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The internet does to the world what radio did to the world (meshedsociety.com)
135 points by imartin2k on Jan 21, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" [1] is a great torchbearer for McLuhan's POV, bringing it solidly into the era of one-way video media (cable TV, VHS, etc) that dominated 80s/90s public discourse.

The internet, though, is kind of a different beast than radio or TV because it is so interactive. It's not just 1-way, 2-way, or many-to-many; it's all those things simultaneously. I'd love any recommendations on books/authors that pick up the torch from McLuhan and Postman, and try to cast some light on what "the medium is the message(/metaphor)" means in the hyper-connected age.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death

edit: Just a thought, it's not only the interactivity that makes the internet unique, it's also its infinite flexibility: it can emulate print, radio, TV; but it can also invent its own versions of those media (podcasts, youtube, twitch, etc). It can invent entirely new kinds of media too: VR, AR, etc. So maybe the internet is a kind of "meta-media", which makes the analysis much more difficult; but promises some real gems of insight - if any can be found.

> It's not just 1-way, 2-way, or many-to-many; it's all those things simultaneously.

Hmm. But isn't the internet/new media heavily balanced towards the 1-way communication model ? Does sharing, re-sharing and commenting in the void qualify as 2-way or m2m or is it just an amplifier ? The potential is here but does it really solidify into existence for the vast majority or is just for the vocal groups (NGO, journalists, lobbyists, etc.) ?

I have in mind the net delusion [0] and the submarine model [1].

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Net-Delusion-Dark-Internet-Freedom/dp... [1] http://paulgraham.com/submarine.html

there is no question that old-school broadcast media is 1-to-many. it's physically impossible to send a signal upstream in those models (doesn't stop me from yelling at the TV, but I do know it's futile). we can quibble about how much the internet is 1:1 vs 1:N vs N:M, but the fact that we even ask these questions makes the internet a qualitatively different kind of media.

as an aside, what are we doing right here, right now? HN uses the internet as a print medium. As a blog it is 1:N, and as a discussion forum is N:M. So yeah, it's complex :)

I think there's only a small percentage of the population who have original and interesting things to say. Internet does enable those people to reach an audience which was much harder earlier without institutional support.

The internet has the ability to be a multi-dimensional "meta" medium. But for the vast majority of people it's a one-way, social media echo chamber feed to scroll through.

Go out in public and watch how people interact with their phones. Especially in developing countries who have had massive technological change thrust into their lives in under a generation.

McLuhan's vision was much more descriptive of today's wold* than his. I don't think people read his essay carefully enough.

* Also today's world, but wold is a nice word that doesn't get out enough so it stays.

My recommendation doesn't carry into the digital space but does explore the history and constructs of early a/v propoganda. The author was the twelfth Librarian of the United States Congress and a critical historian. Considering the infotainment complex that has been created by cable news networks and the metamorphisis via the net his observations are more pertinent today than when first published in 1962.


"Just as we now try to control atom-bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. Education will become recognized as civil defense against media fallout"

Written in 1964, this remains both deeply relevant and deeply naive. "Media" in this context means the impact of technology on how we perceive and understand the world (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understanding_Media#McLuhan.27...).

It's relevant, as new "mediums" play their part in the decline of democracy and freedom worldwide.

It's naive, as we as a society have definitely not yet recognized the importance of education enough — our "civil defense against media fallout" remains very weak.

It's not just McLuhan - even Ayn Rand's "villain" in the Fountainhead was a caricature of Wm. Randolph Hearst.

That's turned out to be quite useful in understanding how distorted American history is, and floats independent of any controversial ideological content in her work.

People were a lot more naive in 1964 in general. I am not sure that McLuhan was taken seriously then.

Tow things I'll never fully understand about America in the post-war era - how is it that the Dulles brothers were allowed to operate as state-sponsored Filibusters[1] and how is it that Jim Crow was so heavily defended?

[1] see William Walker in South America for that word - a person who engages in unauthorized warfare.

Jim Crow is easy to explain. Racism.

