Digital Skeptic or Analog Celebrant … Which Frame Would You Choose? (part one of two)

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OK, pop quiz:

Are you …

a) a digital celebrant
b) a digital skeptic
c) both a digital celebrant and skeptic
d) none of the above
e) confused because you have no clue what I’m talking about

If you answered anything but “e”, then more than likely you are familiar with the frames digital celebrant and digital skeptic. But if you answered “e”, more than likely you have never heard of these frames before. Well, until I read Robert McChesney’s 2013 book entitled Digital Disconnect—How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, I would have answered “e”. For those of you who answered “e”, lets take a look at where these frames came from and what they’re about. In the process I’ll challenge these frames and offer up what I consider to be more accurate and revealing frames. As always, cognitive scientist (turned political commentator) George Lakoff’s work in the area of frames (especially political frames) will provide the theoretical scaffolding.

McChesney (who is a communications professor at the University of Illinois) starts out his book by looking at these two frames—digital skeptic and digital celebrant—in some detail. As it turns out these are not McChesney’s frames. McChesney credits Robin Mansell with creating these two frames after Mansell extensively analyzed literature on the Internet. Mansell wrote the 2012 book entitled Imagining the Internet—Communication, Innovation, and Governance. Once I knew what a digital skeptic was, turns out I know a lot about this frame. Allow me to explain.

Consider this list of books:

The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
The Filter Bubble—What the Internet Is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser

Does this list seem familiar to you? It should because I’ve been blogging about these books for some time now. Recall that back in February of 2012, our Foundation invited Nicholas Carr to speak here in Albuquerque as a part of our RYOL Lecture Series. Simply, McChesney points to these books (and others) as representing the ideology that motivates the digital skeptic frame.

OK, now I know what a digital skeptic is. Here are a few other books by digital skeptics that I have read (and blogged about) that McChesney does not mention:

The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where all of Life is a Paid-For Experience by Jeremy Rifkin
The Digital Pandemic—Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age by Mack Hicks
Hamlet’s BlackBerry—A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers
Bowlby’s Battle for Round Earth by yours truly (with no apologies for my shameless self promotion)

Heck, I wrote a 14–part blog series summarizing Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry. I also wrote a 40–page summary of just the last chapter—Toward an Ecology of Culture and Capitalism—from Rifkin’s The Age of Access. (Contact us to request a copy of this summary). As an aside, it really is too bad McChesney does not mention Age of Access in specific or Rifkin’s work in general because Rifkin was writing about the intersection of the Internet and market dynamics way back in 2000 when Age of Access was released. All this to say that I have been reading and writing about digital skepticism for probably ten years now, and I had no idea that was what I was doing until I encounter the frames digital skeptic and digital celebrant in McChesney’s book. Considering I appear to know a little bit about digital skepticism, let me start with this frame. I think we can get a sense for this frame by looking at one-sentence descriptions of the above books:

The Shallows (Carr) – The Internet experience in general and Internet reading (or eReading) in specific have the potential to rewire the brain in such a way that we lose our ability to engage in such Executive Function (EF) skills as planning, mental modeling, focusing attention, shifting attention, perspective-taking, empathy, mental time travel, insight, critical analysis, and imagining the future.

Alone Together (Turkle) – People increasingly attaching to robots or mechanical caregivers—smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, Furbies, tablets, etc.—provides evidence that such mechanical attachment substitutes answer the question asked by insecure attachment at the level of society: “How do I secure a sense of being connected while at the same time avoid the pain and suffering that face-to-face intimacy inevitably brings?”

The Filter Bubble (Pariser) – Cybernetic feedback loops (i.e., Facebook, TiVo,, iTunes, Twitter, Google, Bing, smartphones, etc.) populate the Internet in an attempt to deliver “you to you” in such a narcissistic way that self is not allowed to develop, be known, or otherwise be truly expressed.

The Age of Access (Rifkin) – We are moving from an old economic model where relationships are largely guided by owning and protecting physical property to an emerging economic model where relationships are largely guided by gaining access to digital realms where multiple selves can be created and acted out (“thespian” or “therapeutic” selves as Rifkin calls them).

The Digital Pandemic (Hicks) – As the digital age continues to emerge we will see two overarching frames: Gatherers who gather together bits and pieces of digital stuff (factoids, “likes”, MP3 songs, digital pictures, avatars, digital selves, etc.) with no real concept for how all the pieces fit together into a coherent whole, and Hunters who will “do”, that is to say, develop and enact plans of action out in the so-called real physical world.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry (Powers) – Given that technological revolutions have happened since the beginning of recorded time—agriculture, written language, printed language, wind power, machines, automobiles, TV, etc.—our goal as humans is to take the time necessary to reflect on and develop a relationship with the technology that surrounds us so that our lives are enriched and not enslaved.

