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Can Social Media Generate Another Enlightenment? | LynBoyer.net
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Can Social Media Generate Another Enlightenment?

Can Social Media Generate Another Enlightenment?

Since I read How the Scots Invented the Modern World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman a few years ago, I have been intrigued by the idea that small groups of people discussing, disputing and disagreeing can lead to a period of enlightenment as robust as the one that flourished in Scotland starting in the early 18th Century. Even though I consider the title of Herman’s book slightly over-reaching, I believe the ideas and inventions that came from Scotland during and after that period are remarkable.

Two notable figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were the moral philosopher, David Hume and economist, Adam Smith . These statues are found on the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. They are the work of David Watson Stevenson (1842–1904). Photo, Kim Traynor

In a time in which the Scottish population boasted a literacy level of 75% (to allow them to read the Bible), individuals met in taverns and in various societies to discuss important topics of their day. From these discussions, social, scientific, political, and philosophical ideas emerged that led to vast changes. Primarily in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the so-called Scottish Enlightenment resulted in advancements in areas that included law, architecture, medicine, chemistry, and engineering. From this group, economist Adam Smith wrote his important work, the Wealth of Nations. James Watt studied energy efficiency and invented the steam engine, an important component of the Industrial Revolution.

Magnus Magnusson said of these exceptional individuals, “Most knew one another; many were close friends…They were stimulated by enormous curiosity, optimistic about human progress and a dissatisfaction with age-old theological disputes. Together they created a cultural golden age.”

Voltaire, who was exalted as a Philosophe in France, where cult figures, high drama and egos seemed to prevail, said of these men, "We look to Scotland for our idea of civilization."

I bring up this topic because I wonder, maybe even hope, that the discussions on blogs and social networking sights such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn could produce intellectual ferment that could lead to positive change now and in the future. My question: Is that possible?

I have been grappling with whether a person who communicates nearly exclusively online can meet my definition of a leader—one who brings together or guides a group of people to make a difference (change the future.) I recognize that in large part, the Arab Spring was a product of Twitter, and the activities of Occupy Wall Street expanded because of Twitter and Facebook. Today, various groups, both radical and moderate, attempt to use social media to further their causes. Those were and are discreet events that led to groups coming together for change.

I see notices of events and activities that excite for a short time, but do people take action on the things that disturb or excite them. Is it possible to use these tools to create an enlightenment that includes ongoing progress, thought and action? What part does leadership play?

As seen in the Scottish Enlightenment, it is clear there was not one true leader. It was a number of people who stepped forward. Maybe that is what the Social Media Enlightenment I hope for would be—individuals who engage in discussion with the belief that something will eventually come of it.

For a period of enlightenment to occur, it seems that the following conditions must be in place:

  • Openness to new ideas (curiosity).
  • A belief that better things can and will come.
  • Agreement that intellectual discussion is desirable.
  • Relationships that begin with trust.
  • On-going intellectual discourse on particular topics.
  • A format that allows both presentation and disagreement in a supportive way.

It is hard to say if discussions of today can make a difference in the future. However, I do not yet see real discussion that points to enlightenment. It seems there is too much information to consider and too little time to delve deeply into single important topics.

I realize that when the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment met, they did not know they were changing the world in so many ways. They were just meeting to share a whiskey or ale with friends who were willing to debate. Is that how change comes about in our age?

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Comments (2)

  1. Tanveer Naseer

    Hi Lyn,

    Thanks for the mention in this interesting look at whether current discussions being held online can serve as the seeds of change we’ve seen happen in the past. I think there are two issues which may serve to weigh down and forward momentum from these conversations. The first and most obvious one is the increasing amount of noise that is present on the various social media sites. Having been on Twitter for a number of years, I’ve noticed the gradual evolution from discrete conversations and idea sharing to general link sharing and in some cases banal chatter.

    Of course, one of the positive aspects of social media is that we all have a choice as to what we’d to hear and so we can filter out the noise and focus instead on where discussions migh be had, and where connections can be made to take the conversation to the next level. This approach seems rather in keeping with these groups of Scottish intellectuals who no doubt also chose who and where they would interact so that they could develop their understandings and insights about t their world.

    The other issue we’re having to contend with, and which I addressed in my piece you mentioned, is the fact that we’re once again popularizing the notion behind the Great Man theory; that the changes we see around us are not the result of a collective effort, but the consequences of the actions, ideas or vision of a solitary figure. Of course, many studies have been done by historians and sociologists which have debunked this theory and have clearly shown that change or innovation doesn’t occur within a vacuum, but instead is the result of a shift in collective thinking and perception. Indeed, history is replete with examples of two or more individuals working independently and unaware of the other on the very same concept, idea or technological breakthrough.

    As such, if we are to have some form of enlightenment, it requires us to not only separate the signal from the noise, but also the understanding that change of any size requires a collective effort of sharing, discussion and reflection.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Tanveer, Thank you for taking the time to respond in such a thought-provoking way. I appreciate your comment about separating the signal from the noise. With so much information coming at us, it is hard to do. I also like the introduction of the fallibility of the Great Man theory. It is easier for a leader to think about what he or she can do to make a difference instead of recognizing the need for collective thought and collective action. It is also easy to forget that a change in collective thought does not necessarily result in the kind of change or vision the “leader” initially had in mind. However, it is nice to think that enlightment could take place because of conversations we hold now or in the future.

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