What does the Internet make of us?

Doc Searls
Sep 13 · 10 min read
Nearly all the people in this photo are using a mobile phone. These people are not the same as they were before those devices extended their minds and bodies in the connected world.

“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” wrote Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham and a colleague of Marshall McLuhan, whose magnum opus was Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man.

So: who — or what — are we, now that we are extended by, say, our phones?

Explained McLuhan, “All media are extensions of some human faculty — psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot.The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric curcuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change.”

In The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects, he goes farther: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive… that they leave no part of us untouched unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

And he wasn’t just talking about communications media. He was talking about every thing we make, which then make us. As Eric McLuhan (Marshall’s son and collaborator) explains in Laws of Media: The New Science, “media” is “everything man[kind] makes and does, every procedure, every style, every artefact, every poem, song, painting, gimmick, gadget, theory — every product of human effort.”

Chief among the laws Marshall and Eric minted is the tetrad of media effects. (A tetrad is a group of four.) It says every medium, every technology, has effects that refract in four dimensions that also affect each other. Here’s a graphic representation of them:

The McLuhans apply these laws heuristically, through questions:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

Questions are required because there can be many effects, and many answers. All can change. All can be argued. But there are effects in all cases, and they do work us over.

Take what happened to blogging, for example.

When blogging was still new, back in the early ’00s, my blog of the time (now mothballed at weblog.searls.com) had about 20,000 subscribers to its RSS feed and daily readership was often much higher. Those numbers were already dropping when I switched to my current blog in 2007, and have continued to drop ever since. Today my blog gets dozens of readers per day, mostly from visitors following a search for a topic I’ve written about in the past. My writing there has also fallen off. Where I used to write several posts per day, now I write several posts per month. What happened?

In two words, social media. Most of the writers in my old blogroll (top link in the paragraph above) are still active, but not on blogs of their own. They’ve moved over to “social” accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere. I write in those places too, because that’s where the readers are.

So let’s look at social media through the McLuhan tetrad, and ask the four questions listed above. Here are four answers:

In the ENHANCED corner, social media surely make everyone more social, in the purely convivial sense of the word. Suddenly we have hundreds or thousands of “friends” (Facebook, Swarm), “followers” (Twitter, Instagram) and “contacts” (Linkedin). Never mind that we know few of their birthdays, parents’ names or other stuff we used to care about. We’re social with them in ways we weren’t before.

Blogging clearly got OBSOLESCED, but —here’s the kicker — so did the rest of journalism. And I say this as a journalist who has long made a living at the profession and now, like too many others who did the same, am out of the business. Linux Journal, which I served as editor-in-chief, was shut down last month after a run of 26 years, the last 24 of which I was on the masthead.

Linux Journal punched far above its weight in the technology world, for example helping make open source a thing. At the end we were in the middle of the fight for personal privacy online, which we fought by accepting only the old-fashioned kind of advertising that sponsors media and isn’t aimed at spied-on eyeballs, which is now pro forma in the online publishing business, even though laws such as the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California essentially make illegal. (But, absent enforcement, are more gesture than handcuffs.)

In the online publishing world today, journalism has largely been supplanted by “content production,” because that’s what social media and its publishing co-dependents get paid by advertising robots to produce in the world. What’s more, anybody can now participate. Look at that subway photo above. Any one of those people, or all of them, are journalists now. They aren’t professionals, but they are reporters in the literal sense; and what they publish, mostly on social media, is a huge percentage of today’s news flow.

We’ve RETRIEVED gossip. Hell, what’s more social than that? In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari says gossip was essential for our survival as hunter-gatherers: “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” And now we can do that with anybody and everybody, across the vast yet spaceless nowhere we call the Internet. Who needs the old formalisms of journalism, education and law? (What used to be must with each of those is now should at most.)

Social media has also REVERSED us into tribes, especially in the news we produce and consume, much of which is self-reinforcing of group opinions and prejudices, both within and toward others with opposing opinions and prejudices. For a view of how social media has algorithm’d us into opposed camps, check out The Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed / Blue Feed site, which showed (alas, it ceased updating in August) the completely opposed (and hostile) views of the world that Facebook’s polarizing algorithms inject into the news feeds of typical folk on the left and the right.

Not surprisingly, the McLuhans were hip to the implications of mobile phones almost three decades ago. Dig this from Gregory Sandstrom‘s “Laws of media — The four effects: A Mcluhan contribution to social epistemology” (SERCC, November 11, 2012):

The REVERSES items might be off-base, the but others are right on. (Dig cameras and tribal culture under RETRIEVES.)

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on mobile phones, and what we’re seeing in that photo up top:

Feel free to roll your own.

