“The Medium is the Message”, perhaps Marshall McLuhan’s most famous aphorism means that a medium or media “shape and control the scale of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed it is only too typical that the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 24). This is a technologically deterministic statement and it means that a medium itself, not the content of a medium, shapes the way we think, speak, act, and behave, and that the content of a medium distracts us from this fact.
In contrast to the above, in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) McLuhan tells the story of General David Sarnoff who, upon receipt of an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, made this statement: “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value” (p. 26). McLuhan straightway mocks such a statement, “…suppose we were to say apple pie is of itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value. Or, ‘the small pox virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.’ Again, ‘Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.’ That is, if the slugs reach the right people firearms are good. If the TV tube fires the right ammunition at the right people it is good….There is nothing in the Sarnoff statement that bears scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media…” (p. 26). Later in the same chapter, McLuhan boldly states, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the content of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as content” (p. 32).
In the fascinating time we live in there are information and communication technologies (ICTs) in abundance: cell phones, tablets, iPods, iPads, smart watches, lap tops, desk tops, self-driving and driverless cars (Hicks & Fitzsimmons, 2019), smart appliances, even smart clothing (Sawh, 2018). The common theme in all of these technologies is that they are internet dependent. The Internet of Things (IoT), now listed in the Merriam- Webster, is defined as “the networking capability that allows information to be sent to and received from objects and devices (such as fixtures and kitchen appliances) using the Internet” (Merriam- Webster, n.d.). If the effect of the Internet is made stronger and more intense because of its content as a result of the IoT taking hold on society, resulting in the construction even of smart cities and the like, then how is it possible to deny the fact of a society that is technologically determined? Certainly, theoretically at least, the choice to use the technology, or not, exists, but judging from the way we gobble up any new thing that comes our way with regard to technology and the IoT, it seems any pretense at freedom of choice is a rather fatuous idea. Our society consistently makes the choice to use these technologies and gadgets in spite of the fact that personal privacy is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Surveillance, equally as rapidly, is becoming our ordinary way of life, considering the connectivity of many of our devices and the eternal data trail in our wake in cyberspace. The right to self-determination is also on the wane because one cannot easily opt out of using these items since society is increasingly built around them, putting intense pressure on people to conform and buy the latest thing to keep up with social changes rippling into society in consequence of the technology we cheerily, even thoughtlessly, adopt. In light of these realities the argument that the way a technology is used determines its value seems little more than a child’s whistle in the dark in order to avoid serious grappling with who we are and where we are going as persons and as a society.
This paper, rather obviously, argues for technological determinism relative to the Internet, primarily through the theories of Marshall McLuhan, and as defined by Ungvarsky (2017), who states: “Technological Determinism is a theory that a society’s culture, history, and future path are caused by the knowledge its members have acquired and the machinery or equipment they have made with that knowledge. The concept implies that a society’s course is driven by this technology. Most people who support this theory believe that this power and force of technology cannot be stopped or controlled, and that once each new form of technology is put into use, it reshapes the economy, politics, social structure, and culture of the society that uses it” (para.1).
Before moving forward with McLuhan’s ideas relative to the internet, it is worth briefly noting that the truth of the above statement is utterly obvious regardless of how unfashionable, simplistic, and perhaps even banal such thinking is considered by some in academe. Whole civilizations are characterized by tools, events, or types of thinking, producing the “stone” age, “iron” age, “steam” age, or the “computer” age and such like. Nations also are characterized by technologies they developed or which become cultural symbols, so we associate Holland with windmills, the USA with cars, and Japan with electronics (Wyatt, 2008, p.167). Wyatt quotes Robert Heilbroner (1994) and David Edgerton (1999) who indicate that it is the availability of differing kinds of machinery that define what life is like in specific places and times (p. 167), and Wyatt further references Lewis Mumford (1961) who says, “the tendency to associate whole millennia or nations with material artifacts happens because the first academic disciplines treating technological change seriously were anthropology and archaeology, which often focus on nonliterate societies for which material artifacts are the sole record” (p. 167). Perhaps this is an obvious point, but how is it possible to argue against technological determinism when so much of human history is shaped by significant technological changes, such as those referenced, and many that are not, such as the Renaissance, or the Reformation, that catapulted human development forward in important ways?
The Medium is the Message and the Internet
Turning now to the present, in consideration of the Internet, let us begin with revisiting the idea that, “The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 24).