The antidote to this has been known since time immemorial and it. I'm not claiming that it is easy to achieve, but it is simple: Critical thinking, self awareness, and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Even with those tools, the flaw ultimately lies within us humans as a species. The results of the Stanford Prison experiment and the Millgrim experiments show that humans have a natural tendency to obey perceived authority figures, even if it means going against our own ideals.

It's sad, but that's why history repeats itself. We are the same species as we were 70,000 years ago. It is our institutions, modern luxuries, and collective knowledge which make us civilized. Take that away we will probably act more savagely than people in dystopic, post-apocalyptic fiction. The bestial nature of humanity slightly reveals itself int he wilds of LA traffic. People will call you the worst things and hope that all the bad things in life happen to you for simply driving slowly because you are in an unfamiliar area.

It seems overly simplistic to say that our current ills are due to lack of skepticism or critical thinking and obeying authority figures.

In fact the Internet has torn down existing authorities and given people the ability to create new communities as well as new authorities.

For example, climate skepticism explicitly posits that traditional authorities (scientists, the news, etc.) are wrong and seeks validation in creating new authorities and sources of truth. You might claim that these people are lacking in critical thinking, but any act of skepticism, no matter how ill-founded, is in itself an attempt at critical thinking. Same thing with anti-vaxxers -- nowadays anyone with a crazy theory can find an online community that validates their beliefs.

The internet has also majorly eroded trust in our existing institutions based on elite opinion and one-way media, while not creating replacements for those institutions. At the end of the day, one important role of institutions is to 1) make a decision and 2) get everyone to go along with it, even if the decision itself isn't perfect.

The Internet has provided the tools for everyone easily criticize and pick apart any decision, without providing a viable alternative means to come to consensus.

TL;DR you think the problem is institutions and authority, while I think the real problem is that the Internet is helping break them without putting them back together again.

> TL;DR you think the problem is institutions and authority,

Actually, I explicitly stated that I think the problem is humanity itself. Institutions and authority are one of the few things that keeps behaving well. Whether you are in the urban sprawl of Detroit and the luxurious gated community of Bel Air, if electricity and water are out for more than 2 weeks and there's no authority around (police, security, etc), things are going to get very ugly.

Isn't that the strategy of propaganda? "Nothing is true and everything is possible"

It's not propagandists that are making people conclude that nothing is true, it's people putting themselves into echo chambers, aided and abetted by the Internet.

30 years ago if you had some crackpot theory, good luck finding anyone around you who agreed and would validate your beliefs. You'd watch and read normal news like everyone else and that was your source of information.

Nowadays you can come up with some strange idea, look it up on Google, and then find a bunch of other people who will tell you that you're right, the media's full of liars, and the scientists are all in it too.

Of course, this happened historically too before the Internet, but the difference is that in the past movements usually only happened in cities and college campuses and the like, because people had to talk face to face. Nowadays, everyone with a smart phone and some free time can self-radicalize.

Eventually society will notice this trend and people will adjust to it, but until that happens you're going to see a more fractious society with more people who won't believe anything anyone else says (at least about particular topics).

Regarding critical thinking, I found this quite an interesting line of thought: https://points.datasociety.net/did-media-literacy-backfire-7...

Basically, it might be the taught habit of critical thinking which actually makes people give up on the values which have been beneficial to modern civilization.

I don't know if I would call it a flaw in the human species, or a flaw with the very concept of civilization... perhaps a combination of the two. For years I have considered this to be the greatest problem facing the human species. Civilization destroys its own foundation.

The act of civilizing entails removing danger from peoples lives. Danger provides the visceral motivation to abandon intuition and think critically. Reason can not convince an unreasonable person to expend the effort necessary to use reason. It's a Catch-22. You either forego civilization, at which point people will pursue critical thinking in order to save their lives and avoid suffering, or you build civilization, and guarantee that there is no tangible benefit to thinking critically.