Bowlby’s Battle (Leonhardt) – The rise of cybernetic feedback loops (i.e., Facebook, TiVo,, iTunes, Twitter, Google, Bing, smartphones, etc.) is now short-circuiting against the postmodern desire to throw off the motivational demands arising from biologically mediated innate behavioral systems such as sex, attachment, and caregiving, the arcing of which lights the way toward our posthuman future.

Wow, that’s a lot on the digital skeptic frame. Hopefully through these one sentence synopses the reader can at least get the gist behind the digital skeptic frame. Honestly, I have read very little on the digital celebrant frame. Why? Simply, I don’t believe in it. Drawing from Lakoff’s work, yes, I can passively recognize the digital celebrant frame, but it is not a frame I use actively to, well, frame my world and my worldview. But there’s a bigger problem here: I don’t agree with Mansell’s frames. I don’t think they accurately reflect what is going on as we continue to experience a huge paradigm shift—moving from a human state to a posthuman state. I’m going to pull a “Dick Cheney” here and simply state, “I don’t accept these frames.” So, what frames would I use? How about these:

Human or Analog Celebrant versus Posthuman or Digital Celebrant

Honestly, I don’t see digital skeptics as being skeptical at all. Who wants to be labeled as a “skeptic”? Even McChesney tells us that digital skeptics are often perceived as being curmudgeons. Yeow! People definitely prefer celebrants or people who celebrate something. In my opinion, I see both frames as celebrant frames. The key is to determine what is being celebrated. Simply, human celebrants celebrate being, well, human, that is to say, being biologically based beings who live primarily in analog defined worlds. In contrast, posthuman celebrants celebrate the coming of a new age where humans (or humanoids, or cyborgs, or whatever) will be mechanically based beings who live primarily in digitally defined worlds. Again pulling from Lakoff, I actively use the human celebrant frame and only passively recognize the posthuman celebrant frame. I know what the posthuman frame is but I don’t use it actively. As a result, I have not actively sought out literature on the digital celebrant frame.

Let me end this part by returning to McChesney for a moment. McChesney effectively says that neither frame—digital skeptic or digital celebrant—is really important. McChesney argues that the only frame worth considering is the “capitalist celebrant frame” (which I just made up). In other words, McChesney argues that when it comes to the Internet, capitalist or monopolist celebrants will rule the day. Capitalist Internet celebrants—Zuckerberg, Gates, the late Jobs, Schmidt, etc.—will rule our lives.

But here’s where using the wrong frames can yield spurious results: McChesney assumes that both digital skeptics and digital celebrants both celebrate being human, that is to say, being biologically based beings with innate behavioral systems such as sex, attachment, and caregiving. Yes, this assumption does describe human celebrants, but it does not describe posthuman celebrants. Why is this distinction important? Well because McChesney effectively argues that the digital age in general and the Internet in specific will ultimately undermine democracy. Well, OK, but they will potentially undermine a democracy consisting of humans. But what of a democracy consisting of posthumans? Does a concept like democracy make sense when discussions turn to the topic of posthumans? Using my frames of human celebrant and posthuman celebrant, I see the digital age and the Internet as posing a threat to human democracy but, in contrast, constituting a boon to posthuman democracy (if there can be such a thing). I would suggest that the very notion of democracy is shifting (possibly disappearing) because definitions and frames surrounding what it means to be human are shifting. These shifting sands will be the topic of part two.

In part two I’ll principally look at two articles. The first is entitled What Can Be Wrong With Growth? by Peter Marris (contact the Foundation for a copy—used by permission), and the second is entitled Intelligent Robots Will Overtake Humans by 2100, Experts Say by staff writer Tia Ghose. Marris argues that certain things about life, like secure attachment relationships and human bonding, cannot be “marketized” or “digitized.” (Rifkin and Turkle, among others, deliver a similar message in their respective work.) The article by Ghose is a “great” synopsis of where we are as far as making the jump to a posthuman state. We’ve moved quite far along toward a posthuman state as the following signposts (from Fukuyama’s work—see below) would suggest: feeding young kids behavioral drugs like Ritalin, designer babies, cloning, genetically modified (GM) foods, certain assisted reproductive technologies, and the list goes on. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of posthumanism, I’d recommend three books:

How We Became Posthuman—Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by Katherine Hayles
Our Posthuman Future—Consequences of the Technological Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
Representations of the Post/human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture by Elaine Graham (summary available)

Simply, it is hard to talk about the Digital Age and postmodernism without also bringing in the topic of posthumanism. The Digital Age and postmodernism both have a posthuman state as their object, which is why I see them short-circuiting against each other. The resulting arcing creates a bright light that appears to only get brighter with each passing day.