Cronkite, Cyborgs, and the Crisis of Democracy

How social media has made us into something new — like it or not

Sarah Pessin
3 min readOct 5, 2022

--

Photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

Earlier today I attended Denver Dialogues where heads of Right-leaning and Left-leaning national think-tanks were assembled together to talk about ways forward in democracy. In effect, the very form of engaging thinkers from so far across the aisle on a single panel itself seems designed to perform part of a solution: If we talk with our opponents more, we can learn to listen to each other more — even when we disagree deeply.

At one point, when asked about the problems of social media, one of the panelists wistfully reflected back on the days of Walter Cronkite when reporting was trustworthy and no one had to worry about fake news or deep fakes. Reflecting on the outdated reference, another of the panelists noted that many of the university students in attendance probably had no idea who Cronkite was — and everyone nodded in lighthearted agreement.

But the exchange really got me thinking about the degree of disconnect at play in a reference to the CBS Evening News of a bygone era as part of a serious conversation about contemporary democracy. Yes, there was the obvious problem of assuming that news was ever objective— and here we can cue up a range of critical interventions from the last 50+ years of theory that remind us in a range of less and more drastic tones that we construct reality at least as much as we discover it. And in related spirit, the idea that “America was in good hands in those days” certainly privileges some groups and experiences over others. So as far as solutions go, “Bring Back Walt” is not a very good one.

But bad solutions aside, the bigger problem is that the Cronkite Comment misses the very nature of the problem. Deeply so. The biggest problem that new media presents to democracy is not simply that it insulates us in our bubbles, tricks us by way of memetic warfare, and fills us with oodles of misinformation. The biggest problem that new media presents to democracy is that it has already deeply changed us not only at the social level but even at the bio-psychological one. Or to put a finer point on it, it is increasingly turning us into cyborgs — strapped to our devices, yes, but more importantly, finding ourselves processing, feeling, thinking, thriving, seeing, and being in a lot of new ways — even if we prefer to stick to some of the old ways. As for the younger among us, many of them have taken to the new environment like fish to water — even as many of us feel like we’re drowning.

Which is why the reference to Great-Grandpa Newsman was not simply off in the way that I am sometimes off when I make a 1989 Simpsons reference to students who were not yet born in that year (“Oh darn; I should have referenced Family Guy,” etc.). Rather, it was off in the much deeper sense of failing to recognize that, for better or worse, social media has not only deeply changed us, but has quite possibly outstripped the very resources of democracy itself. I certainly hope I am wrong about that — but I increasingly worry that I am not.

Sarah Pessin teaches philosophy at University of Denver; you can follow her pro-democracy ‘anti-democracy watch’ here; and you can learn more about some of her projects at sarahpessin.com.

--

--

Sarah Pessin

@sarahpessin | sarahpessin.com | professor of philosophy | interfaith chair | University of Denver | Instagram civics_salamander & sarahpessin2020