Culture  All hail the echo chamber

Because there’s nothing the media loves more than talking about itself

Beneath the robots and the black holes and the mysteriously humanoid green-skinned alien babes, a lot of old -school American science fiction had an undercurrent of genuine political optimism. Plenty of authors during the Cold War, enamoured with the superiority of democracy, devoted significant effort to creating and describing the world they saw on the horizon: one where democracy was embraced by all sentient beings, on earth and elsewhere. And if they had to create a distinctly strange civilization tailored to the peculiarities of democracy, so be it. Christopher Stasheff’s novel The Warlock in Spite of Himself did just this, in an attempt to bring direct democracy out of classical Athens and into outer space. It posited an interplanetary society in which illiteracy was a thing of the past, and 72 per cent of the population had earned a graduate degree. Each citizen was assigned a Tribune to represent them in public affairs, who, by the Wonder of Space Age Communication Technology (essentially modified radios – this book was published in the late 1970s, and it shows) they could squawk their educated, elegantly phrased opinions whenever the fancy struck. These Tribunes served as a direct conduit from the common man to the Powers That Be. Whether these opinions ever went on to have an effect on policy is never touched upon. Amid the triumph of achieving universal discourse, the aftermath doesn’t seem important.

Thanks to the widespread internet access that’s come with the 21st century, we might never need those Tribunes to stay true to the spirit of direct democracy. Possible downside: now we all have to deal with the 24-hour squawk. And it’s not just about politics. Digital ink is spilled over the trivial and abstract. Anyone with a keyboard can become a cultural critic or philosopher. They can also vent their impotent, expletive-filled rage. This is the true nature of democracy: every voice a venue, regardless of coherence and usefulness.

But there’s only so far technology can take us. The media’s old guard (the big newspapers, magazines, and networks) still have something of a monopoly on respectability, and the appearance thereof. They’ve got the public trust, and more importantly, the name recognition. And the people they lend their clout to are the intellectual elite, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. Case in point: the trend piece. A print meditation that, more often than not, concerns the habits and tastes of youth, but is written by someone who hasn’t been young for quite a while.

Professor Christy Wampole of Princeton University, if we’re to believe her November trend piece for the New York Times, is not a fan of the Millennial generation’s worldview. “If irony is the ethos of our age – and it is – then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.” She goes on to bemoan the perceived cultural markers of the class we call “hipster,” everything from digital photo filters (“Nostalgia needs time. One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.”) to a decline in the art of conversation (a particularly puzzling claim, for which no real explanation is offered). “Inwardness and narcissism now hold sway,” she wails, as if unaware how many times this very thing has been said of the young by the old throughout the ages.

This article is not written for hipsters, or even the people who have to deal with them on a regular basis. This is a middle-aged woman writing for others of middle age, disregarding everyone else. It’s a bit like sitting next to an elderly couple in a movie made with the 18 to 49 demographic in mind (i.e., just about all of them.) Often, the two will spend the movie whispering to each other: explaining plot points and references, recapping missed dialogue. They’re pooling resources to attempt to understand something spawned by a popular culture that isn’t their own. The couple can find this film interesting, but it’s unlikely they’ll ever consider it a defining work of their generation. They already have those. She writes with a whiff of smug nostalgia. “We did things right when I was young!”

So the technology’s caught up to Stasheff’s vision of completely democratic communication, but will the essentially hierarchal nature of our media ever manage the same? For the time being, it’s not likely. The view of the older, richer, and better-educated is still prized, whether they have the authority to speak on a subject or not.