We are the medium

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It’s far too early to know with any precision or certainty the psychosocial, economic, political or artistic effects of the internet that are responsible for changing our world because the internet in and of itself is not the cause of change. To paraphrase my teenage recollection of Marshall McLuhan crudely — at least my understanding of some of what he said, with technologies, the human is the medium.

In McLuhan’s view, we want our technologies to take us beyond the limitations of our physical self and extend our senses and abilities, enlarges our human reach. A chariot, a ship, a train, a bike, a car, a plane extend the use of our legs, taking us from place to place. The alphabet, clay tablets, papyrus, paper, (writing technology) the telegraph, extend our ability (and need) to communicate with people who do not live near us. Clothing enhances the capability of our skin, enabling us to function in different climates. Various weapons extend the ability we have to kill someone with our bare hands. Talking drums, town criers, newspapers, radio, television, allow us to broadcast to wider groups of people as needed, keeping masses informed. A television allows us to see and experience things we might not otherwise ever get to see.

It’s unlikely that the next 18 years of the internet will look like the past 18 years, but if history repeats itself (which is absolutely wrong: history does not repeat itself, people do) then the two existing internet/tech oligarchies will merge or evaporate or fall to a number of brilliant platforms that are not yet on anyone’s radar, or something else entirely different will happen, some sort of Black Swan event in the connected world that no one today can see or imagine.

Case in point: in the early 1990s telecom companies were talking publicly about convergent technologies as the next big thing to deliver non-stop content to computers and televisions. Only a few exceptionally gifted people had the insight and foresight to see that the issue for the public was not all that back office stuff but going mobile, being wireless and having cool smooth devices that are easy to use. In retrospect, how could it be anything but that? Think Dick Tracy wrist watches and Star Trek. Think crazy guys like Edison, Ford, Jobs. (Jobs was a lot like Edison; not Edison the inventor, but Edison the egomaniac who sewed up patents, who envisioned and dictated how people would use things.)

Hard to say if anyone imagined that as our world became more networked and interconnected that we’d have to deal with the shadow side of human nature; with bots, and worms and trojans and viruses and scams and security threats. Hard to know if anyone imagined that cretins would crawl out of the woodwork to start what was once called flame wars and is now shrugged off as acceptable hater culture. Vicious snark and hateful comments across the internet, from the comments sections of news stories to blog posts. Could anyone have predicted Cyber bullying? That this technology would press primitive brain into action?

But primitive brain is prime real estate these days, which explains the explosion of neuromarketing techniques because let’s not forget that we are consumers, bundles of wants and needs and fears and talents who can become buyers of products because if we do not, economies will fail. No one talks about how mass consumption based on mass production might not really be in the globe’s best interest.

Regardless of the technology, at the end of the day, the internet (or world wide web thingy), the television, the radio, the train, the typewriter, the car, the camera, the steam engine, electricity, the printing press, the book and all the supporting peripherals that result in huge, massive social change is not about technology at all. It’s about us. What we do. How we operate. How we use things for our own purposes. I am not convinced that the internet has revolutionized anything yet since we seem to be using it for the same old stuff. Just more of it, in different designs and formats. Whatever it is.

For as long as we’ve been on the planet we’ve used our technologies to extend our abilities and senses, create community, protect family, share a story, draw a picture, touch a lover across long distances with a letter, or to rob or kill a rival tribe member with killing devices such as hate, bullying, shaming, spears, arrows, guns and bombs.

The internet, and its offshoots, like the car, like the boat, like the telephone, a piece of paper, a pen, is just a tool, an object until we interact with and animate it, until we channel whatever it is we have through it. Love or hate or hope. We, and we alone are the medium.

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About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween. On hiatus from writing anywhere else but here ... at least for now.
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6 Responses to We are the medium

  1. valerie says:

    Dear FS,

    Still pondering ….
    Why is it that, with all these new tools meant to improve communication, we (humans in general) are still so bad at it ?
    Is it possible that we are spending too much time and energy developing alternate vehicles and prostheses to our mouths to communicate more/faster and not enough on the the content of what is being communicated?
    Is there a way to help shift the focus from quantity to quality? From abundance to relevance? From random evolution to actual progress? From knee jerk repetition to creative solutions ? From closed minded prejudice to open acceptance ?

