02 November 2017

Freud, Jung, Hidden Impulses, the Collective Unconscious, Hitler, Putin, Conspicuous Consumption and - Finally - Community

Freud's Couch Was Sort of a Bed
About a century ago two competing models for modern media emerged in the U.S. and Germany. Using what they were learning about psychology, the Nazis created state propaganda to sway the masses to serve the interests of the state and advertisers in the U.S. used those same insights to serve the interests of the corporation. (A fascinating documentary, the Century of the Self, makes this argument and can be found here.)

William James published what some argue was the first textbook on psychology - the Principles of Psychology - in 1890 and Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and Civilization and its Discontents in 1930. If you visit the apartment in Vienna where Freud pioneered psychotherapy you don't just see that the Freudian couch was actually a bed. (Freud thought that a bed was a safe and  cozy place from which to free associate but perhaps the preponderance of sexual references would have given way to a preponderance of food references had he instead used a kitchen table.) What you get from the museum that once was his office is this very exciting sense of the mind as a new frontier. Rather than blame spirits or madness for weird thoughts and behavior, these early psychologists were taking a scientific approach to the mind, hoping to better understand the impulses that seemed to lay below the seemingly thin veneer of our civility. Jung's concept of the collective unconscious might be suspect but it gets to the reality that something binds us that is almost mystical and that these impulses could be tapped to sway large groups to do strange things - like drive to the mall on a sunny day or shout angry slogans at political rallies.

These insights were exploited with new and transformative technology of that time. The radio was the first technology to allow people across an entire nation to hear about the wonders of the Third Reich or nylons and electric razors and it was quickly followed by TV.

Obviously it made an enormous difference whether a community used these powerful new media technology to promote the interests of the state or the corporation. Someone once said that the book most likely to change minds in the Soviet Union would be the Sears Catalog. Magazines, newspapers, radio and TV shaped minds - and thus communities - as only churches and sacred texts had before. And it was no coincidence that the state and corporation undermined the dominance of the church last century.

This century's transformative media is the internet and the social media it has enabled. The shift in advertising revenue from newspapers to the internet has shattered old business models and forced a scramble to discover new audiences and sources of revenue for reporting and commentary.

And curiously, the choice about whether this model will be funded by the state or the corporation, by advertising for political interest and shared values or great values on products you'll love, is still in question. This week's senate hearings with the social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google gets to the question of how social media has been used to manipulate voters and thus American policy rather than merely focus on getting us to buy more goods.

It's worth noting that this is social media.

About the same time as the emergence of the radio and television, a third really powerful technology emerged: the telephone. This was intimate and personal and allowed two people to communicate and in the process strengthen relationships. I think it's telling that so much of the internet is experienced on a phone. Even though actual talking on the phone is not even in the top ten activities people do with their phones, what they're doing is closer to what was done on the phone last century than what was done with TV and radio. They're creating and feeling part of a community.

Community is a third goal, different from the goals of consumption and propaganda. I think one thing we're seeing in the success of Twitter and Facebook is the strong impulse to belong. You can dismiss this as tribalism but I think it speaks to communities of the mind and shared values, to what it means to be human and feel the part of something larger. It's worth noting that the strength and vulnerability of these brands is that they are platforms. Zuckerberg doesn't make editorial decisions about what posts your Aunt Leola or cousin Curt should make on Facebook. They do. Your friends are rarely selling goods or trying to win votes for the political party they are starting. (Although I admit I would be interested in seeing the posts of someone who was starting a new party; that sounds like an interesting person.) They are simply connecting, sharing what they are proud of, what impresses them, what they are worried about and what made them laugh. The third way beyond media as a tool for conspicuous consumption or political propaganda is media a tool for creating communities of the mind, of shared interests and simple friendships. It's not novel that people would do that; it is novel that people could do that across distances, with a tool more inclusive than the phone or the kitchen table.

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