Saturday, November 20, 2010

The biggest intellectual hoax of all time

What we know as the Internet evolved from a military solution to potential communication disruption due to nuclear strikes. That military solution involved creating redundancies so that there would be numerous 'routes' through which information would be channelled. The modern Internet does just that: pieces of information are 'sent' to numerous 'places' before being reassembled (through the wonder of the browser) for the user-recipient.

It's analogous to tearing up a sheet of paper into hundreds of little pieces, chunking the pieces into the air then watching the sheet reassemble when it hits the floor.

Researchers at U.S. and Canadian universities knew about the military application. They saw a way to implement the system to share information amongst themselves. Many of those university types would later see the elitism of it all. Why not share the information — and the technique — with everyone?

Thus emerged 'free nets' — systems of information sharing based on the military model of redundancy. These free nets, usually based at servers at universities, allowed people to send and receive information across the system.

It was clunky at first — the preserve, it seemed at the time, of techno-geeks with far too much time on their hands. Enter Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the world's preeminent techno-geek. He developed the browser which, through its various incarnations, has evolved to what we have today.

Of course the evolution of the Internet is much more complex than the foregoing snapshot. It is, however, a good starting point for the discussion that follows.

The Internet is a leavening force; it provides the same common ground for everyone who has access to a computer and a 'connection'. It is, however, no longer 'free'. That early concept is out the window.

Instead, the Internet has become a platform for companies and individuals looking to make a quick dollar. They are riding the wave of the new capitalism — a new economy that promises to make a millionaire of even the dumbest oaf.

News media are pulling all stops. There's money in them thar hills. The so-called 'new media' is clunky, though. Yes, there are rollovers, live streaming video, hourly and daily updates; it's all very visual and 'interactive'. (I'm still trying to figure out where this 'interactivity' resides.)

What is missing — what is missing even in the print editions of most newspapers — is any sort of synthesis. We are left with uncohered data, screaming headlines, bland stories pulled from other sources and so forth.

The top story in yesterday's Winnipeg Free Press was about a fatal car crash. It was a few paragraphs long. Source? A police news release, though there was no such attribution; instead 'staff writer' was credited. It was simply a deft rewrite of an RCMP release issued that day. It was the paper's 'top story'.

That's news?

The rush to be first has taken the front seat on the bus. Back of the bus are journalistic standards, investigative reporting and anything that remotely resembles actual news.

My former employer (Sun Media) is being wagged in its dogged pursuit of Internet lucre. It wants to create the world's biggest news portal; it covets that global cachet and the dollars it believes will flow from such. It assembles wacky news from around the world (though there are no tests for the truth of this news). The only qualification for this off-the-wall news is that it be sufficiently stupid that its veracity slinks into the background; it's about amusing the masses, after all.

The momentum to adopt the new media is unstoppable. Sun Media and other news organizations MUST adopt and adapt, they tell themselves. Too bad for them that they are not (nor is anyone) anticipating the coming paradigm shift. Nor, truly, can anyone anticipate it. But it will, assuredly, arrive — unannounced, unheralded in a world-changing moment.

The Internet, in and of itself, cannot be faulted. It is a mechanism, a medium. It provides a vehicle for content but it is not the content. The transcontinental railway lines that were built in Canada provided the means by which people (content) could open otherwise unpopulated, unvisited parts of the country. The content heralded the paradigm shift, not the medium.

Not to confuse what's available on the Internet as 'content'. The 'content' of the Internet, as a medium, is the shift it is causing in the way people interact with it (the medium of the Internet). In this, I am, rather ineffectively, parroting Marshall McLuhan — who deftly explained the difference between medium and content in his epochal book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

McLuhan famously postulated that 'the medium is the message' — a wildly misunderstood concept even to this day. "[T]he 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern it introduces into human affairs," he writes in Understanding Media. "The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated or enlarged the scale of human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure."

The fact, says McLuhan, is that the medium is the message because "it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action."

But more [my emphasis]: "The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association."

It is not, then, the putative 'content' of the medium which is the Internet that changes our way of communicating or thinking, it is the medium itself.

The paradigm shift that will happen, whether sooner or later is irrelevant, will embed 'the change of scale or pace or pattern' in its first layer but, importantly, that incipient medium will not be the message either; rather, once again, even it will be 'ineffectual in shaping the form of human association.'

It seems circuitous. But what McLuhan was suggesting back in the 1960s is as applicable today as it was then. In Understanding Media he was talking about what he called the retribalization of the West due to electricity. The medium of information exchange had been transformed from the typeset mindset of the post-Gutenberg era to the electric world of near-immediate information exchange. He saw the world as tumbling, inexorably toward a globalization — we were becoming a global village.

The shifts in media to which he was referring, he argued, changed human ways of thinking. The printed book presents the world as a linear construct. Television presents a world as immediate; pattern and shape takes precedence over the linear and logical.

He took it a few steps further. He concluded that our 'sensorium' changes under the influence of different media. In the electric age, the oral, aural and tactile (tribal senses that have more to do with pattern) dominate the visual (more 'literal' sense).

But don't take my word for it. Read McLuhan.

Of course I have used McLuhan to buttress my argument that we are currently embalmed in a lie, perhaps the biggest intellectual hoax of the century. Then again, I thought the Internet would never fly.

Maybe I was right, after all.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the phrase "is being wagged in its dogged pursuit of Internet lucre." I agree about the approaching paradigm shift and not just in media. Very thought provoking article James.