Tuesday January 09, 2018

'We need to let social media run amok,' says scholar Chris Kutarna

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"The revolution has already happened, and it's about adapting to it."

So says Oxford Martin School fellow Chris Kutarna, paraphrasing the famed Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan.

Last season on The Current, the co-author of Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our Second Renaissance, argued we're living in a second Renaissance period — in an age of disruption, from healthcare to technology to politics.

Now Kutarna says the world must adapt to the significant changes of our new reality.

"There are a lot of deeply held ideas, behaviours, truths in our society today that probably need to be shaken a bit," Kutarna tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

As many politicians and social commentators wring their hands over how social media is disrupting political and social systems, Kutarna sees positive progression. He says that though there are dangers in the huge power of social media, there are also benefits to the truths about our society that social media is exposing.

"Maybe we need to let social media run amok, because whatever breaks, needed fixing," he says.

'If we double down on the idea that our participation in society is how we flourish, then we will flourish.' -  Chris Kutarna

Kutarna points specifically to the example of Russian interference in the U.S. election.

"If you look at the content of the messages that Russia was promoting on Facebook, these weren't policy messages, these weren't political messages," he says.

vladimir-putin

'We need to be sober about asking ourselves can we really censor out foreign interference in our public discourse?' asks scholar Chris Kutarna. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

"These were hate messages — the misogyny, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia. These were the messages that their algorithms had told them were going to activate the American voter, maybe influence voter behaviour. You know, at some level, we need to thank the Russian taxpayer for presenting such a blunt lens to our societies about the gap between our public political discourse and some of our privately felt feelings." 

While Kutarna believes the shake-ups surfacing through social media and the internet can lead to positive change, he wants to make sure we keep an eye on the potential dangers as well. 

'As a species, humanity is tremendously adaptable.' - Chris Kutarna

He points to the Chinese government as an example where social media has been used to curb freedom rather than just empower people.

"In the 1990s, we thought that the Internet was just going to be this instrument of empowering individuals," says Kutarna, a China scholar.

APTOPIX China Party Congress

As a China scholar, Chris Kutarna says the government in Beijing 'has an active and sophisticated campaign around the world's democracies to alter public discourse.' (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

"And what China has demonstrated, to its own population and to the rest of the authoritarian world, is that, 'hey, this is a terrific technology for strengthening the state.'"

Kutarna suggests the current series of disruptions, both through social media and beyond, can strengthen democracy, as long as we make a conscious effort to push them in this direction.

"What comes from this moment is a need to get honest and to double down on the practice of democracy," says Kutarna. 

"If we double down on the idea that our participation in society is how we flourish, then we will flourish."

​But a time of great change isn't always an easy one to live through, says Kutarna.

"As a species, humanity is tremendously adaptable," says Kutarna. "As individuals, we tend to have a harder time adapting. Adaptation tends to happen through generational change."

And there is one thing that's necessary to help individuals adapt to change, says Kutarna.

"If we think individually, psychologically, I think it takes some hope, in the sense that we are adaptable," he says.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this post.


This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli and Karin Marley.