An infrastructure built for a civilization must be maintained, but once there is not enough support in the civilization to do that maintenance, it will fall. And humanity will return to what might be reasonably called its 'ground state' of killing each other over superstition. (Lest you think people might realize their error once danger re-asserts itself as a few pieces of the infrastructure fails, keep in mind the profound difficulty reason and science had being accepted by society even when it was actively saving lives. And for a preview, read anti-vaccine folks, they are the vanguard. When one of the children in their community dies of complications from the measles, is it because they have allowed their ignorance to kill their own child? Ah no, it's because the rest of that pesky infrastructure still stands. They just haven't gone far enough...)

As Frank Herbert put it in Dune, fear is the mind killer. Only a small subset of humanity will have clarity of mind while the fear response is in action. If we look at history, more wars have been fought over some demagogue preying on the fear response of the public than anything else.

It depends where you live but I wouldn't say the society I was raised in (Western Europe, mid nineties) and educated had some strategies in place to defend against media fallout (high school courses and radio/tv programs).

I think it's incorrect to lump the internet together as one medium. The messages that propagate over Reddit are different from those that propagate over Hacker News, which are different from Facebook.

Why draw a distinction? Because the algorithms behind those products can and do change.

Right now, hyper-partisan content is everywhere. Why? Because publishers have collectively realized that partisanship drives clicks. Take away those clicks by changing the algorithm: the medium changes, the messages change.

Facebook used to have a problem with Farmville spam. It doesn't anymore because the system changed. Perhaps the same could happen with hyper-partisan clickbait.

It doesn't really matter how you want to split it. The internet for the majority of people is Facebook. That's where the mass gets their news. Reddit/HN and other websites may use different algorithms, but they represent just a tiny fraction. Think of them as privately operated radio channels - they do exist, but their role in the world is negligible.

The medium is the message. Whether its HN, Facebook or 4chan, we come here to munch on novel bits of content and digest them in the comments. It has irrevocably altered how we think, just as the printed word, the radio, and the television did in their heyday. Now I suppose we will someday innoculate ourselves against it's dangers as we did with past media, but right now the online world is crazy, and it's breached it's barriers and is spilling out into meatspace.

'All identity is created through violence' is another one McLuhan's probes, and it kept my head busy for months. I can't find a reason to disagree with it.

>The step from telephone to radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former liberally permitted the participant to play the role of the subject. The latter democratically makes everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations. No mechanism of reply has been developed, and private transmissions are condemned to unfreedom. (from "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" in Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno)

I think this passage is brilliantly relevant to these discussions. For me the internet provides an illusion of interactivity when really most if not all of it is one-way. The internet is a place where opinions are broadcast, but it is nowhere near as radically communicative as the telephone except in actual communication media built off of it (email, IRC, slack, or whatever else etc) and even then I would argue that is mostly not subjects communicating due to the delay not present in vocal or signed communication. That we can broadcast our opinions back does not mean that the speaker and listener are on equal footing as in telephony, because the communication is indirect.

But in contrast with radio, everyone can easily become a global speaker.

Indeed, but this just "democratically" turns everyone into a speaker. The point of this passage is not that we need more speakers and less listeners, the point is that media which encourage the speaker-listener dichotomy are inherently authoritarian.

It should be pretty clear by now that the destabilization of certain old, corrupt regimes in the former Ottoman Empire leaned heavily on mobile Internet. We had the sobriquet "Arab Spring" for it, and look what it became.

Mobile Internet seems to have taken the role in this disruption that the printing press took in the Protestant Reformation in Europe. It is perhaps too early to see if a subsequent Enlightenment is to follow. We know from direct historical provenance that the regions where Islam held sway were perfectly capable of a high degree of culture. Right now, however, barbarism seems to hold sway.

During the rise of Sayyid Qutb, Nasser was able to control things. He did so somewhat ... brutally, but the situation remained in control.

Libya itself was mostly a criminal enterprise masquerading as a government.

George Orwell wrote at least one thing - "Poetry and the Microphone" which expressed skepticism about radio. In my own household, it's taken considerable effort on my part to explain to people that teh TeeVee isn't always good for your brain. There is still brilliant work done on television, more than in the past. You just have to be careful.

The impression i have of this "arab spring" is that bad what harvests in Russia was the instigator, but that the net acted as a massive pacifier.