    I’m thinking in pragmatic terms here: what CAN we do?? Any ideas?

    • FS says:

      Valerie;

      Oh my gosh. Did one of my dragonflies take one of the questions that ping in my brain every day and let you hear it?

      So, off the top of my head:

      Human communication is complicated, multi-layered and frustrating and fascinating. For it to be successful between two adults (who are not secretly channeling their inner child or adolescent or rebel), it involves a number of finely tuned skills and abilities and mental abilities — abilities to read and understand in exactly the way they are meant all of the non-verbal cues. And of course communication is subject to influences such as culture, gender, age, education, time of day, etc.,

      Here’s the thing: we think that because we can talk or write that we can communicate. And we think that because we can talk or write that people will understand what we think we are attempting to communicate, if we actually know what we are really trying to communicate. We think that we are natural born communicators. Few people are natural born communicators. Effective, meaningful communication is a whole body experience, and requires awareness of self and of other.

      If I may, I believe that the tools do not in any way, shape or form improve communication. They simply enable transmission. The cell phones and computers are simply devices we use to do what we do.

      I think some of why we’re bad at it is also cultural. In the mainstream world, it’s a rushing, telling, selling, showing, busy busy I’m so busy and important culture, agendas of all sorts vying for attention, pushing to get their name and message out there, because recognition is equated with communication. There are now high end vacations that people are taking where there’s no cell phones allowed, no computers, no connectivity. And they are booked solid.

      We are also, I think, not a listening culture. Because listening is slow. It stops things. It’s seen as passive. We value action, assertiveness: we’ve got the phrase “let’s make some noise!” Back at home, we think if someone loves us or is our good friend that of course we’ll be understood without having to say or explain anything. We are bad at communicating because we don’t know what communication is, what it means, and how to do it well. And today, what gets airplay and is broadcast are not examples of good and effective communication, but everything at the extremes.

      Then there’s the definition of communication. Everyone holds their own definition and works to that. It might truly be a better world if everyone wanted to understand and truly hear other people, but that is beyond the scope of talking about communication.

      As for finding ways to communicate that will change people I think that’s called brainwashing. ;-). It’s likely to take more than a propaganda communication or cause marketing campaign to get people to switch belief systems.

      I’ll stop now, but thank you so much for a fabulous series of questions that I’m sure are gonna hang about for a while.

      • valerie says:

        Dear FS,

        This was JUST “off the top of your head”??? Gosh, so what would your answer have been, had you taken some SERIOUS time to think about it? 😉

        You have dragonflies too? How cool. Maybe yours and mine would like to get together, buzz + chat? I hear they have superior communication skills… 😉

        I wholeheartedly agree: I picked the wrong verb. The tools were not meant to improve communication, but merely increase the speed and traffic of words. Tis true. Humans are not born good communicators. There is good reason to believe that effective communication, however you define it, is a learned skill, one that comes with emotional and intellectual maturity and requires reasonable self awareness and empathic skills to master. Still, don’t you find it a tad sad that, given our ability to connect so easily, so little effort has been invested in improving the quality and depth of our interactions with others? In fact, on some levels, has it not deteriorated?

        One important point you raise though, is the one about non-verbal cues. You said “meaningful communication is a whole body experience” and I tend to agree. So does that mean that an interaction devoid of essential non-verbal cues precludes meaningful communication? Are we robbing ourselves of meaningful experiences by choosing virtual communications over face-to-face or even using the phone to hear the sound of the other person’s voice?

        Not a listening culture? I’m with you on that too: another acquired skill, that requires a dose of patience, a shedding of cultural bias and an open mind.

        “Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.” ~A. Einstein

        Perhaps in time….

      • FS says:

        Hmmm… do we have an ability to connect so easily? You’re raising more good questions. Let me think about them a bit before responding more fully. In general I think that this is a time of huge transition across all of civilization, and because of that, some traditional ways of doing things are changing, including how we communicate, the content of our communications, what we mean by communication and what successful communication looks and feels like and how we define ‘meaningful’.

        Let me get back to you when I’ve thought a bit more on all the other great points you raise.

        And yes, dragonflies, elephants, bears, dogs and birds are all part of the menagerie. 🙂

  2. valerie says:

    Wow.
    Absolutely Brilliant
    What more can I say?

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