“‘The medium is the message’ means, in terms of the electronic age, that a totally new environment has been created. The ‘content’ of this new environment is the old mechanized environment of the industrial age. The new environment reprocesses the old one as radically as TV is reprocessing the film. For the ‘content’ of the TV is the movie. TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments. We are aware only of the “content” or old environment. When machine production was new, it gradually created an environment whose content was the old environment of agrarian life and the arts and crafts. The older environment was elevated to an art form by the new mechanical environment. The machine turned Nature into an art form. For the first time men began to regard Nature as a source of aesthetic and spiritual values. They began to marvel that earlier ages had been so unaware of the world of Nature as Art. Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form” (McLuhan, 1964, p. ix).
If the above was true when McLuhan penned it in 1964, how much more readily does this apply to the internet today? Indeed, the Internet is a “totally new environment” and its contents are all the old media: print, radio, and TV. Levinson (1999) says the Internet is the “medium of media”, “As we progress through the history of communication, we find that each new medium takes an older one as its content (as per McLuhan), and that, because of this, speech as the oldest medium has a presence in almost all newer media. The phonetic alphabet is a visual representation of spoken sounds. The printing press mass produces the alphabet in books, newspapers, and magazines. The telegraph sends electronic encodings of written words. The telephone and phonograph and radio obviously convey speech. “Silent” motion picture photography (which often had musical accompaniment) had visual blurbs of words (along the lines of comic books, and also the “pop-up” videos introduced in the late 1990s); and by the late 1920s, it had quite literally begun to talk. Motion pictures (along with elements of radio, including serials, news, and network structure) became the content of television. And all of the above are rapidly becoming the content of the Internet, the medium of media” (p. 42). All of the named technology supports the idea of technological determinism because the development of one technology lays groundwork for the development and implementation of the next. There was an alphabet, then there was Gutenberg, then there were books, newspapers, and other written materials. Further, application of McLuhan’s thought from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) supports technological determinism in part because our existing society is based on an extrapolation of print culture, “We really have homogenized our schools and factories and cities and entertainment to a great extent, just because we are literate and do accept the logic of uniformity and homogeneity that is inherent in Gutenberg technology” (p. 199). McLuhan’s Wake illustrates this beautifully by showing rows of text in a book, and then rows of cookies on a factory conveyor, then neat hallways of offices, and finally, orderly downtown and residential streets, laid out in a grid like fashion, all similarly grouped together. This is given as a visual example of what McLuhan means when he says technology is an extension of ourselves (Wolf, 2016). It is also a clear demonstration of “Gutenberg technology.” This is why neat rows of printed matter lead to neat, grid-like streets where like buildings are grouped together. Our thinking and the way we order the world is shaped by our technology because our technology is an extension of ourselves: “the medium is the message.”
This being the case, and a clear demonstration of technological determinism, one cannot help wondering what will happen to the organization of cities and countries as print culture wanes because of its assimilation into the Internet. Will we still have tidy of rows of buildings mirroring crisp rows of text, familiar, orderly, and comforting, or will this uniformity morph into a crazy collage of networked structures laid out in webs and circles, roughly akin to the wagon trails of old? Humour aside, the reality is that, technologically speaking, this is precisely where we are headed. The EU plan to build “Smart Cities” not only shows that “we shape our tools and our tools shape us”, as McLuhan said, it is also a clear example of technological determinism because the construction of smart cities show how we are using our technology to reconfigure economy, politics, social structure, and culture. Schaffers et al., (2011) say that smart and intelligent cities have modernization potential because rather than being an event in cyberspace they are integrated social, physical, institutional and digital spaces where digital components improve the function of socio-economic activities, the management of physical city infrastructure, and enhance the problem solving capabilities of urban communities (p.434). This is an example of the extension of the Internet medium into our world today in the way that print was extended into our world in years gone by. Further, “Smart City” solutions are expected to deal with challenges like research, innovation, and the upgrading of skills to promote a knowledge economy; active labour market policy to sustain employment; strengthen social cohesion, reduce the risk of poverty, and address important issues like sustainable development, the reduction of greenhouse gasses, and improving the energy efficiency of urban infrastructure. In addition, smart cities are to sustain the innovation economy and wealth of cities, maintain employment, and fight against poverty through employment generation, the optimization of energy and water usage and savings, and by offering safer cities. To achieve these goals, city authorities have to undertake initiatives and strategies that create the physical-digital environment of smart cities, actualizing useful applications and e-services, and assuring the long-term sustainability of smart cities through viable business models” (Schaffers et al., 2011, p. 434- 435). We shaped our Internet, and in turn, our Internet is about shaping the way we are going to live in the future. This is technological determinism at its finest.
