All Media Connect Us Before They Tear Us Apart
Civilization itself swings between social connection and utter alienation
Any of our healthy social mechanisms can become vulnerabilities—what hackers would call “exploits” for those who want to manipulate us. When a charity encloses a free “gift” of return address labels along with its solicitation for a donation, it is consciously manipulating our ancient, embedded social bias for reciprocity. The example is trivial, but the pattern is universal. We either succumb to the pressure with the inner knowledge that something is off, or we recognize the ploy, reject the plea, and arm ourselves against such tactics in the future. In either case, the social landscape is eroded. What held us together now breaks us apart.
Indeed, the history of civilization can be understood by the ways in which we swing between social connection and utter alienation and how our various media contribute to the process. We invent new mechanisms for connection and exchange, from books and radio to money and social media. But then those very media become the means through which we are separated. Books reach only the literate wealthy; radio encourages mob violence; money is hoarded by monopoly bankers; social media divides users into algorithmically determined silos.
Unlike human beings ourselves, the media and technologies we develop to connect with one another are not intrinsically social.
Spoken language could be considered the first communication technology. Unlike dilating pupils or mirror neurons, speech requires our conscious participation.
Language gave humans a big advantage over our peers and allowed us to form larger and better-organized groups. Language bonded tribes, offered new ways to settle conflicts, allowed people to express emotions, and — maybe more important — enabled elders to pass on their knowledge. Civilization’s social imperative could now advance faster than biology could engineer by itself. But language also had the reverse effect. Before language, there was no such thing as a lie. The closest thing to lying would have been a behavior such as hiding a piece of fruit. Speech created a way of actively misrepresenting reality to others.
The written word, likewise, offered us the opportunity to begin recording history, preserving poetry, writing contracts, forging alliances, and sending messages to distant places. As a medium, it extended our communication across time and space, connecting people in ways previously unimaginable.
When we look at the earliest examples of the written word, however, we see it being used mostly to assert power and control. For the first 500 years after its invention in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively to help kings and priests keep track of the grain and labor they controlled. Whenever writing appeared, it was accompanied by war and slavery. For all the benefits of the written word, it is also responsible for replacing an embodied, experiential culture with an abstract, administrative one.
The Gutenberg printing press extended the reach and accessibility of the written word throughout Europe and promised a new era of literacy and expression. But the presses were tightly controlled by monarchs, who were well aware of what happens when people begin reading one another’s books. Unauthorized presses were destroyed and their owners executed. Instead of promoting a new culture of ideas, the printing press reinforced control from the top.
Radio also began as a peer-to-peer medium. A radio set was originally a transceiver — what we now think of as ham radio. As corporations lobbied to monopolize the spectrum and governments sought to control it, radio devolved from a community space to one dominated by advertising and propaganda.
Adolf Hitler used the new, seemingly magical medium of radio to make himself appear to be anywhere and everywhere at once. No single voice had so permeated German society before, and the sense of personal connection it engendered allowed Hitler to create a new sort of rapport with millions of people. The Chinese installed 70 million loudspeakers to broadcast what they called “politics on demand” throughout the nation. Rwandans used radio as late as 1993 to reveal the location of ethnic enemies so that mobs of loyalists with machetes could massacre them.
Once under the control of elites, almost any new medium starts to turn people’s attention away from one another and toward higher authorities. This makes it easier for people to see other people as less than human and to commit previously unthinkable acts of violence.
Television was also originally envisioned as a great connector and educator. But marketing psychologists saw in it a way to mirror a consumer’s mind and to insert within it new fantasies — and specific products. Television “programming” referred to the programmability of not the channel but the viewer. The bright box was captivating, perhaps even unintentionally capitalizing on embedded human instincts. Instead of sitting around the fire and listening to one another’s stories, we sat on the couch and stared into the screen. Group rapport was replaced with mass reception.
While television encouraged a conformist American culture through its depictions of family and a consumer utopia, it also pushed an equally alienating ethos of individualism. Television told people they could choose their own identities in the same way as they chose their favorite character on a soap opera. The viewing public gladly accepted the premise—and the social cost. Television commercials depended on alienated individuals, not socially connected communities. A blue jeans commercial promising a sexier life doesn’t work on someone who’s already in a satisfying relationship; it’s aimed at the person sitting alone on the couch. Television culture further fostered loneliness by substituting brand imagery for human contact.
Television was widely credited as the single biggest contributor to the desocialization of the American landscape, the decline of national clubs and community groups, and the sense of social isolation plaguing the suburban frontier.
That is, until the internet.