Jonah Raskin : Class of ’09 Speaks Out on New Media

For four months, from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every Wednesday, freedom of speech seemed to be alive and well in an old fashioned classroom where students asked questions, talked in small groups and wrote with pens and pencils on lined-paper.

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / May 31, 2009

Ben is a newly minted college graduate in California. He’s in his early twenties, energetic and hopeful, and he has recently created and published his own flashy magazine. In many ways, though he belongs to the current generation that supposedly thrives on Facebook and Twitter, he is still very much caught up in old print media.

Readers can actually touch and hold his magazine. They can turn its pages. “The latest technology has freed us from the four walls of our bedrooms,” Ben says. “But it has also restricted us. Social network sites supposedly allow us to ‘express ourselves.’ And yet they also limit our ability to express ourselves. Moreover, the proper way to write and communicate has been lost in the transition to new media.”

Kent belongs to the same generation as Ben; he, too, is a recent college graduate. During his senior year he worked as an intern at one of the radio stations in the Pacifica network of non-commercial stations. Like Ben, Kent has apprehensions about the brave new technological world he and his contemporaries have entered. He also wants very much to be a part of it. “The convergence of media is a fearful thing,” he said. “It can be used for all the wrong reasons. Big Brother can use it to watch us and control us. But I want to be a part of the revolution that is taking place and that is changing the ways that people receive news and information.”

Ben and Kent were students in a class that I taught in the spring 2009 semester. They and 63 other college seniors sat in a large lecture hall where I taught communication law. For four months — from January through May — all of us thought long and hard about the ways that new media is changing old laws about privacy, libel, copyright and the First Amendment. We talked, argued, debated, discussed the use of the “F” word,’ the “N” word, the “C” word and more. The only rule in the class was this — “it is forbidden to forbid.” No fights broke out, and no one personally attacked any one else. For four months, from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every Wednesday, freedom of speech seemed to be alive and well in an old fashioned classroom where students asked questions, talked in small groups and wrote with pens and pencils on lined-paper.

Karen was another senior in the class, and while she was happy to finish four years of college she was also apprehensive about entering the job market knowing full well that a job would be difficult to find given the high levels of unemployment. “Now that I’m graduating it all seems so surreal,” she said. Like Ben and Kent, Karen was aware of the speed with which changes are happening in the media. “It’s not the same as it used to be 50 years ago, or even 50 minutes ago,” she said. “Media is constantly changing and to be involved with it as I hope to be, I know I must change in order to stay current.”

Most of the students in the class feel ambivalent about the changes that are taking place. They don’t see any way to stop them, or even slow them down. And, though they have grown up their entire lives with computers, and have always used them, they also look back with a sense of nostalgia to a world before computers, the Internet, and the Web took hold. Some of the students, especially those from other countries, came of age in worlds without modern technology. Maria was born and raised in Brazil, in a town in which no one had a telephone at home. Everyone who wanted to make a call had to go to a phone in the street.

“The moment I put my feet down in the United States in 2001, I literally thought that I had stepped into a spaceship,” she said. “I felt I was reborn. Now that I’ve been in this new environment for the past eight years, and now that everything seems to be available literally in the palm of my hand, I notice that I am no longer satisfied with what I have. I am continually reaching for the next new thing, the next new Apple phone. I want the first flying car, and I want to be able to go to the moon in a few hours.”

Jenny was born in the United States — in the green, rolling hills of Kentucky before moving to California — and like Maria she also grew up without much technology. “My parents were young, carefree hippies,” she said. “I never had a Barbie, a boob tube, a video game, or a computer, though I do remember my mother listening to National Public Radio.” Jenny doesn’t feel deprived by her hippie parents, and she hopes to raise children as she was raised — without a TV or a computer. She’ll probably have a harder time with her children than her parents had with her.

Patrick had a different story to tell, perhaps because his father was a graphic designer who wanted the latest technology. Born in 1986, and raised in what he called a “conservative” family, Patrick remembered the day in 1992 when his dad came home with a “mysterious object in a large cardboard box with the icon of an apple on the outside.” He added, “My dad fed this machine a plastic disk and it seemed to come to life, blipping and clicking, whirling and ticking.”

From then on Patrick felt at home with computers. They seemed almost human to him. In college he quickly created a space for himself at MySpace, and made a home for himself on the campus radio station where he learned — as he put it — “to say and do anything I wanted.” It was a new experience for him. At home he had been “censored” by his parents. He feels that he will never again have the freedom to express himself that he has had on the college radio station, but now that he has had a taste of that freedom it will be difficult to give up. “I understand that in order to find a job I might have to clean up a bit my MySpace and Facebook pages,” he said. “But I also don’t want to compromise who I am.”

Tom echoes that idea. A car lover, and an outdoorsman, as well as a videographer, he has strong feelings about media freedom. “I believe that the Internet ought to be the one place that needs to be unregulated and where we can transfer information freely across the globe,” he said. “If you think Obama is a communist you ought to be able to say it.”

His classmate Ralph comes from a small town in rural California. He plans to become a schoolteacher and a football coach at a high school. “I love my generation,” he says. “I think we’re great. But we also ought to realize that the media pushes a lot of crap on us and we hungrily eat it up, even when we know its crap.”

The students in the class were all proud of themselves and their peers, and proud of their generation, too. But they were also critical of their generation. In fact, no one is more critical of this generation than the members of the generation themselves. They all feel that in the rush to embrace new media much that is valuable had been lost, and much of it might be irretrievable.

“Text messaging has taken away the mystery of the first date, the mystery of a conversation,” Janet said. Like many others in the class she had clear expectations of what she hoped for after she graduated from college and went to work. “I want to dress like I want (no uniforms),” she said. “I don’t want to be censored by any company I work for. I want to know the truth about everything, and I want to know what is happening at the company, too. There will be no holding me back, and not any of us, either I suspect. We’ve known freedoms through the new media and no one will be able to take them from us – at least not without a fight.”

Karen – who noted that the world seem to be changing every 50 minutes — had drawn up a list of rules for herself — and for anyone else who was looking for rules for themselves. Her list sounded new and fresh, and yet it might have been written fifty years ago, as well: “be kind and gracious; work hard and don’t half-ass things; be honest — lying only hurts you, especially within the media; and stay true to yourself in a world of fakes and liars.”

[Jonah Raskin is a prominent author, poet, educator and political activist. His most recent book is The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He contributes regularly to The Rag Blog.]

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