Klein: I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message

Good long read on the impact of social media, harking back to McLuhan (and Innis) on how the medium and means of communications affects society:

It’s been revealing watching Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of the browsers Mosaic and Netscape and of A16Z, a venture capital firm, incessantly tweet memes about how everyone online is obsessed with “the current thing.” Andreessen sits on the board of Meta and his firm is helping finance Elon Musk’s proposed acquisition of Twitter. He is central to the media platforms that algorithmically obsess the world with the same small collection of topics and have flattened the frictions of place and time that, in past eras, made the news in Omaha markedly different from the news in Ojai. He and his firm have been relentless in hyping crypto, which turns the “current thing” dynamics of the social web into frothing, speculative asset markets.

Behind his argument is a view of human nature, and how it does, or doesn’t, interact with technology. In an interview with Tyler Cowen, Andreessen suggests that Twitter is like “a giant X-ray machine”:

You’ve got this phenomenon, which is just fascinating, where you have all of these public figures, all of these people in positions of authorityin a lot of cases, great authoritythe leading legal theorists of our time, leading politicians, all these businesspeople. And they tweet, and all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, that’s who you actually are.”

But is it? I don’t even think this is true for Andreessen, who strikes me as very different off Twitter than on. There is no stable, unchanging self. People are capable of cruelty and altruism, farsightedness and myopia. We are who we are, in this moment, in this context, mediated in these ways. It is an abdication of responsibility for technologists to pretend that the technologies they make have no say in who we become. Where he sees an X-ray, I see a mold.

Over the past decade, the narrative has turned against Silicon Valley. Puff pieces have become hit jobs, and the visionaries inventing our future have been recast as the Machiavellians undermining our present. My frustration with these narratives, both then and now, is that they focus on people and companies, not technologies. I suspect that is because American culture remains deeply uncomfortable with technological critique. There is something akin to an immune system against it: You get called a Luddite, an alarmist. “In this sense, all Americans are Marxists,” Postman wrote, “for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”

I think that’s true, but it coexists with an opposite truth: Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use. That conversation, on some level, demands value judgments. This was on my mind recently, when I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”

What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.

Or take Twitter. As a medium, Twitter nudges its users toward ideas that can survive without context, that can travel legibly in under 280 characters. It encourages a constant awareness of what everyone else is discussing. It makes the measure of conversational success not just how others react and respond but how much response there is. It, too, is a mold, and it has acted with particular force on some of our most powerful industries — media and politics and technology. These are industries I know well, and I do not think it has changed them, or the people in them (myself included), for the better.

But what would? I’ve found myself going back to a wise, indescribable book that Jenny Odell, a visual artist, published in 2019. In “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” Odell suggests that any theory of media must first start with a theory of attention. “One thing I have learned about attention is that certain forms of it are contagious,” she writes.

When you spend enough time with someone who pays close attention to something (if you were hanging out with me, it would be birds), you inevitably start to pay attention to some of the same things. I’ve also learned that patterns of attention — what we choose to notice and what we do not — are how we render reality for ourselves, and thus have a direct bearing on what we feel is possible at any given time. These aspects, taken together, suggest to me the revolutionary potential of taking back our attention.

I think Odell frames both the question and the stakes correctly. Attention is contagious. What forms of it, as individuals and as a society, do we want to cultivate? What kinds of mediums would that cultivation require?

This is anything but an argument against technology, were such a thing even coherent. It’s an argument for taking technology as seriously as it deserves to be taken, for recognizing, as McLuhan’s friend and colleague John M. Culkin put it, “we shape our tools, and thereafter, they shape us.”

There is an optimism in that, a reminder of our own agency. And there are questions posed, ones we should spend much more time and energy trying to answer: How do we want to be shaped? Who do we want to become?

Source: I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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