This because via the net people could keep up with what was happening without actually being pulled in. Only when the net connection was cut did the likes of Egypt flare up. This likely because people now had to get out on the street and talk to their neighbors to stay informed.

I do agree though that the middle east seems to be having its own 30 year war going.

I had no idea a crop (wheat) failure was involved. Thanks for that.

As a somewhat serious casual student of Mcluhan (reading of key books, his letters, etc.) I will simply add:

1. Mcluhan didn't "miss" the internet at all he just referred to it as electric technology and was fully aware of the principles of the web as medium when he authored Extensions of Man 2. @Avivo he really wasn't too naive - he repeatedly wrote that he had never seen evidence any society had ever been able to educate and control the effects of media on itself.

ps: @cobbzilla- Postman is in any close reading a terrible interpreter of MC.

A more in depth comparison is made by Tim Wu in his latest book, "The Attention Merchants." Highly recommended.

This is truly brilliant.

Why do we complete underestimate the power of intangible forces?

Nuclear weapons are BIG concern and very tangible.

Education/Propoganda are arguably equally as much of a concern for the human race...but they're intangible.. so they're taken much less seriously.

I also love the idea presented here of tribal class vs the business/political class.

It explains the current nationalism so well.

I'd argue that everyone is Tribalistic, just people in bigger cities consider their tribe to be entirety of humanity because of exposure to so many different types of people daily vs people in small towns who are in contact with fewer people thus have much smaller tribes.

> I'd argue that everyone is Tribalistic, just people in bigger cities consider their tribe to be entirety of humanity because of exposure to so many different types of people

I love the optimism of this notion. I may be jaded and cynical, but I fear that 'big city people' see their tribe to be other 'big city people' rather than the entirety of humanity. I came from a small town to a variety of big cities, and have met more people who are proud of having made that transition than those who retain a deep loyalty to the kind of people they left behind.

>and have met more people who are proud of having made that transition than those who retain a deep loyalty to the kind of people they left behind

This is the part that angers me the most when I see it because these are the people who should know that the world isn't limited to just the people who have some set of things in common with themselves yet when they don't but have such an obvious example in their own lives it's frustrating.

>>Nuclear weapons are BIG concern and very tangible.

I'm not saying that they aren't a big concern, but are nukes really that tangible? Unless you live in Russia, where nukes are literally paraded on the red square every year, how do you feel their presence? I mean, as far as I know, the government could by lying about having any. They are all stashed in submarines or silos somewhere, luckily it's unlikely that we will ever see one detonate, for your average John Smith nukes could as well be terrawatt lasers mounted on the moon. I wouldn't call them tangiable I don't think.

I'd call them tangible in the sense that most people, if not all, respond with emotions of fear or anxiety when hearing about that a country might use nuclear weapons (if not openly, at least neurologically).

> Unless you live in Russia, where nukes are literally paraded on the red square every year

Could be America soon.

I thought you were going to switch to coal missiles?

Well if you can convince your .gov to buy them we'll happily design a coal warhead and sell you the missiles.

There is honestly not much substance delivered in this post; it's based around a rather oblique, long-form quote that posits illiterate and sheltered people were highly swayable by radio's spoken word, much to the surprise of an educated class raised on print, and suggests that more education may be an antidote. With the quote over, it declares that education was not a sufficient countermeasure today.

I fail to see how this rises beyond a deliberately obfuscated ad hominem. There is so much missed potential: one could muse about why messages spread on the Internet can be used to unite and divide, why classes and cohorts of people who (accurately or mistakenly) feel marginalized are attracted to rhetoric, or how a breakdown of trust contributes to a self-fulfilling cognitive dissonance about factually untrue reporting -- but none of this happens, just a quote and a quip.

A lot of valid points, but then there is this sentence:

> It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent function, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions.”


I interpret that as follows:

The fact that nearly everyone is ignorant of the effects technology has on our minds points to the technology itself being responsible for those effects.

Probably not intended, but the implication this argument leads to is for the development of regulation in use and censorship - like the FCC for radio.

