Tag Archives: The medium is the message

Technology-R-Us?

Among the recurring elements of what my sons call “family photos”  are the iPhone pictures snapped at family get-togethers in which we’re all looking at our iPhones. My youngest son (who is one of the worst offenders) usually labels those pictures “warm family moments” or something equally sarcastic.

I don’t think my family is unique. Enter an elevator or restaurant, or just walk down a city street, and most people you encounter are staring at the small screens. That reality–and it certainly seems to be a universal reality–raises the question: what is this seductive technology doing to our brains?

Ezra Klein recently addressed that question in an essay for the New York Times.

I am of the generation old enough to remember a time before cyberspace but young enough to have grown up a digital native. And I adored my new land. The endless expanses of information, the people you met as avatars but cared for as humans, the sense that the mind’s reach could be limitless. My life, my career and my identity were digital constructs as much as they were physical ones. I pitied those who came before me, fettered by a physical world I was among the first to escape.

A decade passed, and my certitude faded. Online life got faster, quicker, harsher, louder. “A little bit of everything all of the time,” as the comedian Bo Burnham put it. Smartphones brought the internet everywhere, colonizing moments I never imagined I’d fill. Many times I’ve walked into a public bathroom and everyone is simultaneously using a urinal and staring at a screen.

Klein referenced several of the 20th-century media theorists, including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and Neil Postman, who “tried to warn us.” And he quoted Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”

The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.

Sound familiar? It sure does to me. And it resonated with Klein, who was particularly struck by the word “hungry.”

That was the word that hooked me. That’s how my brain felt to me, too. Hungry. Needy. Itchy. Once it wanted information. But then it was distraction. And then, with social media, validation. A drumbeat of “You exist. You are seen.”

How important is the choice of the platform–the medium–through which we receive messages? Like Klein, I’d always supposed that content is more important than the medium through which we access that content, but the theorists he cites beg to differ.

McLuhan’s famous insistence that “the medium is the message” reflected his view that mediums matter a lot–in fact, that they matter more than the content of the messages being conveyed. Different mediums create and communicate content differently, and those differences change people (and ultimately, society). As Klein concedes, “oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.”

Like several commenters on this blog, Klein has been influenced by Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

McLuhan says: Don’t just look at what’s being expressed; look at the ways it’s being expressed. And then Postman says: Don’t just look at the way things are being expressed; look at how the way things are expressed determines what’s actually expressible.” In other words, the medium blocks certain messages.

Postman was planting a flag here: The border between entertainment and everything else was blurring, and entertainers would be the only ones able to fulfill our expectations for politicians. He spends considerable time thinking, for instance, about the people who were viable politicians in a textual era and who would be locked out of politics because they couldn’t command the screen.

Later, in this very long essay (which is well worth your time to read in its entirety,) Klein makes an important point:

There is no stable, unchanging self. People are capable of cruelty and altruism, farsightedness and myopia. We are who we are, in this moment, in this context, mediated in these ways. It is an abdication of responsibility for technologists to pretend that the technologies they make have no say in who we become.

I wonder: what have we become?

 

Cheap Speech

Richard Hasen recently had a column–pardon me, a “guest essay”–in the New York Times. Hasen is a pre-eminent scholar of elections and electoral systems; whose most recent book is  “Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics — and How to Cure It.”

In the “guest essay,” Hasen joins the scholars and pundits concerned about the negative consequences of so-called “fake news.”

The same information revolution that brought us Netflix, podcasts and the knowledge of the world in our smartphone-gripping hands has also undermined American democracy. There can be no doubt that virally spread political disinformation and delusional invective about stolen, rigged elections are threatening the foundation of our Republic. It’s going to take both legal and political change to bolster that foundation, and it might not be enough.

Hasen uses the term “cheap speech” in two ways. It’s an acknowledgement that the Internet has slashed the cost of promulgating all communications–credible and not. But it is also recognition that the information environment has become increasingly “cheap” in the sense of “favoring speech of little value over speech that is more valuable to voters.”

It is expensive to produce quality journalism but cheap to produce polarizing political “takes” and easily shareable disinformation. The economic model for local newspapers and news gathering has collapsed over the past two decades; from 2000 to 2018, journalists lost jobs faster than coal miners.

Hasen catalogues the various ways in which that collapse has undermined confidence in American institutions, especially government, and he points out that much “fake news” is not mere misinformation. but” deliberately spread disinformation, which can be both politically and financially profitable.”

Reading the essay, I thought back to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message.”  Hasen says that even if politics in the 1950s had been as polarized as they are today, it is highly unlikely that those division would have triggered the insurrection of Jan. 6th, and equally unlikely that millions of Republicans would believe phony claims about a “stolen” 2020 election. Social media has had a profoundly detrimental effect on democracy.

A democracy cannot function without “losers’ consent,” the idea that those on the wrong side of an election face disappointment but agree that there was a fair vote count. Those who believe the last election was stolen will have fewer compunctions about attempting to steal the next one. They are more likely to threaten election officials, triggering an exodus of competent election officials. They are more likely to see the current government as illegitimate and to refuse to follow government guidance on public health, the environment and other issues crucial to health and safety. They are comparatively likely to see violence as a means of resolving political grievances.

Hasen buttresses his argument with several examples of the ways cheap speech –and weakened political parties–damage democracy. His litany leaves us with a very obvious question: what can we do? Assuming the accuracy of his diagnosis, what is the prescribed treatment? Hasen gives us a list of his preferred fixes:  updating campaign finance laws so that they apply to what is now mostly unregulated political advertising disseminated over the internet; mandating the labeling of deep fakes as “altered;” and tightening the ban on foreign campaign expenditures, among others.

Congress should also make it a crime to lie about when, where and how people vote. A Trump supporter has been charged with targeting voters in 2016 with false messages suggesting that they could vote by text or social media post, but it is not clear if existing law makes such conduct illegal. We also need new laws aimed at limiting microtargeting, the use by campaigns or interest groups of intrusive data collected by social media companies to send political ads, including some misleading ones, sometimes to vulnerable populations.

He also acknowledges that such measures would be a hard sell to today’s Supreme Court, noting that much of the court’s jurisprudence depends upon faith in an arguably outmoded “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, which assumes that the truth will emerge through counter-speech.

If that was ever true in the past, it is not true in the cheap speech era. Today, the clearest danger to American democracy is not government censorship but the loss of voter confidence and competence that arises from the sea of disinformation and vitriol.

He argues that we need to find a way to subsidize real  journalism, especially local journalism, and that journalism bodies should use accreditation methods to signal which content is reliable and which is counterfeit. “Over time and with a lot of effort, we can reestablish greater faith in real journalism, at least for a significant part of the population.”

I would add a requirement that schools teach media literacy.

That said, how much of this is do-able is an open question.