As I read parts of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse’s newest book, Them, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the saying of the late professor Marshall McLuhan: The medium is the message.
Sasse, a conservative Republican from Nebraska, doesn’t mention McLuhan, who wrote his famous book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, before Sasse was born. Yet in chapter after chapter, he extends one of McLuhan’s theses — that the form media takes, more than its content, affects society — and extends that to technology that includes social media but goes well beyond it.
Them isn’t a political book, and there’s no indication that Sasse wrote Them as a way to promote a presidential candidacy in 2020 or beyond. But politics still lurks in the background (religion as well) as Sasse laments the growing polarization in public life and occasionally criticizes President Trump, more by implication than directly.
Sasse’s main thesis is that Americans have become lonely, falling short on interpersonal connectedness. He doesn’t propose political solutions, and he implicitly acknowledges there aren’t any complete ones, and least not yet (emphasis in original):
[W]e need to realize a sense of home in a world that looks very different than anything we’ve seen before. New technologies and experimentation will help with that. But, ultimately, it will require habits of heart and mind that introduce new neighborliness us to build new institutions into a new, more rootless age.
Where McLuhan’s famous saying comes in is in Sasse’s extensive discussion of social and news media. One of the main problems, as he sees it, is that social media and the growing use of personal tracking-based advertising tend to create echo chambers. They also increase the human tendency to see others — the “them” of the title — as part of the other Americans, as something other than the fellow citizens they are. And sometimes the very way the media are structured serves to encourage the evaluations of the other as the enemy.
The result, as Sasse sees it, is potentially dire:
We are in a period of unprecedented upheaval. Community is collapsing, anxiety is building, and we’re distracting ourselves with artificial political hatreds. That can’t endure — and if it does, America won’t.
It all makes for an engaging read. But two things prevent me from giving five stars to this book:
- First, Sasse tackles a wide array of changes in our society that be believes contribute to loneliness and other-ization, among them automation, the growth of fake news, the hundreds of TV channels available, easy access to pornography, the growth of artificial intelligence, and campus political correctness, just to name a few. He discusses an abundance of technology-related changes in culture, but he never really ties their significance together until the last chapter, which seemed a bit rushed.
- Although Sasse clearly deplores racism, he fails to address how privilege relates to societal changes. While he hearkens back at times to more unified America, he doesn’t address the fact that there were plenty, among them racial minorities, who did not enjoy the benefits of that unity nor necessarily feel a part of it.
Despite these shortcomings, Sasse offers a thought-provoking perspective on changes in American culture, changes that fall outside the usual fodder of talk radio and talking-heads TV.
Photo of Ben Sasse by Matt Johnson; CC BY 2.0.