One of the great benefits of the technology that we now have at our disposal, is that many of us have been able to maintain, and even expand our active personal media networks. The use of video streaming and co-meeting services such as Zoom, Skype, Slack and Teams, along with Facetime and WhatsApp video messaging, has meant that we can maintain visual and interactive face-to-face contact with our friends and families during the lockdown. Hopefully, this reduces isolation and maintains a level of contact between people in their social networks that is meaningful and helpful. I’ve been Skyping with my mum and my sisters in a group chat that has brought us closer together.
However, like any technical and social innovation there are intended and unintended consequences of our new ways of interacting. There are affordances and limitations associated with any technology that mean that we gain from our extended use of personalised media, but at the same time we lose something by taking our focus away from collective and shared forms of identification and common reference points. It’s going to be interesting to look back at these weeks and months and consider what worked and what didn’t work? And what lessons we can take from it?
For example, on Sunday 5th April I attended an online meeting organised by Rebel Wisdom. This was a set of talks and seminars held using Zoom, which attracted over four hundred people from around the world. This enabled this widespread groups of people to participate in conversations and discussions with a metamodern outlook and critique. Rebel Wisdom is a media platform founded by David Fuller, a BBC & Channel 4 film maker, who is exploring the “civilisational-level crisis of ideas, as the old operating system breaks down.” The Rebel Wisdom platform includes a YouTube channel, a podcast, a Medium page, a Twitter feed, and probably many more ways of connecting.
The idea behind Rebel Wisdom is to look at what is struggling to emerge in our culture and society, and to consider what the most transformative and rebellious ideas might be that are going to show up. The advantage for me in using this channel, and the media that is shared and collaboratively created, is that I get to hear about discussions and ideas that are taking place in parts of the world that I can’t reach from here in Leicester. It connects me with a social movement of thoughtful and engaging mindfulness practitioners, philosophers, economists, arts therapists, tech practitioners. It’s a network of people who are interested in searching for ideas about how to reconstruct our world around more resilient, creative and sustainable models.
Contrast this with a conversation I had through Twitter with Giles Fraser, who is the Rector of St Mary, Newington in London, a radio broadcaster and presenter of the Confessions podcast series. Giles was asking for support in obtaining some tablets or smartphones so that some of his parishioners could attend the Sunday service he runs, and in the process, feel that they were being included in the collective act of worship by taking part in a Zoom meeting. I suggested contacting the local community radio station to see if they might be willing to offer a regular slot that broadcasts services directly, using the tried and tested technology of analogue radio broadcasting.
Giles wasn’t convinced that this would add significantly to the experience of the isolated parishioners, so I suggested the next level of interaction using another tested technology, which is a phonebank. It’s relatively easy these days to host conference calls on an iPhone, and if the phone is plugged into the church public address system, and is linked to a microphone, then there could be shared discussion. Giles’ expectation was that he wanted those in isolation to also be able to see what was happening, and didn’t want to resort to commentary and overt description during the service. He wanted something visual. A live video stream that the remote viewers could watch.
I suppose my concern, over all, is that there are a lot of people promoting and offering technological solutions that haven’t been fully tested yet? In the rush to be seen to enacting those solutions, we perhaps aren’t considering the needs of the people who are not connected digitally, and listening to their voices about what forms of social interaction they really want?
At no point should anyone be compelled to engage with or use digital public, social or community-based services if they do not wish to. Just because a majority of people are excited about the promise of tech solutions, it doesn’t mean that absolutely everyone has to be obliged to use them. Many people prefer not to be online. They prefer to use tried and tested technologies because they are low cost, reliable and well established as part of their daily routines. Radio can be flicked on and has the potential to be a meaningful companion to your day.
Listening to the radio, or reading a print versions of a newspaper, are still important and essential ways of staying informed and entertained. For many people they are still essential ways they can feel connected with their communities. They don’t want to be part of the global networks and information flows. They just want to feel that their local neighbourhood is somewhere that they can call home and belong.
There are undoubted benefits of being online and digitally connected, but this comes with a set of additional responsibilities and commitments that many people don’t want. Contracts, service charges, data limits, and so on. Among older and more vulnerable people there is a well-founded fear of taking-on financial commitments for services that they don’t feel are necessary. Many people don’t want to learn how to use electronic devices, despite how intuitive the design and the interface has become. These devices are still alien to many people, and we have to respect that some people just don’t want to use them. If you give them to people they might just end up gathering dust.
I can only relate this to a personal example from my own life. I have never learnt to drive. I see no need to drive. I don’t like the experience of driving, and I don’t like the way that a car mindset takes-over everyone’s social options and choices. In the 1960s there were plenty of public planners who were prepared to destroy and disembowel our cities so that everyone would be able to drive and get about in a car. I’m sure that there were plenty of fanciful discussions about how to achieve one hundred percent car ownership penetration of the population, making it possible for everyone to live their lives from the comfort of a motor vehicle.
Thank goodness we are now pulling back from our obsession with the totalising carmageddon, and looking to our legacy technologies, such as walking and cycling to improve our mobility and well-being. As an analogy for our media use, it’s useful to remind all those people touting tech solutions to the Covid-19 lockdown, that sometime the best solutions are those that are well tested and have delivered in the past. By all means innovate and add to your toolkit, but don’t assume that the new technologies you are promoting will add much that is meaningful to people’s experience beyond the novelty of trying out a new gadget or service. They can quickly be forgotten.
One area where there has been a great benefit from using these new connective technologies, however, has been the way that community radio stations have been able to establish and connect home studios very quickly. The instances that have been highlighted on Twitter using the #radiofromhome tag are widespread. Community radio stations have been able to keep on air because they have been able to use server-based radio play-out technology to link with remote users, effectively controlling the station from a bedroom.
With the use of a simple USB microphone and a pair of headphones, presenters and programme makers have been able to maintain their lockdown and still carry on serving their local communities with a distinct and unique local voice.
Perhaps the lessons to learn from these examples is that when we look back, we will see this as a point when we started to harness the power of different forms of communications technology, and use them in socially positive and constructive ways. This is not a question of either/or one technology, and as metamodernism points out, we should seek the moments of and/if. Is this the point when we integrate our technologies and platforms, when we combine them in local and global networks, and we use them to empower people to come together and share their experiences, thoughts and reflections. That would be a fitting outcome for a challenging moment in our history.