On this May Day I want to link you to a book (online) that I’m putting out there as a symbol of Library Juice’s opposition within librarianship and the blogosphere: Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. This book, originally published in 1896, was an important early work in social psychology, and established in a fairly scientific way that people become irrational in a crowd.
Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed (and other important journalistic books and essays about how workers get the shaft in American society), came out with a book last year about crowds, about her love of crowds as a site of joy and protest: Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. I have to admit to feeling a bit chilled when I read about it, and a bit alienated from certain Left traditions of public protest (I prefer the traditions of literature, voting, protest songs, and organized, nonviolent civil disobedience). To me, the word “crowd” brings to mind an angry mob in front of the house of the lone liberal in the village, with torches, ready to kill him because they don’t understand him. (He could be a liberal, a Jew, an unbeliever, a scientist, or left-handed.) And to me, the psychology of crowds is what has led to history’s unspeakable genocides (including the present one). And let’s not forget lynchings. I do not trust crowds.
I don’t trust crowds, because I think crowd psychology leads to irrationality and violence, and turns otherwise suppressed fears and superstitions into mass action. I think that in order to protect society from the madness of crowds (the phrase is part of the title of another early book on mass psychology: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay) we need to cultivate and encourage individual critical thought and the development of the individual mind, and as a part of that, to encourage opposition. So, based on that foundation I am suspicious and wary of certain popular trends: cooperative user-generated content or the collaborative side of Web 2.0, and the emphasis on group work in higher education, both of which (in my view) de-emphasize and undervalue critical individual thought. It is the same reason that I think the transition from print culture to television culture, as described by Marshall McLuhan, has a lot about it that should make us all worried.
That’s my very contrary May Day declaration, which I offer to clarify a bit about where I am coming from.
I’d like to tag Kathleen de la Peña McCook for comments…