The Internet ≠ Progress

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(Abandoned NSA ‘listening station’, Teufelsburg, Berlin)

With the arrival of winter in Canada, there’s no better time to get books out of the library with no intention of returning them by their original due date. In an attempt to fill in my knowledge gaps relating to queer theory, LGBT studies, and feminism, I spent last weekend scouring Carleton library’s shelves and discovered that most of their literature hails from the 1990s. While my next step of attaining literature from the 2000s will likely be quite the hurdle (I refuse to believe that the work of theorizing about diverse sexualities was completed in the 90s), I’m comforted to see that the speed-reading I did for my thesis agrees with these older foundational works.

Although history usually puts me to sleep quicker than watching late-night infomercials, I’ve been flipping through Annamarie Jagose’s “Queer Theory: An Introduction” pretty quickly to get up to speed on all the different movements that have led us to today. The book starts by describing the ‘homophile movement’ that was big in the 1950s when gays and lesbians attempted to perpetuate images of homosexuals* as completely ‘normal’, upstanding citizens that could/should be embraced by the existing societal structure (e.g. Mitch and Cam from Modern Family). Then there was the ‘gay liberation movement’ that started in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. This gave rise to a lot of the ideals that I often hear within queer circles today: discontent with the status quo, challenging gender roles, and not aspiring to form a nuclear family. In fact, it brings back memories of attending Peter Tatchell’s talk at Queen’s College last year where he asserted that LGBTQ people must fight for more than marriage equality and challenge the very institution of marriage itself in order to improve society for all people.

While I’m still a few decades off from the official development of queer theory (have to tackle the ‘lesbian feminism’ and ‘identity politics’ chapters), I’ve already been reminded why history is important: it plots a path so we can see where we’ve been. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to paradigms from the 1950s homophile movement, the gay liberation movement, the current identity chaos of what shall we call ourselves (Lady Gaga, I’m pointing at you), and many more perspectives courtesy of the Internet. Since the Internet provides a platform for every kind of idea and not just the dominant discourse of broadcast media or historical accounts as dictated by textbooks, it’s got me thinking as to whether or not ideas and paradigms can truly be ‘done with’ (as in: over, dead, dead like disco**) in our present time. It seems that without the Internet, certain ideas would fall out of use, books would become unpopular and go out of print, but with a self-archiving, enduring, easily-searchable system, a multitude of perspectives from across decades can co-exist at our fingertips.

On the one hand, this conglomeration of paradigms might lead to greater freedom of thought. Instead of having to go along with the way ‘progress’ is depicted in history books as being something that increases over time, we can properly assess past thinking and determine if the present conception is really better, worse, or just different. Conversely, the Internet’s affordances for facilitating adoption of old paradigms flies in the face of the adage that we should learn about history for the purpose of not repeating it. From the Atkins diet to neo-nazi websites, it’s not unusual to spot the resurgence of movements that already seemed like a bad idea the first time around. In fact, the lack of temporal organization on the Internet (what Castells has termed, ‘timeless time’) is the only reason that young people’s fashion and media trademarks of today can be comprised of nostalgia for a time before they were born*** (e.g. Miley Cyrus’ irrational admiration of Michael Jordan despite his rocking the NBA playoffs before she was even 10 years old).

As usual, I don’t actually think this quality of the Internet is inherently good or bad. It’s just part of the complexity that technology adds to social research. I’m starting to get the sense that thanks to the Internet, and broadcast media to a lesser extent, queer identity has started to embody paradigms across the decades so that a queer person might feel the need to be a ‘suburban dad’, a ‘fabulous drag queen’ and a ‘genderqueer activist’ all at the same time. What does this mean for how these identity expectations get expressed? Well, back to PhD applications.

*Shudder – sooo clinical sounding

**Disco isn’t even dead anymore. Just watch this documentary and you’ll want to get your jive talkin’ on.

***At a party where a remix of “No Diggity” was playing, I made the mistake of noting aloud, “I remember when this song came out” and a nearby 22-year-old who knew all the lyrics just awkwardly shuffled away from me.

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