Reconsidering Marshall McLuhan

Forty years ago a Canadian scholar named Marshall McLuhan assured us that the medium was the message. He argued that, on the one hand, print media had taught us sequence, order, reason, nationalism; electronic media, on the other hand, offered us “all-at-onceness,” the “global village” and empathy.

Thus, we would feel the thirst of people in drought-stricken Africa, the hopelessness of the poor in overcrowded cities of South Asia, the police beatings endured by those who sought their constitutional right to vote in the American South. “Electronic interdependence” would result.

Some of us who taught McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message may have embraced his theories of communication with too uncritical an eye. We may have seen “the global village” as para-disiacal, all empathy and fellow feeling, devoid of bitterness and strife. Peace might break out.

“They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems.”

It didn’t, of course. Television made it more difficult for Lyndon Johnson to wage war in Vietnam, just as it did for Police Chief Bull Conner to bludgeon civil rights protestors in Birmingham,

Ala. But Vietnam dragged on for a dozen bloody years, and all the electronically produced fellow feeling of the post-Vietnam era could not stop Kosovo, 9/11, and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Yet many persist in arguing that we can achieve salvation through media; this time it’s the digital revolution. Various social media have the power to organize masses in support of or opposition to political and social injustice.

Twitter and Facebook, it’s argued,

gathered the crowds that toppled tyrants in Egypt and Libya, and Syria’s Assad will be the next to fall. In short, social media gave us the “Arab Spring,” that seeming glorious triumph of the people over despotism.

In the wake of the Japanese tsunami and the Boston Marathon bombing, Facebook provided survivors with a means to reassure friends and relatives.

Democrats argue that utilization of social media provided Barack Obama his winning margins in 2008 and 2012. Republicans counter that when they’ve mastered them as thoroughly, the GOP will regain the White House.

And well they might, for certainly the most extraordinary development brought on by the digital revolution is the democratization of communication. Every man or woman, adolescent to adult, with a smartphone, tablet or laptop becomes a reporter, an expert, a scholar. Tweet and you will be heard. Post and you will be read. Blog and you may influence.

In Silicon Valley, where the digital revolution seems to make a millionaire a minute, many believe their creations

do indeed provide the keys to the peaceable kingdom. In a recent New Yorker piece, award-winning journalist George Packer quoted one young technology entrepreneur: “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action. It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just by doing their start-up.

“They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism – it’s arrogance and ignorance.”

There are, of course, no panaceas. And unfiltered, unchecked tweets and posts spell nothing more than opinion. They may constitute a more democratic body of communication, but all opinions are not equal.

Nor will repetition of lies make them facts. Tweet, yell or post repeatedly and democratically, for example, that “Global warming is a myth!” and you may drown out the findings of the world’s scientists. But you will only perpetuate ignorance.