In The News

Digital Background

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Weekly

By Stephen Urchick

“Can Digital Media Save Young People’s Lives?” wasn’t just the titular talking point for an Illinois Humanities Council panel discussion. We were hosted by the Experimental Station at 61st and Blackstone, which sits near a fault line. Rapper and slam poet FM Supreme opened the forum by dwelling on its emotional significance. To stop Chicago from criminalizing and demonizing its underserved, she tremulously urged the advocates, educators, and citizens in the crowd to push harder, stronger, and louder. She felt “numb to all these killings.” She asked young America: “What are you holding in your hands?”

University of Chicago professor Cathy Cohen gave a clear answer: cellphones, laptops, and iPads. She provided a brief survey of her participatory politics studies. Her findings optimistically suggested that activists stand a good chance of translating youth access to digital media into lower mortality rates. Her work responded to a claim made first by Supreme that was then confirmed by the crowd’s snaps and murmurs: “I don’t need to read the paper….I get my news from my Twitter.”

Her words were especially potent in light of the flurried Internet response to the Boston bombings. It had only been the night before that a friend and I (and millions more) were glued to Reddit as threads feverishly filled with police scanner transcriptions. It had been less than 24 hours since the Boston PD triumphantly Tweeted its apprehension of the 19-year-old Chechen bomber, whom new and old media alike had just roared to (mis)identify. We had watched, even participated in, the realization of digital media’s powerful and troubling potential.

The five panelists tried to access and assess its putative preventative properties. How did these producers, poets, and organizers feel about digital media’s ability to organize crowd action? “Beautiful!” How did they personally get involved with digital media? Unwillingly, tangentially. They were hopeful. Technology isn’t inherently harmful—it’s an empty vessel. Digital media engages a “broccoli and cheese” principle to incentivize healthful involvement with empty calories; as they say, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. According to the panelists, online discussion spaces have changed the average adolescent male’s rhetoric. As one panelist prophesied: “Maybe we’ll have a whole generation of young men who can talk about their feelings!”

Thirty minutes in, however, the discussion began to lose steam. The topics drifted into generalities. The panelists affirmed life’s unarguable value. They redefined violence. (“Closing schools is violent, standardized testing is violent.”) I heard the portmanteau “ChIraq” for the first time (and a second and a third). And I remembered that for all it offers, the Internet is a staging ground for its own battles. Legionary communications conglomerates menaced open-source; Anonymous’s terrifyingly decentralized vigilantism eroded the space for discourse.

Cohen seemed to lose some vigor as she concluded that “voice is not power.” Although digital media might win small victories, there’s a difference between mobilizing and organizing, commuting and committing. As FM Supreme had sung, “Nobody said it would be easy.” The panel had quietly realized that age-old problems wouldn’t cave to new-age solutions.