“We shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us.” — McLuhan
I’ve been listening to an audiobook with a section on Marshall McLuhan. At this point the author is citing how the Internet opened up awareness to all kinds of things we were once oblivious to, including minority group perspectives. This statement brought to mind another lecture I’d heard about the impact of television in the Fifties and early Sixties, specifically as regards the civil rights movement.
Television changed the South because it made the rest of America aware of Jim Crow laws and the degree to which whites were opposed to blacks acquiring rights such as the right to vote or to obtain a decent education. Northerners were appalled as they watched footage of blacks being hosed and police letting their dogs loose on non-violent protesters. The megaphone of television helped give Dr. Martin Luther King’s marches its power.
The impact of the Internet, McLuhan foresaw, would be greater than both the Gutenberg disruption and television. Its impact would be felt in ways we could never have imagined.
As it turns out he was right. Look how many powerful people have been brought low by the #MeToo hashtag. Governments have been overthrown by Twitter and election outcomes determined.
What McLuhan proposed was that technology, especially communication technology, changes the way we perceive the world. What he also foresaw was that it’s changing us as well.
In olden days, before the existence of written communication, our various histories were passed along orally. Old people were in part respected because they remembered our history for us. They were conveyors of wisdom for the younger people of the tribe.
Reading and books changed all this. There was less need for the old, who were no longer perceived as necessary in that manner. They were old and in the way of “progress.”
Let’s look at society as a house owned by a variety of people. They may disagree about the color of the siding, the walls inside, the shingles. They may also argue or fight about whether to have a tile roof, metal roof or shingles. Other disagreements could occur about whether to remove the carpets and have hardwood floors or linoleum tiles.
None of the above decisions are all that significant as far as the structure itself goes. But what if they have decide to tear down walls and resize rooms? What if they decide to remove the Corinthian pillars because they feel it makes the house appear ostentatious?
Well, depending on which walls they remove, the structure of the building itself will be imperiled. There are some walls that support the upper floors and some places that support the roof. And as for those pillars, if they are only there for appearance, that’s one thing, but if they support the front of the house that is something altogether different.
A couple of times in my decades in business I have seen changes made by young marketing managers who did not understand why certain things were being done. They dismantled things that had taken years to build because they were clueless about their rationale or their importance.
Is it possible that the same things are happening in our government as well? I would suggest that at all levels this very same thing is occurring.
We live in an era in which our lives are increasingly defined by technologies. The most difficult part is that we’re so in the thick of it that we don’t really understand the implications and effects of our own choices. It takes a lot of work to gather information to make decisions, but we’re too busy to do the work.
McLuhan stated that the electric media is totally transforming culture, value and attitudes. He also stated that he doesn’t know if this transformation is going to be good or bad. In an interview with Tom Wolfe he said, “I’ve always been careful never to predict anything that had not already happened.”
That might be a good stance for more of us to take. We have hopes. We have fears. But can anyone really know? I will weigh in here, though, and say that I do have some concerns.
Related Link: The Listeners