Technological Determinism and Mass Surveillance
A grave concern about the Internet, its hardware and infrastructure, the various information and communication technologies (ICTs) available to us, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is the fact that the use of these tools, which we have shaped with our own hands, increasingly shape a surveillance society. The effect of the Internet is stronger and more intense because of its content as a result of the Internet of Things (IoT) taking hold, resulting in the construction even of smart cities, never mind a smart phone! In light of these grave concerns and consequences, brought on by our technology and its gadgetry, it is impossible to deny the fact of a technologically determined society because these serious consequences are brought upon us by the tools we ourselves have made and chosen to adopt. This is very obvious, and as McLuhan (1964) said, “the content of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (p. 32). This is true when it comes to our collective love affair with technology and gadgetry. The capability of our technology and the content of our gadgets distracts us from the real loss of our freedom and our right to self-determination as we slip increasingly into a surveillance society, amused and distracted with whatever blips, bleeps, flashes, or chirps on a smart phone, tablet, iPod, laptop etc. Schaffers et al., (2011) indicate that future media research and technologies offer varying solutions working in tandem with the IoT and embedded systems opening new avenues for content management (p. 436). This group also say that media Internet technologies means media being generated, consumed, shared, and experienced on the web include content and context fusion, immersive multi-sensory environments, location-based content dependent on user location and context, augmented reality applications, open and federated platforms for content storage and distribution, and provision of the ground for new e-services within the innovation ecosystems of (smart) cities (p.436). What this really means is that we are headed into an increasingly mediated environment where more and more of our lives are lived “online”. Presently, we can close our laptop and be “offline” engaging in ordinary, unmediated life as it’s been lived since the beginning, but with the construction of smart cities and the kind of interfaces and technologies coming our way in the not too distant future, “online” realities will envelope us the way water envelopes fish.
This is one of the greatest technological leaps of humanity since the beginning, but is it really “progress”, or is it perhaps “regress”? Since this is all driven by the technology we make and use, how can anyone ignore the very bald fact that technological determinism and the web are changing the ways we live, relate to each other, our economies, culture etc? We can tap dance and side-step all we like, as McLuhan’s (1964) General Sarnoff did that, “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value” (p. 26), but the simple, uncomplicated fact is that this statement is hogwash because our Internet and the gadgetry accompanying it is creating a surveillance society for all. Is it not obvious that the technology and the way it is used is then of questionable value indeed since it is shackling human freedom to surveillance? This has very serious implications for the foundations of humanity and democracy, yet we keep picking up the latest Internet-friendly gadget, winding the electronic web round about us tighter and tighter.
One serious consequence, noting the ripple effect of our adoption of Internet-friendly technology in assignment 5 relative to the Edward Snowden revelations, this writer penned, “what Snowden revealed is a holocaust of nuclear proportions for personal privacy and life as many of us have known it because big data not only collects information for itself, it also cross references and aggregates the details of our lives from shopping habits to the most intimate of details discussed on a cell phone call, via text, email, remarks on websites, across all ICT platforms, all the time. Our identity and habits are recorded everywhere online, indeed even noted by our government as Snowden revealed, and it never goes away. As Lyon (2014) quotes Deleuze (1992), and Haggerty and Ericson (2000), ‘Classically, studies of surveillance suggest that a shift in emphasis from discipline to control has been a key trend associated with the increasing use of networked electronic technologies that permit surveillance of mobile populations rather than only those confined to relatively circumscribed spaces, and depend on aggregating increasingly fragmented data. Surveillance practices have been moving steadily from targeted scrutiny of “populations” and individuals to mass monitoring in search of what Oscar Gandy (2012) calls ‘actionable intelligence’ (p.125), and Big Data surveillance exemplifies this.’” This means we can wear Google’s stylish “smart-jacket”, our preferred “smart-watch”, stash our iPhone in the “smart-jacket” pocket and trot off into work, leisure, or family time surveilled on different devices, feeling very hip and trendy, while big data, via the technology and gadgets just donned, provide the “actionable intelligence” Big Data needs to manipulate us into acting in conformity with its wishes. As pointed out by this writer in assignment 5, Gandy (2012) indicates statistical data places people into a “dynamic multidimensional matrix of identities which reflect the interests of institutional actors seeking to influence how individuals respond to options set before them. The presentation of options is designed to manage behaviour by maximizing benefits and minimizing risks associated with behaviour management”(emphasis added)(125). In other words, our behaviour is manipulated in such a way that the likelihood of doing what an institution approves is increased. Would one really wish to be corralled this way? Gandy (2012) goes on to point out that statistical surveillance systems are able to “link names and other unique identifiers to markers or traces from individuals who would otherwise be anonymous…Statistical analysis are dramatically increasing the scope, accuracy, and reliability of these determinations” (126). This means it is noted, reliably accurately, that it is oneself being seen and not another by the same name and perhaps very similar characteristics and data trail. “This identification produced by institutional others is a process generally reflecting the exercise of power. Identification or misidentification by others is immaterial, but carries material force in that it can literally change the quality and duration of a person’s life” (emphasis added)(126). What consequence could be more serious, and how could it possibly be denied that this state of affairs is technologically determined directly or in the direct consequence of the adoption of certain Internet-friendly technologies?
