Pondering the following quote which I saw on Facebook today. The irony of that sentence isn’t lost on me 🙂
“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.” – Marshall McLuhan.
It puzzles me that many otherwise intelligent people argue that the Internet has democratised media and so the above could not be true in the current age. In reality, media companies are aggregated and conglomerated like never before – they are owned by rich media czars. It’s certainly true that the mechanisms for news distribution have been democratised and are now much more affordable thanks to social media and web publishing software. However, what people talk about is determined by mainstream media. We retweet, repost, add colour to and debate the topics that we’re encouraged to believe are important. Whether’s it’s “shirt gate” or Adele not singing on Bandaid30, it’s all such rubbish. Often mesmerisingly trivial banalities dressed up with complicated ideological arguments to suggest it’s something more important.
Perhaps there’s a greater probability of an offbeat or counter-cultural story being brought to the attention of a large body of people because of the low friction internet content distribution paradigm. However, there’s also so much content vying for our attention that we engage in a form of aggressive pre-filtering aided and abetted by “new media”. We arguably connect with people of similar beliefs, disconnect from those who don’t and generally create an online ideological support network. As a mediator, and a (hopefully) thinking human being, I can see that this is the very opposite of a dialogue that leads to substantial change. It simply leads to more polarisation. No matter what the “ism” someone wants to subscribe to, they can find an online support community that will give them a regular shot of vitriol about everyone else.
The perceptions are surely artificial as they’re untested by rigorous logical debate as opposed to the ad hominem attacks we learn how to perfect on social media. An opinion that you can’t defend without resort to logical fallacy is essentially worthless. Hitchens’ razor applies.
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
So are our values arbitrary? Well, if they’re untested by debate there’s always a risk they become so. If we come to espouse values based on being told by media figures they’re the best ones to have then they’re secondhand. It could be argued that journalists, for instance, simply articulate our concerns better but is that really good enough? Do we genuinely have a democratised distribution of news IF we simply latch on to views of others using reposts or retweets?
A bit like Mulder in the late 20th century media phenomenon The X-Files, we really want to believe and that means we need to have beliefs. It could be ancient aliens, 911 conspiracy theories, moon landing conspiracy theories or it could be racisms, sexist, fascism, whatever? These “isms” reassure us and provide us with identity. Media fills that role for us. It’s easier and faster than thinking for ourselves. It’s not inherently bad but much of it will reflect our triviality, banality, boredom in contrast with our yearning for something more. But just because something IS doesn’t mean it’s GOOD.
I remember the dotCom boom so well. The internet business model was without precedent, we were told, and didn’t adhere to pesky concerns like profitability or even revenues in some cases. It turned out those old values had some sense to them. We’re now convincing ourselves that the Internet is a panacea for social ills, as if the cost friction of the distribution channel was the defining factor in the evolution of human nature. Well, there may be some truth to that but on the evidence so far, much of what we’re doing is creating more efficient ways to insult, bully and harass each other as we arrange ourselves into self-reinforcing tribes.
Mcluhan would undoubtedly argue that:
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”
“Shaped” doesn’t necessarily imply improved or enhanced.