While the tetrad is a way to look at effects, however, the McLuhans want us to look below those, to causes. This is hard, they note, because effects are figures, and causes are grounds, which are the contexts from which figures arise. In Media and Formal Cause, Marshall and Eric McLuhan write, “Novelty becomes cliché through use. And constant use creates a new hidden environment while simultaneously pushing the old invisible ground into prominence, as a new figure, clearly visible for the first time. Every innovation scraps its immediate predecessor and retrieves still older figures; it causes floods of antiquities or nostalgic art forms and stimulates the search for ‘museum pieces’.”

We see this illustrated by Isabelle Adams in her paper “What Would McLuhan Say about the Smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the Smartphone” (Glocality, 2106):

Laws of Media again: “The motor car retrieved the countryside, scrapped the inner core of the city, and created suburban megalopolis. Invention is the mother of necessities, old and new.”

Beyond clothing, shelter and tools made of sticks and stones, all the artifacts that fill civilized life are ones most of us didn’t know we needed until some maker in our midst invented them.

And some tools — extensions of our bodies — don’t become necessities until somebody invents a new way to use them. Palm, Nokia and Blackberry all made smartphones a decade before iPhones and Androids showed up. But none of them mothered invention for everyone. iPhones and Androids did that with something those earlier phones lacked: apps.

Apps retrieved the original ground laid down by programs (aka applications) on computers, obsolesced old-fashioned telephony, enhanced damn near everything you do with a connected rectangle, and reversed into capture in the walled gardens of Apple and Google, plus those of the phone and cable companies that are our gateways to the Internet. (In 2012, Cory Doctorow wrote a prophetic piece in BoingBoing titled Lockdown: The coming war on general-purpose computing. We are losing that war today. Linux Journal is just one casualty.)

Still, all the things I’ve talked about so far—blogs, social media, mobile phones, apps—are effects the McLuhans want us to look behind for deeper causes.

This is hard because effects are figures, and causes are grounds: the contexts from which figures arise. For background on this, the McLuhans source Aristotle’s four causes:

  1. Material — what something is made of.
  2. Efficient — how one thing acts on another, causing change.
  3. Final — the purpose to which a thing is put.
  4. Formal — what makes the thing form a coherent whole.

The first three are the obvious ones. The fourth is the one that matters most and is hardest to see.

“People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside…”

In Media and Formal Cause, Eric also sources Jane Jacobs:

Current theory in many fields — economics, history, anthropology — assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work….Rural production is literally the creation of city consumption. That is to say, city economics invent the things that are to become city imports from the rural world.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, “Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment”, adding:

Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes….The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.

Thus railways were a formal cause that scaled up new kinds of cities, work and leisure.

So, when we look behind blogging, social media, smartphones and apps, do we see one formal cause for all of them?

The most obvious candidate is the Internet, which clearly makes all of them possible.

What made the Internet possible, however, is digital technology: binary code + semiconductors, integrated circuits, miniaturization. Or digital, for short.

The Internet is the way digital beings connect with each other and do stuff, over any distance. Some of those beings are machines. Some are human. Some are both.

We are both. And this is radically new to human experience.

Think about the Internet as a way and not a place. As a how and not a what. Because that’s what the Internet is: a way and a how. Not a what.

The formal cause of the Internet is a protocol: TCP/IP. In a computing network, a protocol is just an agreement about how things get along. As protocols go, TCP/IP is about as simple as they come, which is why it came into use, and why it works so damn well.

But the Internet, at its protocol level, is not a medium in the sense that it comes between things. Wires and waves do that. Those are not the Internet.

The Internet is us and our things—here, in this place that isn’t one.

Think about prepositions for a minute. There aren’t many of them, and nearly all pertain to positions: above, below, around, beside, on, within, without, underneath, amidst, near, through, over.

None of those apply to the Internet. Yes, we say we go “on” the Internet, because we have to conceive of the Internet as something. (We are physical beings, and our metaphors arise from that.) So we’ve borrowed the concept of place, or real estate, when we talk about “sites” and “locations” with “domains” and “addresses” that we “browse” or “visit.” But the truth is, when we “go” somewhere “on” the Web, we’re really just requesting a file from another device that happens to have what we call a location. We do that using both TCP/IP and the hypertext protocol HTTP (or HTTPS). But our ass remains where it is in physical space.

My wife likens the experience of being “on” the Internet to one of weightlessness. Because the Internet is not a thing, and has no gravity. There’s no “there” there. In adjusting to this, our species has around two decades of experience so far, and only about one decade of doing it on smartphones, most of which we will have replaced two years from now. (Some because the new ones will do 5G, which looks to be yet another way we’ll be captured by phone companies that never liked or understood the Internet in the first place.)

But meanwhile we are not the same. We are digital beings now, and we are being made by digital technology and the Internet. No less human, but a lot more connected to each other—and to things that not only augment and expand our capacities in the world, but replace and undermine them as well, in ways we are only beginning to learn.


An ancestor of this post is here.

Doc Searls

Written by

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade