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.