Postmodernism 101: or “What’s Up with all this ‘Digital Literacy’ Talk, Anyways?”

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Okay.  I’m taking a risk here that I’m not going to lose you after a few sentences.  Just stay with me, please, okay?  You’ll be glad you did. 

When I was in college studying philosophy and history, everybody was talking about ‘Postmodernism’.  I talked about it too, to sound cool and trendy, but the truth was I never really got just what it was, and what the distinction was between Modernism and Postmodernism.  Furthermore, I got the feeling that my classmates and even professors didn’t really get it either, though no one was saying anything.  It was like The Emperor’s New Clothes; no one wanted to embarrass him- or herself, but we weren’t about to stop talking about it.  Later, when I worked on the Left, it was the same story all over again.  Gradually, though, over the years and watching the world change, and then change some more, I think I figured it out.  And writing for film annex now, being inspired by the work our community is producing around the world, I’ve been thinking about it again.

Are you still with me?  Now, I’m sure you’re probably wondering why on Earth you or I should care about Postmodernism.   After all, we’re not in a philosophy class (thank God).  But the funny thing about philosophy is that, as ridiculous and useless as it all sounds, it’s actually more about life than just about anything else you can study.  And I think talking a bit of philosophy right now can help us understand better just what we’re doing in this wonderful Film Annex community of ours.

It’s hard to say when the Modern Age began or ended.  Different scholars choose different years to suit their purposes.  But its heyday was probably the first half of the twentieth century, and it definitely ended by 1990 with the fall of communism, but had been dying for a while.  However, if we can’t know just when it was, we can know what it was, and Modernism was all about hope.  People at that time truly believed that we could make the world a fair and perfect place if we just found the right path, be it capitalism, or communism, or whatever –ism you happened to be talking about at the time.  They believed that machines could make people’s lives better.  They believed that big companies could make people’s lives better.  And, perhaps more to the point, they believed that governments were the best way to make people’s lives better.  People put their faith in governments to solve their problems.  They threw tax dollars at social programs and schools that were supposed to end poverty.  They even sent their young men into wars truly believing those wars would ultimately make the world a better place.  People believed; and they were happy.

Then Vietnam happened.  The Sixties happened.  It started to become clear that those social programs and schools weren’t ending poverty.  People began to see that the wars between capitalism and communism weren’t accomplishing anything except virtually destroying countries like Afghanistan.  Then communism collapsed.  And the communists who were left, in China, started getting rich from capitalism.  People became cynical.  They lost hope in a better world and just tried to make some money instead.  We moved into the Postmodern Age.

Stay with me.  We’re almost to the good part.

You see, people no longer had faith in governments or –isms.  The paths to progress became de-centralized instead of centralized and governmental.  And what is the perfect metaphor for the Postmodern Age?  The internet; as decentralized a way of doing things as you can imagine.  People no longer need big companies to give them jobs.  They could do it themselves with just an internet connection.   I started thinking about all this when I read a Film Annex blog this morning, Health Services and Sustainable Education, Together to Fight Poverty,  by Annick Charlier.  She wrote about a school in a Mexican community that had built its own medical clinic because private medical care in Mexico is too expensive and government care is of too poor quality.  The community was solving its problems by itself, and the author was supporting the effort by blogging about it with people in Afghanistan, Egypt, Canada, Poland, Brazil and all over.  How fantastic!  And how postmodern!

Film Annex is the quintessentially postmodern enterprise.  It’s a global yet completely individual-based way for people to get a better life.  And it does it by not just using the internet, but by teaching digital literacy to people (particularly to young women in Afghanistan, but also to me) so they know how to use the internet.  We are the perfect example of sustainable education.  We’re changing the world by changing ourselves.  (Or is it the other way around?)  We’ve hit the postmodern nail on the head, and are succeeding exactly where Modernism failed.  There are other notable examples of this, like the internet-based activist organization, Avaaz, and the youth of Tahrir Square.  But the greatest irony of all is that while the Postmodern Age is supposed to be the age of cynicism and the end of hope, we give people reason to be hopeful again, in a way that’s smarter and wiser.

Most of us already feel this on one level or other.  So why bring all this stuff about Postmodernism into it?  I want everyone, including us, to know that we’re doing more than just a good deed for girls in Afghanistan, and making a bit of money for ourselves along the way.  We’re empowering ourselves to make our worlds better places.  We’re making history—the Postmodern way.

So, are you still with me?  Good.  Class dismissed.  Now get out there and blog!

About the author


I’m an American-born Canadian writer, father and small-businessman. I write on topics as diverse as contemporary Islam, education, human rights, culture, political economy, and the promises and perils of digital literacy. A Muslim convert, ex-Marxist, and former teacher, with a degree in Philosophy and South Asian Studies, as well as…

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