The Internet seems to finally have become sufficiently integrated into contemporary society that we no longer marvel at its potential to unite us all or turn us all into isolated worker drones. Still, enough of the rhetoric lingers on that it is worth considering that much of the arguments being trotted out regarding the potential of the Internet are mostly rehashed ideas regarding mass communication that stretch decades, even centuries, back.
No matter the era or the technology in question, new forms of media have consistently been hailed as the means of creating the perfect society while simultaneously reviled as bringer of its downfall. Through Plato, Socrates bemoaned the adoption of writing as a kind of tyranny of thought, while nearly two millennia later advocates of the printing press saw it as a means of challenging traditional power structures within the Catholic Church and monarchical governments. The formation of democratic societies and the associate ideals regarding the distribution of power only heightened the focus on mass media as benefactor versus malefactor. The telegraph, radio, television… all have been praised for creating an informed, participating electorate, the same electorate which these technologies were also accused of anesthetizing, manipulating, and conforming.
Progressive thinker John Dewey declared that new media technologies made true democracy possible for the first time in history. By keeping the public at large abreast of current events and allowing rapid feedback to their representatives, newspapers, telegraphs, and radios would serve to transform the “Great Society” into the “Great Community” – direct participation would offset the consolidation of power that is otherwise inevitable when dealing with vast separations of geography, ethnicity, and ideologies inherent within modern societies. Rather than looking to the birth of a new society, progressive thinkers argued for a rebirth of an idealized notion of ancient communities, utilizing technology to fuse the best of the past and present to create a democratic utopia.
In contrast, critics Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno saw the same mass media technologies as aggravating the continued decline of civilization. Referring to an “enigmatic readiness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the sway of any despotism," Adorno and Horkheimer posited that the very nature of mass media technologies promoted conformity, stifled creative thinking, and almost inevitably led to fascistic forms of government.
Much of both the utopian and dystopian views of the future can be explained by their relatively straightforward visions regarding the current and past condition of society: the utopian vision of Dewey is informed by his joyous celebration of an American culture that he believed was progressively becoming better and better – the present was better than the past, and the future could only hold more of the same. Similarly, Horkheimer and Adorno offer a pessimistic mythos of decline that began with the Enlightenment and will inevitably continue with the passing of the years. Both worldviews carry a sense of inevitability within their rhetoric: technological innovation, whether for good or for ill, is a powerful force within modern society, one which is largely beyond the control of even its inventors. Whether it may deliver us from or to evil may be open for debate, but the idea that it will do the delivering largely of its own accord is implicitly accepted in both ideologies. The form matters far more than the content – either the form is naturally predisposed towards interactions promoting greater democratization, or it will inevitably lead to its decay.