The message is the media
University of Toronto Professor Marshall McLuhan’s genius “the medium is the message” axiom is a formidable sum up of mid 20th Century media analysis. In essence, McLuhan tells us that the powers of media technology in radio, television are so immense that they supersede words themselves. This axiom is worth revisiting with an updated frame of reference and with an eye towards 2030.
The message is the media
2030 will mark 40 years of the internet age, for comparison, radio’s 40th anniversary as a mass medium occurred in the mid-1960s when McLuhan shot to fame. “Invented” by 2 shrewd NYC PR operators, he came at the perfect time to magnify television’s raw societal power. 1960’s extremely close election of a telegenic JFK, who defeated a less-made-for-studio-lights Nixon, has been heralded as the initial “eureka” moment of the television age. Dependable profit margins produced by local media monopolies the world over lasted until atomization accompanied digitization in the last years of the 20th century. The first few shots across the bow were fired by Craig Newmark’s super simple classifieds killer, and all major “traditional” media companies have been scrambling ever since.
The analog era’s power duo, radio and broadcast television, gave way to a new couple, the internet as delivery mechanism, with its adjunct, the product/service/application. Where television levelled the playing field between its “guests” and brought them into the public’s homes, the atomized internet first erased all limits of time and space and then contributed to blur boundaries between tv broadcasters, newspapers, radio networks, who all in the end deliver information to universal screens. The iPhone revolution made the internet increasingly wireless and the smartphone screen became the go-to real estate where media competed.
Early newspapers in the 18th century functioned much like current social media feeds: readers sent in news clippings from other “gazettes” and the newspaper editor selected these contributions. After decades of Big Media dictating to the masses present day social networks have simply reverted to the roots of media: comments and reader contributions. In that sense, McLuhan’s axiom has been reversed and it can be argued that as of now the message is the media.
Billions of person to person messages are exchanged daily as IMs, text messages, Slack messages, WhatsApp group texts and emails. The value of social networks is based on these billions of messages, which in turn drive a significant portion of the media narrative in 2020.
Even taking his hysterics out of the equation to see so-called traditional media feverishly comment on countless unmediated tweets sent out by President Trump remains a formidable sight. Roosevelt is the radio POTUS and JFK his TV successor, as for Trump the carnival barker, he wallows in the pits of fringe social media. In the summer of 2020 he has resorted to retweeting 50+ dubious postings an HOUR ! For the past 5 years Big Media has not put his lies in context and mediated them, and for this it will be held accountable. For now, these repeated failures have ushered the era of unmediated media.
Reader/viewer/subscriber contributions in the form of tweets, comments and old fashioned letters to the Editor ARE media now. Granted the semantics are twisted, but media as intermediary silos is an outdated concept. Social media itself is a misnomer in the sense that social media networks are, for the most part, unmediated. Big Tech has been forced to censor violence and pornography but has succeeded until very recently to avoid any explicit editorial responsibility. Twitter’s recent banning of hate speech makers such as the KKK leader David Duke is a welcome development, yet is a drop in the bucket in light of the billions of hate-filled messages which pass through, in the name of free speech. The irony of this absolutist free speech stance is that the messages are exchanged on private networks who as such retain all rights to police them as they see fit. It’s quite clear that Big Tech has prospered in this milieu of unmediated media and that the First Amendment has been a mere “cache-sexe”. Unmediated media is the sad result of technology overtaking the purpose of media itself: the education of the body politic and public opinion.
The dumb pipes fallacy
Section 230 of the 1996 US Telecoms Act has largely exempted Big Tech behemoths from any responsibility and resolved to treat them as “dumb pipes”, a moniker they universally reject. July 29’s Congressional hearings of the top internet giants Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google yet again put their schizophrenia on full display. These silicon robber barons inexplicably think they’ll remain exempt from government regulation and that they will escape the fate of Rockefeller’s 1911 Standard Oil, pre-1948 movie studios or 1984 Ma Bell. Big Tech’s main pitch is that they’re simply akin to the US Postal Service, mere couriers of person to person exchanges, ie “dumb pipes”. This is laughable when YouTube has become the de facto #1 cable tv alternative and Facebook is the US voter’s main source of information. Equally comical is of course the fact that this dumb pipes fallacy flies in the face of their market capitalization. Truly dumb pipes would be treated as utilities, dependable and boring. Gone would be the outrageous PE ratios and the currency they use to finance acquisitions.
2030 outlook: quasi global regulation and its consequences
Few Big Tech leaders are as clear eyed as Salesforce’s Marc Benioff when it comes to his industry’s fate. Benioff shocked many at Davos 2018 when he compared Facebook to cigarettes as a way to make government regulation a foregone conclusion. He has reiterated with astute one liners on the death of capitalism as we’ve known it and the San Francisco inequality train wreck. Benioff’s refreshing take should help his counterparts Bezos, Zuckerberg et al wake up from their self-imposed intellectual slumber. For all of the lobbyists on the take for Big Tech, regulation is coming. Interestingly Zuckerberg threw up his hands and in February 2020 relented to regulation: “”We don’t want private companies making so many decisions about how to balance social equities without any more democratic process,”
Regulation in the era of unmediated media and Big Tech will be different than in previous cycles and will innovate by its global nature. The European Union has mostly led the way so far vs North America, with its canny Commissioner Vestager at the forefront. The global nature of the pendulum shift has also accelerated transnational parliamentary initiatives such as the several hearings that Zuckerberg saw fit to avoid. Quasi global regulation is paradoxically what the financial markets are most comfortable with, given that well regulated markets provide stable growth conducive to investment.
The 2030 outlook is uneven: Big Tech’s unmediated media will continue to destabilize and imperil traditional media, with deep societal consequences. The fact that Facebook has been recognized as the culprit in inflaming violence in Bangladesh around the Rohingya pogroms, in India via WhatsApp groups that have since been curbed, should jolt American lawmakers into action but it mostly does not. Both parties are actually quite content to have American-born global web giants, confident that a modicum of values animate their management. It is a sad fact that at every opportunity Big Tech has disappointed and burned its reputation at the stake, the “do no evil” motto Google saw fit to include in its 2005 prospectus now seems quaint and a slap in the face.
The positive outcome of the 2015–2020 acceleration of the dislocation of media rests in the younger digital native generations. Their prowess in smelling a rat has proven its worth in the maelstrom of fake news, may they be able to teach their elders, and fast !