Loss of Freedom and the Digital Panopticon
While many of us are distracted with ogling and opening our wallets to the latest Internet-friendly gadgets hitting our favourite stores, there is a quiet tsunami of consequences coming our way as a result of our personal and collective behaviour. The loss of privacy brought on by the surveillance our toys and gadgets subject us to will result in the loss of freedom for each one of us and for our society. This is a frightening reality to contemplate, far beyond the ability of an individual, or seemingly the interest of society, judging by the pace with which we invent new technology and then roar off to purchase it. It is easy to dismiss this loss of privacy by saying one has nothing to hide so it matters not who is watching, but the fact remains, as Greenwald (2015) points out, that even pro-surveillance advocates he himself debated after the Snowden revelations would not willingly give up the passwords to their email accounts or allow video cameras in their homes (p. 171), so it would seem privacy is an important value for all, even the pro-surveillance advocates. As Greenwald (2015) says, “The point is not the hypocrisy of those who disparage the value of privacy while intensely safeguarding their own, although that is striking. It is that the desire for privacy is shared by us all as an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human. We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, speak, think, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person” (p. 172). “A denial of privacy operates to severely restrict one’s freedom of choice” (Greenwald, 2015, p. 173).
If our privacy, and the freedom it affords is willingly tossed into the maw of the Internet because of its surveillance of the populace, the technology orbiting it is then a first class ticket to digital imprisonment because of the loss of privacy and the freedom that goes with it. The Panopticon is a system of surveillance, invented by Jeremy Bentham that effectively allows institutions to control human behaviour. It involves the existence of a central tower allowing vision into all the rooms built around it in such a fashion that those being monitored cannot be certain if they are watched at any given time, or indeed watched at all. The idea is that the spectre of being observed never leaves the subjects and this sense of ever -presence of a guard causes the subjects to automatically conform to expectations with complete obedience because of the sense of being watched (Greenwald, 2015, p. 175). This applies to the internet and its surveillance of the citizenry because everything we do online, regardless of the technology used to do it is recorded and never goes away. As Greenwald (2015) says:
“In Discipline and Punish Foucault explained that ubiquitous surveillance not only empowers authorities and compels compliance but also induces individuals to internalize their watchers. Those who believe they are watched will instinctively choose to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing that they are being controlled- the Panopticon induces ‘in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.’ With the control internalized, the overt evidence of repression disappears because it is no longer necessary: ‘the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to be non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound, and permanent are its effects: it is a profound victory that avoids any physical confrontation, and which is always decided in advance.’ Additionally, this model of control has the great advantage of simultaneously creating the illusion of freedom. The compulsion to obedience exists in the individual’s mind. Individuals choose on their own to comply, out of fear that they are being watched. That eliminates the need for all the visible hallmarks of compulsion, and thus enables control over people who falsely believe themselves to be free” (p. 176).
McLuhan and Technological Determinism
Marshall McLuhan is famous for his “Tetrad”, or four laws of media, and McLuhan’s Wake (Wolf, 2016) is a film offering an overview of these four laws that ask four simple questions to be applied to any media at all. The fourth of these laws answers the question, “How will this tool or technology reverse when it is pushed to its outer limit? Put another way, one could ask, “How is this technology going to become bitter rather than sweet? In the case of the Internet, the technology has reversed on itself and become bitter because of the surveillance aspect. As Greenwald (2015) says, “Only when we feel that nobody else is watching do we feel free-safe- to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves. What made the Internet so appealing was precisely that it afforded the ability to speak and act anonymously, which is so vital to individual exploration (emphasis added). For that reason it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate. A society in which everyone knows they can be watched by the state- where the private realm is effectively eliminated- is one in which those attributes are lost at both the societal and individual level…Regardless of how surveillance is used or abused, the limits it imposes on freedom are intrinsic to its existence” (p. 174).
The internet started as a place where people could be free, allowing people to “speak and act anonymously” but McLuhan would say the technology has reversed on itself because of the way it is actually curtailing the freedom of persons and society because of surveillance. We invented Google to search out knowledge and answers for us, and Google is likewise “googling” us! And not only is Google googling us, but as Snowden revealed, our own governments are as well (Gackenback, 2015). “We shape our tools and our tools shape us”, as McLuhan said, and therein lies the case for technological determinism and the web because it is the tools we are inventing, building, and using that create this situation.
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