I’ve been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately. McLuhan was the Canadian public intellectual of the 20th century who coined the phrase “global village” and “the medium is the message”. His 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy was one of the first to draw connections between the advent of print in Europe in the 1450s and the advent of computers. But whereas many thinkers considered the scientific, economic and political parallels, McLuhan focussed on the social and cultural parallels. I’m finding that a lot of his ideas, written at the birth of computing, help make sense of our digital transformation now.
1. The revolution has already happened.
ANNA MARIA: Since Donald Trump became president a year ago, we’ve heard a lot about fake news and foreign interference in elections, not solely in the U.S. What do you make of the way the world has reacted to those two threats and controversies?
CHRIS: 2016 was the year of shock—of Brexit and Trump’s election. 2017 was our year to gawk at those events and their aftermath. I’m hoping that 2018 is the year when we finally block out the noise and say, “All right. Let’s take a step back and decide how we’re going to navigate through all of this.”
I think a good way for all of us to start off 2018 would be to dust off Marshall McLuhan. Back in the ‘60s, he already foresaw a lot about how today’s social media would transform society. And one of the things that he warned us was, “When we get to this hand-wringing stage, the revolution has already happened.”
ANNA MARIA: So in fact the revolution has happened. And we now need to adapt.
CHRIS: That’s right. Take foreign interference in democratic discourse, for example. We need to be sober about asking ourselves, “Can we really censor out foreign voices from our domestic discourse?” We live in a “free society”, and traditionally we mean by that “open” and “unrestrained”. But in 2018 it also means “vulnerable”. Social media helps make this vulnerability visible, because it makes public discourse explicit and traceable. But many other dimensions of foreign interference in our public discourse are not so easy to see. That’s the broader reality that our social media experience helps us to recognize.
2. We are the oxygen feeding the bonfires we can’t look away from.
ANNA MARIA: If there is an historical precedent for us—for regular folk in 2018—to let social media run amok, then doesn’t that same historical precedent suggest that those in control don’t want it to?
CHRIS: There is a widespread fear that social media is going to upturn the existing order. But actually, I don’t think that we’ve begun to realize the power that social media has given to everyone.
I only have to look at President Donald Trump, at the stranglehold that he has on our attention, to see that we don’t yet understand our full power. Again, this is something that Marshall McLuhan made clear 50 years ago. He said that when we enter into the digital age, we’re going to regress to an oral culture. We’re going to regress to a society in which who says a thing and how big an audience hears the saying of it determines what’s true for us.
That’s exactly what’s happening. Our problem is that our habits of consuming information are still stuck in the old print culture. In print culture, we got into the habit of believing what we read and what we heard. But in an oral culture, we need to recover the capacity to ask ourselves “Who do I want to listen to?” and “Who do I want to ignore?”
And, again, it’s clear from the size of Trump’s global audience that we haven’t yet rediscovered how to do that. We’re stuck in this paradox of thinking—and this is very print-oriented way of looking at the world—that because Donald Trump is powerful, so we need to listen to him. But we’ve got cause-and-effect backwards. In today’s oral culture, the reality is that because we need to listen to him, so he became powerful.
We still have a long way to go toward recognizing our power to ignore—and, on the flipside, how we are the oxygen feeding the bonfires we can’t look away from.
3. In an oral culture, terror is the natural state.
ANNA MARIA: How does the shift from print culture to a digital culture change the way we assess the value of new ideas?
CHRIS: You’ve put your finger on one of the most stressful aspects of living at the birth of this digital age, which is: “How do we select which are the good ideas?” In a print world, publishers had a certain authority to select and curate what was—to borrow from the masthead of the New York Times—“fit for print”. And it wasn’t just print. With the advent of radio, of television, there has always been a curator of content. Suddenly we live in a digital world where everyone has the power to reach the many. I’m going to borrow Marshall McLuhan one last time because…
ANNA MARIA: I was just going to ask you to go back to him. So go ahead.
CHRIS: (Laughs) He was so prescient about this, because he said “the natural state of people in an oral culture is terror”. Which is how a lot of us feel today. Why? Because it seem like anything can affect anything at any time. And it’s hard to ever feel secure in that situation.
ANNA MARIA: Well let me pick up on that, then, because you talk about how in a digital culture where everyone has authority, no one has authority—and everyone has responsibility. So part of our adaptation has to be developing new ways of critical-thinking.
CHRIS: Right. But it’s not just us on our own.
ANNA MARIA: Collectively on our own (Laughs).
CHRIS: (Laughs) Sometimes it feels that way. But other actors in society have a role to play, too. When I talk about “letting social media run amok”, I don’t necessarily mean that we need to let these companies—the Facebooks and Twitters of the world—run amok.
The big debate right now is: do we leave them laissez-faire or do we regulate them as publishers? I think that’s probably the wrong debate to be having. I don’t think that these entities belong in the same category of regulation as publishers. They’re more like utilities—a form of national infrastructure akin to an energy utility or a telephone utility. And what’s the public responsibility of utility companies? It’s not to police their content. It’s to report usage and usage patterns, so that government, academics, police and society at large can better research, understand and regulate the systemic risks that are inherent to any important infrastructure.
More Marshall McLuhan
CBC Life & Times – Marshall McLuhan (YouTube, 1999) — Best video documentary I found on the web. Part I is just 10:00 long.
The Man Who Predicted The Internet Had A Stark Warning For How It Might Be Used (Independent.co.uk, July 21 2017) — Best of many short news articles published on the anniversary of his birth last year.
Marshall McLuhan Speaks (website) — The best digital archive of audio and video from three decades of McLuhan’s public lectures. If you’ve got one minute to burn, watch the first minute of this Introduction by Tom Wolfe (author of The Bonfire of the Vanities)