Social Media, Social Responsibility, and Social Justice

In 2009, I gave a commencement speech on behalf of Brandeis University’s Cultural Production program. Recent controversy over the internet in classrooms has inspired me to dig it up, partially revise it, and post it for the world to read.

Two fish are swimming in the water having a discussion about the political economy of sea anemones. Eventually, they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them saying “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, discussing conservative vs. liberal anemones, how the anemone university should act fiscally responsible, when, suddenly, one fish looks over at the other, dumbstruck, and goes “What..what’s water?!”
In this past year, many of us in the Cultural Production Program have been thinking about the role of media in our society. The ways in which what we watch on television is simultaneously an expression of ourselves and a disciplining of who we will become, how the internet as an appendage of phones, ipods, cars, and hairbrushes has created a world of constant surveillance, and the ways in which portable mp3 players subvert the media panopticon by providing new soundscapes to the urban social landscape of Boston. In our explorations, we have seen that many in older generations comment on media and technology’s constant presence in, and often interruption of, our “real lives”, while our generation, and those younger than us, ask, “what’s water?”
Those of us graduating from Brandeis University stand at the precipice and look over into a new world, one in which the border between virtual and physical is slowly disintegrating; one where media should no longer be an interruption in the flow of the everyday, nor a distraction, but integrated into our processes of accomplishment. Status updates, tweets, likes, pounds, comments, diggs, and other web actions are no longer that of the cyber world, but are vehicles upon which physical interactions are taking place, and vehicles which are becoming essential for various real world phenomena. This is a brave new world, one in which a laptop in the classroom enriches debate of social justice and human rights, as opposed to facilitating a shopping spree on eBay at the expense of other classmates during a lecture.
There are dangers in this new world, however; pop-up windows in the cyberspace of life. A myriad of messages barrage us at every instant, coming from the cell phone, the electronic check out machine, the National Inquirer on the magazine rack, the lady in the next aisle listening to music on her cell phone. We are in a place where the only monotony that we hear is the polyphony of text, image, and sound.
Thus, I suggest a revision to an old adage, one that has been beaten to death in many graduation speeches. We are told “The value of a liberal arts education is not in telling students what to think, but how to think.” Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand in a new age of liberal education and at a time for a new addage; a liberal arts degree is no longer about the capacity to think, but about critically discerning what to think about. The value in our degrees is in its training to weed through the cacophony of mediated messages as we sit down to type a TPR business report, about finding the one particular task that must be accomplished in a world of multitasking, multimessaging, mashups, and myspaces. We have been trained, will continue to learn, and must teach others how to read through the symphony of messages created in a world of headlines and text messages, so that we can find content and accomplish tasks. They will teach us “this is water”, and we will teach them in what direction to swim.
Most importantly, as those older fish remind us: “this is water, this is water”, we must remember that technology is only as useful as the intention we put to it. Should our gills evolve into lungs, we should no longer attempt to breath underwater. But, if you chose, as many of you will, to use media and technology to raise your voice on behalf of those whose cannot be heard; if you choose to use it to provide support for the powerless in the face of the powerful; to educate those without power to come closer to obtaining it; or choose to set it aside so that you might put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then we will only come to have stronger gills, and may manage to convert some amphibians in the process.
Despite our passion for media and technology in the 21st century, and with this I’ll close, we must remember that the world does not need the Internet, twitter, blogs, email, or a hybrdized social/media relationships to change for the better. These are only tools, ones that, in my humble opinion, provide the opportunity to create new realms of opportunities for those without them. But, I believe that JK Rowling put it best; we carry all of the power we need to change the world inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better. Technology must be slave to our imaginations my friends, it must never become “water”.
Thank you, congratulations graduates, and Godspeed.

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