Medium as the Message, and the Freedom to Disappear Today
McLuhan very accurately reflected upon the way people perceive themselves when he said that “medium is the message.” It was a reference to how technology has always enabled humanity to have a voice in History, whether through the invention of alphabets, the printing press, or film.
Kittler, inspired by McLuhan’s theory, observes that “the only thing that can be known about the soul or the human are the technical gadgets with which they have been historically measured at any given time.” The exchange of ideas and interaction with others over the internet is a model in that they not only represent us (and to an extent our “soul” as Plato phrased it when he put Socrates’s dialogue down in writing on tabula rasa), but they also shape our self-understanding as individuals and as part of the society at large.
In his paper “Optical Media,” Kittler states that “being, in an eminent sense, allows itself in principle not to be seen today, although or because it allows the visible first to be seen. in this way, the history of optical media is a history of disappearance, which also allows me the freedom to disappear for today.” Online presence — be it emails, pre-recorded youtube videos, comments, or even live video chats over skype — are all an extension of ourselves, a medium to carry over the internet a snippet of our thoughts, actions, and our physical existence. But through this very action of making ourselves known and our voices heard, we also make ourselves to disappear with the latest persona you’ve masked yourself with. That comment you made on the Youtube video? For those that don’t know you over the web, it will be the only way through which people will get to know you; your being is known to the others, and you’ve just allowed your existence to be exclusively shaped by this comment, all the while without letting yourself known in real life.
It can also work the other way — the medium of Internet can lend us the affordance of self-detachment for the purpose of viewing and judging ourselves in the eyes of others, and Internet has the power to “deceive and circumvent” our self-understanding. In this sense, our interaction with the Internet by and large has the power to override what we perceive of ourselves. But I also feel that Williams might argue that this desire to put up a wall and to create multiple different personas in an attempt to brand ourselves differently all the time is what we, the millennial generation, seeks from our lives, and that we ourselves are creating this deceptive, transient world. Unlike McLuhan and Kittler, Williams criticized the idea of technological determinism and believed that social movements defined technology and media, not the other way around. He may argue that it isn’t the omnipresence of technology and the Internet, but rather our desire to be better, faster, stronger, that fuels the millennial existentialism, and our desire to assume multiple different personas at the same time; that the concept of open dialogues over the net was borne out of this need, and that the Internet is just a medium.