote the book during the Second World War while they were refugees in America (the first version appeared in 1944), and they seem to have been rather disappointed or even shocked in meeting there the pop-culture and mass media of the day. To them the magazines, the cinema, the radio shows, the emerging TV-shows, and even the jazz music, seemed to be in the poorest of taste; stupefying in its effect; a prolongation of the production rhythm of the industry; and certainly not enlightenment. Some have objected that on the other hand they were simply displaying their elitist taste, favouring high art, the avant-garde and the obscure notion of authenticity. But as I see it, simplifying this to be a question of taste or of different modes of reception within different consumer groups would be to seriously reduce the scope of the problems they were trying to address.