What will history call the postmodern age, and what events will it judge as watershed on the road we now travel? The counterculture movement of the 60s? The fall of the Berlin Wall?
The modern age essentially began with the "Enlightenment" (including the Age of Reason and the Renaissance), when the marvel that is the human mind was exalted against the authority of "The Church." Religious leaders of the time — along with those who benefited from their largess — fought it tooth and nail, but the new age dawned anyway.
And it was inevitable, wasn't it? It really began with the Bible being put into the hands of everyday people, which led folks to the belief that those high priests weren't so high after all.
Postmodernism finds itself in similar territory, and while its fruit is all around us, we're a little bit too close to it to start defining events. There is one, however, that I believe history will judge kindly as a catalyst of change — a renaissance of the right brain in our culture. I call it a renaissance, because I believe there was a time long ago when creativity and the arts were given their cultural due. This contemporary right brain revolution is evidenced by things great and small and has profound implications for the future.
We make plans and set goals, for example, based on left-brain formulas. In the media world, that means we find where we want to go and craft logical plans to get there, and this has served us well and will continue to do so. But we've entered an upside-down world in media today that demands right brain goal-setting and planning.
I cannot tell you how many people I encounter in the media boardrooms of the U.S. who are waiting for the left brain plan before moving into the Media 2.0 world. Yet the conventional wisdom among those companies (and their supporters) who are already into the Media 2.0 space is to just build it and create the business later.
Let me state up front my bias to this end, because I am right brain dominant, although I'm able to perform logic and reasoning functions — according to experts who've probed me — through intelligence. My default setting, however, is on the creative side.
There are two kinds of creativity — that which flows from known parameters and that which begins from beyond. The person who wrote the song is different than the one who remixes it, but both are demonstrations of the right brain. While they share a common ground, they are separate gifts. One who begins with a blank slate sees things beyond one who begins with pieces already in place or within already known parameters.
Creative engineers work within that which is known, and this I find to be an extension of the modernist culture. This kind of creativity drives the modern culture forward, but that which is known has creative limits, and that's one of the reasons it cannot continue to dominate the world.
But the artist has no boundaries except those she creates for herself, for the right brain is wired differently than the left.
The evidence of a right brain renaissance is everywhere. The value of YouTube, for example, isn't in the eyeballs viewing illegally uploaded materials; it's in the millions of creative works being posted by everyday people. Even Hollywood has recognized that its system doesn't have a lock on creativity, as talent agencies are now looking to the web for new prospects. Welcome to the cutting edge.
Have you ever really spent any time on Flickr? It's bursting at the seams with marvelous photography by amateurs who've found an online studio for their work. Institutional photography may not recognize the work on Flickr as "legitimate," but tell that to the people who are using the site to share their work with others.
And the communities that just these two sites are spawning are filled with creative people seeking outlets for their work.
New art forms are exploding. Whoever heard of photoshopping or other forms of digital art just a few years ago? We're inventing whole new virtual worlds such as Second Life, and video games have taken on a life of their own. Nobody knows where it's going. Nobody.
Who would argue that Chris Anderson's brilliant discovery of The Long Tail and his exploration of new media economics isn't inspired? The web empowers the long tail, so not only are we innovating new worlds but also new economies.
Institutional modernist leaders look at all of this and scratch their heads, because it's taking place without their permission. Traditional rules and systems are being by-passed and with alarming speed, and the loss of (their) order is frightening and dangerous. It's foolish, however, to think there is no order as the rules of the right brain world are being written.
Everything about the modernist culture is driven by the left side. How often do we complain that the world is run by the bean counters? That's the left brain at work, the author of the bottom line. Our government is more a government of rules than of the people, and so, where that which is new rears its (ugly) head, we create a new set of rules to bring it into control. While this is a necessary function in a civilized culture, there is ample evidence that, well, it's just gone too far.
Lawyers and the legal system count on left brain rule, and while you can call "creative" some of the manipulation of the law, it is still based on the godlike assumption that the law is the law is the law. Judicial activism, where law is made from the bench, is just another form of logic and reason applied to other left brain work. The law is all about justice these days, but what about mercy? And if mercy is not relevant to culture, then why do we have judges?
