“We’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever,” Patton Oswalt claims in his article, Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. Within it, he argues that pop culture is nearing etewaf—that the Internet, in its boundless and eternal state—made this inevitable. The consequence of this, he writes, is that we are now a culture populated by “sated consumers” who don’t strive to create anything new. Rather, we simply rediscover the old and appropriate it endlessly.
In a blog about new media and activism, I’ll admit it’s odd to start off with something seemingly so removed from the topic at hand. Pop culture, geekdom, and wonky theories on the evolution of the Internet aren’t exactly the expected musings. However, when people talk about activism, social change, and the ‘power of the internet’, they focus primarily on the diffusion of space. Missing from this is an attempt to contemplate the Internet’s deconstruction of time.
Yes, we know that social and digital media is able to bring people together faster than ever before. We know that it has diffused power and authority structures by creating an anonymous, amorphous collection of individuals. We’re also able to witness events across the world instantly, and not only hear the words of whatever authority figure is commenting on it, but the words of citizens on the street and commentators in their bedrooms. But because this phenomenon is so new, we haven’t yet conceptualized it as an ongoing, eternalized process.
There are advantages to this, numerous ones actually. For one, we’ve never before been able to Google ways to begin a new social movement and then choose from dozens of models from different times and places (oversimplified, of course). But the advantages bring disadvantages as well. Is it too far fetched to think that the “sated consumer” could be the “sated activist” as well?
Rather than thinking in terms of pop culture regurgitated endlessly, maybe information overload would force us to filter new societal problems into lenses that we’ve already seen through. Maybe this is the end of new ideas for social change and we’ll simply take these old models and tinker with them endlessly but never innovate or spontaneously create as we used to.
Or maybe the etewaf will strike differently. We’ll come up with new models to deal with problems, but we’ll be so caught up with the problems we already see today– problems we’ve seen for decades or more, that we only tackle the ones that exist. We’ll become part of a generation of hyper-connected individuals with immeasurable amounts of information but constricted by enhanced tunnel vision. We’ll be focused on a single point and devour everything about it (but only it).
Or perhaps this won’t be the case. But the point is that there is a different dimension to new media than simply the destruction of spatial constraints, and that should be something we take into account. If we’re to contemplate the effects of new media on activism and civic engagement, then we should take into account all of its properties. Not only do new media outlets create space, they enshrine it. We’ll always have memorabilia of the recent Egyptian revolution a few clicks away. We’ll also have the failed Iranian protests of 2009 as well. All past, present and future successes and failures will be visible forever, for better or for worse, and we’ll have to live with it.