Oh it does far, far more than simply what radio did to the world. Radio did not take the primary engine of all economic activity and commoditize it. The Internet doesn't just enable us to communicate better. It (and the computers all around... in time, they will be seen as having arrived 'at the same time') makes it trivially easy to distribute things. And distribution as a valuable problem to solve is what led to the Industrial Revolution and basically every single aspect of our culture. Now, it's trivial. Now, what could have built you a titanic global corporation turning over trillions in revenue a month can be done by a clever 12 year old with some spare time on their hands.

The consequences of this can not be underestimated, but inevitably will be. We built factories to feed distribution. That packed people into cities near them. Because the valuable work here was solving that problem of distribution, and because 'machines were doing the work', workers were paid very little. Which led to adolescents no longer being able to get employment which would enable them to support any children they might produce. Which led to society suddenly for the first time needing to control sex. Which led to houses being built with separate bedrooms instead of common rooms where the whole family slept (and screwed). This is just one isolated consequence of the value of solving the problem of distribution (both of the product of work and work to be done) as an example of how wide-reaching it was. The consequences took centuries to unfold.

And now in the majority of cases, computers and the Internet go beyond making it a trivial problem to solve and straight into turning the extensive distribution networks and ancillary things built to serve them now actively destroy value. A musician could distribute an album directly to their listeners... or submit it into a supply chain that would involve thousands of other people, dozens of companies, delay the release of the album, and make it a worse product (DRM, restrictive formats, etc).

At first you might think this is a small issue, that it only affects a handful of industries where the product can be delivered digitally. But it is stupendously larger than that. It requires a complete rethinking of every aspect of economy itself. The drawbacks of mass-produced goods which were once compensated for by the profound value of solving distribution, both to consumers and to workers, are now uncompensated and will only become more glaring as time passes.

Socially, the Internet has more of the opposite role of radio. Rather than re-tribalizing man, it will amplify the individual and while it will facilitate collective action it will also facilitate freedom from any 'lock in' to the collective. Are you a member of Tribe X if you have participated in 4 out of 800 things done by Tribe X? If you 'join' and 'leave' within the hour? Is representative government still a legitimate compromise if it was initially created to serve a purpose which can now be achieved in a far superior manner by technology?

Radio gave a few groups the ability to unidirectionally communicate, and most the ability to bidirectionally communicate with one other person. The Internet doesn't just give everyone their own radio station. It gives them an arbitrary number of them. It can give every thought its own radio station. It will have consequences for the very notion of history, the concept of self, of society in ways we can only half-competently guess at if we throw out all of our assumptions (way harder than those not acquainted with a bunch of different philosophies presumes it is) and start examining 'necessary and sufficient' for quite literally everything.

Previously, we have rarely even considered "does this thing absolutely and fundamentally require physical co-location?" This will become the dominant, if not the only, factor which determines whether something will be rewritten. And those things which presently do require physical co-location (far fewer than you imagine if you have not specifically thought about it) will be made to not require it if the laws of physics make it possible. No other law or tradition will prevent it.

ROI. You know what that stands for? Radio. On. Internet.

Gee, another indirect reference to the newly elected United States President. Considering MSNBC host went as far as calling the acceptance speech "Hitlarian". I was hoping to escape it here.

As the author, I can assure you that I personally do not think that Trump resembles Hitler. But the rise to power utilizing retribalization tendencies described by McLuhan that follow the emergence of new types of media might be comparable.

Anyway, I refrained from specifically mentioning Trump because he is far from the only individual who is capitalizing on the situation.

But why are you assuming that "capitalizing on the situation" is a bad thing? Why are you even assuming that "the situation" is a bad thing?

What is "internet fallout"? What fell out where?

You could as well praise the very thing you blame.

Based on my world view, convictions and (of course limited) knowledge of humanity, I consider trends towards authoritarianism, zero-sum thinking, marginalization and glorification of the past a bad thing.

I do not see any evidence at all that this would create a better society for anyone (except the very few who'll be in power).

Of course, I might be wrong. But we have enough learnings from the history of human kind to make some rather safe predictions about the outcomes of certain directions and types of thinking.

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