Our culture's system of education is based almost entirely on left brain thinking and systems. Hence, I found myself bored by school and excited by that which was beyond the senses and the ability to measure. I was accused of being "too sensitive" by adults, and I wonder if they really knew what they were saying. "Stop being so sensitive, Terry Lee!" was something I often heard. How exactly does one stop being who or what they are?
Consequently, I always felt a bit out-of-step with my surroundings, and I still do in many ways. This is why I don't play well with rules and why I'm able to develop theories from assumptions that others find, well, different.
One of those assumptions is that the page is turning in our culture from modernism to postmodernism, something I accept without a great deal of internal argument, for to me, the things I see taking place in our world make "sense" only when viewed as part of a postmodern shift. They make no sense otherwise. Much of Media 2.0, for example, is counterintuitive to the logic and reason of modernism, whereas Media 1.0 is modernism's crown.
This series of essays is called "Local Media in a Postmodern World," because without that framework, it's much harder to view the changes around us as anything other than technology or new distribution systems. "The news" doesn't need TV or newspapers anymore, and the definition of news is now in the hands of consumers, not an elite group of journalistic royalty. Some of it these days is actually being created by amateurs, and that's only going to increase. Why?
Because postmodernism views much of the fruit of modernism as failed and challenges its basic assumptions (grand narratives) of ordered hierarchy, elitism, and the lordship of science.
The internet and especially the World Wide Web, while authored by science, are the tools of curiosity and imagination, and structurally put people in a countercultural driver's seat, because they can — through exploring links — deconstruct any assumption presented to them by the culture's elite, and that includes all institutions of power. This is power in the hands of the masses never dreamed of before, and where it's going is scary as hell to a society of order.
But I don't share this fear for several reasons. One, I take John Dewey's position over that of Walter Lippmann's, that the open discussion of ideas — even heated and stridently partisan — is necessary for human well-being.
"...the act of voting is in a democratic regime a culmination of a continued process of open and public communication in which prejudices have the opportunity to erase each other; that continued interchange of facts and ideas exposes what is unsound and discloses what may make for human well-being...Any fair-minded survey of suppressive acts in this country will demonstrate that their ultimate source is always a privileged minority (with the majority standing passively by and permitting it to occur)."
John Dewey, John Dewey Responds (1950)
Lippmann (the Father of professional journalism) took a completely opposite position, and his view has been the dominant thinking of our modernist culture:
"A false ideal of democracy can only lead to disillusionment and to meddlesome tyranny. If democracy cannot direct affairs, then a philosophy which expects it to direct them will encourage the people to attempt the impossible; they will fail...The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd."
Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public
Two, I think our culture is sliding into the muck in a hurry, but this downward spiral is nothing new. The ideas from the elite are old ideas, because, well, they need old ideas to sustain what they have, but that does nothing to solve the downward spiral. The left throws money at poverty, and the right gives the money to business in hopes it will "trickle down." Neither does anything to fix the problem, but both are politically expedient.
There is no institutional cure for a disease that is incubated institutionally. Hence, I'm more than willing to let the masses try and figure it out. We certainly can't do any worse than the elites.
Three, technology is the servant of humankind, not the other way around. Our institutions are built upon protected knowledge and the extent to which that protection breaks down is the extent to which we'll be able to one day manage ourselves. I don't claim to have answers that will satisfy how this will come about, but I have faith that — as long as the flow of information is free — we'll be able to figure out ways to use technology for the general betterment of the people.
Already people are helping themselves in the world of healthcare. Who hasn't researched their own symptoms before or after seeing the doctor? And self-help chatrooms and discussion boards are a mainstay of many who suffer from mental and other illnesses. Are they talking with a doctor? No, they're talking to and helping each other.
I view postmodernism as the Age of Participation. Just as the dark ages were brought to a thankful end through an enlightening, the fruit of a closed culture of elites is coming to an end through the increasing ability of every day people to share in the knowledge upon which the culture was built and is sustained.
And just as "the church" didn't disappear after the Enlightenment, elitism won't entirely disappear either as the culture drifts deeper into postmodernism. But those who choose to ignore the people won't be among the favored in the years to come, because the power to decide who's on top is increasingly theirs.
The 21st century could get very ugly as all of this plays out, which is why we so desperately need original thinking right now and why we're witnessing a renaissance of the right brain. To quote a very old book, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."