on media, technology & digital culture
It’s been obvious for a while now that news is no longer a lecture and no longer exclusively in the hands of big media corporations. The news is now a conversation. At the dawn of the 20th century we’ve witnessed the transformation of journalism from a mass media structure to something more democratic; it wasn’t orchestrated by traditional power structures, it was natural and spontaneous. It was grassroots. Yes, I’m talking about the rise of digital technology and with it new media, which all together ended up in the inexperienced hands of the average Joe, thus giving him a completely new voice and what’s more important, a sense of power. Blogs started popping out. Fast-forward to today – that average Joe is no longer inexperienced and the Internet’s blogosphere, well, it’s raining bloggers; some of them more influential than others, but all of them with an audience. So, where does that leave us? How did our lives benefit from the relationship with all things digital?
In bed with the media
Since the introduction of the Internet, the world as we know it has changed dramatically. It has “flattened out” as the relationship between humans and technology evolved to a point where we have become dependent on each other. The Canadian-born philosopher Marshall McLuhan (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) in his famous work The medium is the message (1967), together with his coauthor/designer Quentin Fiore, describes the very nature of the media, the increasing speed of communication and the technological basis of who we are. The core aspect of our personal life and our social independence is being reshaped with every new technological innovation. That did not happen for the first time with the introduction of the Internet, it happened with the introduction of each new piece of mass media technology before it. Before the digital age it was “electric technology that restructured and reshaped the patterns of our social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life”. (McLuhan & Fiore, 8).
When people speak of the media, most of the time, they speak of its content, not its nature. We spend a countless amount of time saying how we hate the media or how the media are evil, yet when approached with the question “why do you hate the media” the answer almost always is “because they’re lying to us”. But it is not the content that affects your life (at least not to such a great extent), it’s the technology and its format. The television could be mute or turn off, yet it would still affect your behavior. How can we even begin to understand social and cultural changes without the knowledge of the nature and workings of the media? According to McLuhan, it is impossible.
Being so occupied with something we have so little knowledge of cannot result in anything but insecurity and along with it – anxiety. We can argue about whether “The age of anxiety” started with the industrial revolution or has always been here; however, our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, “the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and with yesterday’s concepts” (McLuhan & Fiore, 8). Sure, our youth understands the nature of the Internet, almost instinctively, but the ones who are responsible for the youth, their parents – do not. They teach them what they know. They show them how to consume the Internet and most of the time it’s the same way they consume television; they flip through channels until they find something that interests them. And because technology has advanced in ways that allow us to surf the web from literally anywhere, we have ended up in bed with the Internet. What happened as a result? More anxiety. We started screaming “information overload” without ever trying to change the rules of the game which is completely controlled by us. We decide when to go online and what information to search for and for how long. No one is stuffing information down your throat. Clay Shirky, an American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, has come up with something more precise. He said that «it’s not information overload, it’s filter failure».
We do not know how to limit our time spent online and we have no idea how many social networks we should belong to. Furthermore, we are absolutely oblivious to how biased the Internet really is that every research on any topic that is made online leaves us with a bunch of information we take for granted – we form our opinions and base our judgments on that biased source of information. It’s obvious; people do not know how to look for information online. What’s more, the Internet’s technologies go to great lengths to serve them with information that supports their preconceived notions. Speaking of biased, we can take Google for example. Any keyword or phrase or question asked will show you the results that are based upon your previous searches and the information Google collects from your mail account. The result of this are online and offline groups of people gathered around biased ideas. A vast majority does not look for the opposite opinion, only that which supports their ideas.
Power to the people
The sense of power that came with the Internet has left me with two questions:
– Since most blogs are merely personal diaries, are we all just narcissists?
– If we want privacy, why are we so eager to show the world who we are and what we do?
It is my opinion that people have misinterpreted the meaning of power. And I am not talking about scholars; I am talking about that average Joe from the beginning of this article. Take democracy, for example. Recently, the majority of Croatian voters have voted in favor of the statement that marriage is exclusively matrimony between a man and a woman. They asked for this statement to be put in the Constitution. The reasoning for this action was the famous “it’s what the majority wants”. But what about the responsibility that comes with power? Just because you’re powerful does not mean you can do whatever you want. It means you are now responsible for the ones who are not powerful and who need your protection.
With that in mind, how did we respond to the power that the Internet gave us? Well, we treated it the same way a child treats a toy – we played with it irresponsibly until we became bored with it. And now we are angry, because instead of acknowledging that we should be angry at ourselves, we decided to be angry at the power structures – institutions and organizations of all kinds.
How do we become the media?
No matter how frightening it is to think of our dependence on technology, the media and the responsibility that comes with it, the fact remains that every one of us has a voice and an extension of that voice, which firstly and literally was the telephone and now it is the Internet. The most important aspect of this topic is education. When people were introduced to computers and the Internet no one educated them on how to use these properly. The same thing happened with the introduction of social media platforms. The new digital interdependence “recreated the world in the image of a global tribe” (McLuhan, Fiore, 67). We are so close yet could not be farther from each other.
The biggest obstacle on our way to a clear understanding of the media is our habit of observing and comprehending things from our fixed point of view, without viewing them from a different angle. We, the narcissists, believe that we are right and we have the Internet to prove it. Clearly, we have to stop looking at the present from a rear-view mirror. McLuhan said that we are marching backwards to the future and he could not be more right. But how do we stop looking from a rear-view mirror? First of all, we need to take more responsibility. Being drunk with power does not do us any favors. It just makes us stand still while the environment is changing.
In terms of communication, we already are the media. We store and deliver information and data. We do not have a reason to hate the media because of manipulation while we’re doing the same thing on a daily basis when we create arguments that favor our particular interests. We use logical fallacies and all kinds of propaganda techniques, whether during a conversation with a colleague or in a Facebook status or in a blog post. The answer to this problem lies, as always, within our educational institutions.
There is a conflict between these environments – the digital and the “real” world. Who created it? The media or us? That is not important anymore. We hoped that with free information people would become more educated and that has not happened. If anything, the Internet has made us fachidiots: one-track specialists who are experts in the field of devouring information we find online, for the sake of devouring information. The sense of power that we have from the Internet leaves us with the delusion that our thoughts are our actions. When we learn how to separate these two, we will have a framework for being a responsible and effective media. According to McLuhan, the environment as a processor of information is propaganda and propaganda ends where dialogue begins. The dialogue has already begun and I hope that means we will soon see the result of it.