By Christian Clark
The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social
consequences of any medium-that is, of any extension of ourselves-result from
the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves,
or by any new technology. -Marshal McLuhan
Marshal McLuhan was a prophet of technology. Throughout the mid-20th century McLuhan studied and taught sociological ideas about what it was to live in a constantly shrinking world, and he wanted to insure humanity evolved with the correct notions of media and communication.
At first, many people think that this means the message we send in communication are meaningless, but what McLuhan is really trying to say is that-in the context of entire societies-the meaning of each individual message is made inconsequential in comparison to the complexity of the systems we communicate by.
In McLuhan’s time, when he came up with these theories, 20th century society was going through another information revolution-information was going digital. According to McLuhan, the transition from “hot” media-print-to”cold” media-radio and TV-represented a change in a simple continuous cycle of new, faster information exchange.
There can be little doubt that we are in the midst of a new step in that cycle. The internet is the guiding force of our current cultural transformation; a transformation where, just as in some previous media ages, anyone could potentially become famous-they just need to be discovered by the masses. But the question isn’t what’s changing us, but how it’s changing us. Or if it is changing us.
Instead of radio spreading information and TV shouting it, the internet proliferates data. All one needs to access more on almost anything is type a few words in a search engine and choose from almost innumerable sources for any material, no matter how obscure.
Due to this (over) abundance of information, not all of it correct or helpful, internet is often blamed for spreading distraction and misinformation throughout society. It’s proclaimed to be especially prevalent in younger generations, purging them of their ethics and moral codes dutifully preserved by their caregivers.
On that point, McLuhan’s theories guide us once more. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the internet is not the flaw inherent in the system. Yes, the medium is the message, but the medium is made out of messages, and those messages, and those messages come from people. Therefore, the medium becomes a representation of society.
Imagine those cheesy movie plots where the villain is a computer program that deconstructs your online activity in order to decide how best to manipulate you. Those cold, thoughtless AI show us how much of ourselves can actually be found in our technology.
The internet is not an entity. It is a tool. That tool may be ever changing and fluid, but it is still passive. The internet does not act, or think, or adapt; we do, through it. Therefore, when we sight the web as the root of our shortcomings, it is not the internet that is at fault, but ourselves.
The tool isn’t broken; we are misusing it and often don’t know how to use it. Technology, therefore, is not something to be feared-it is only an indication of what should be, ourselves and our sociological problems.
It’s important that-at the very least-as we go into our new age of information- and eventually, the next-that we understand at least a little of how that new age may change us.