The following is my contribution to an email exchange begun by Bob Bott to which several people contributed, including Peter MacKenzie-Brown, whose blog on the subject can be found as “What Hath God Wrought?”
I think it was McLuhan who pointed out that the printing press was a one-to-many communication method, as is the radio, and the TV. They are therefore instruments of central power, providing excellent trumpets down which dictators and demagogues shout at their subjects. Telephone is essentially one-to-one, and private as a hand-written or typed letter or a fax. The CBC radio program AS IT HAPPENS is a clever adaptation — what computer people call a work-around or kluge, I believe.
The internet is one-to-one but public, which is a critical difference from telephone, fax, letter. It is also much more ubiquitous and immediate and therefore favours simplistic or gnomic utterances. It flattens communication in ways that were forecast to favour democracy. Unhappily, this prediction appears to be going the same way as forecasts about radio when it was called “the wireless” and the original motto of the BBC was “That Nation shall Speak to Nation”). Ditto TV, which some of us remember being touted as “holding infinite promise for education.” DuMont, Co-inventor of the electron tube, for many years refused to watch commercial TV; he reputedly asked, “What have they done with our child?” Arguably, the internet has flattened discourse down to the lowest common denominator, wherein anyone’s opinion equals anyone else’s opinion, regardless of knowledge or truth.
I keep coming back to McLuhan’s idea that any new technology obsolesces something, enhances something, retrieves something, and leapfrogs on to the next thing. His example was the zipper that obsolesces buttons and bows, enhances clasping, retrieves long flowing garments and leapfrogs on to velcro. (His examples from memory: he said it better in a CBC TV interview.)
So, applying his paradigm as best I can: The internet…
OBSOLESCES Privacy (individually and internationally)
ENHANCES Ubiquity, and paradoxically, community of the like-minded both geographically, i.e.: the Chelsea Quebec Facebook group to which I belong where I can ask for help locating my dog, and experientially i.e. the Facebook Historic Fiction Writers’ Group which puts me in contact with fellow semi-amateur writers in NZ, Australia, GB, Canada and the USA. It’s “The Global Village” (OMG, how did he do it?). And we mustn’t forget immediacy — “shooting from the hip.”
RETRIEVES Shaming, bullying, coarse language and pornography
LEAPFROGS Not being McLuhan, I’m not able to make one of his astounding leaps of intuition that caused everyone to think, “This time he’s really flipped his wig.” One I remember from his Modern Poetry course in 1963 was the day he said, “When everyone has a colour television we’ll all eat more spicy foods.” We sat, dumfounded. And of course, he was right.
May I cheer you up, by adding a personal McLuhan story that concerns the other side of his flip remark, “I only read the right hand page of critical material.”
He was my MA thesis director, to whom I had brought about 45 pages on my subject, Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was in his office, where books flooded out of bookcases, were strewn on all available surfaces, stacked on the floor, rose in piles over head height, two of which were (memorably) braced above the mantlepiece with a long, competitive oar from his rowing days. He rocked back on his chair, lit a cigar (it was before he quit, before Woody Allen, in the days when we had only The Mechanical Bride and The Gutenberg Galaxy to go on) and stated, between puffs:
“I’ve read your thesis.” Puff. “It’s a good thesis.” Puff. “But they’ll never pass it, because it’s too short.” Puff, puff. “Take it away and pad it.”
So I did. And I passed.
An hour or so later, I added another email to the chain:
And another thing…
I have fallen victim to the shoot from the hip syndrome. I should have taken more time, during which I might have remembered the really new aspect of the digital age: the algorithms that lead you to more and more of what you react to. Algorithms enhance the echo-chamber effect, feed the trolls, reinforce lies, misconceptions, and baseless assertions. Sadly the whole process is confused with research, therefore proliferating ignorance and falsehood by equating the weight and truth of all opinions.
Now I’m done.