Reflections on Facebook going down
I met Marshall McLuhan through Howard Luck Gossage, who I discovered in the book and documentary made by Steve Harrison. If this short article does nothing except introduce you to these three titans, then it was worth sharing. But carry on reading, dear reader, because McLuhan has something important to say, forty years after he passed away.
Marshall McLuhan was the Canadian philosopher who famously said, “the medium is the message”. What he meant was simply that the carrier of the message (e.g. television) was much more important in shaping culture than the message itself (e.g. any programme).
He wrote this idea in 1964, approximately twenty years before the internet was invented and forty years before it reached any real level of popularity in culture. Digital media was not a part of our language at all when McLuhan coined that phrase.
Digital media is all binary. Quite literally, it is transmitted in 1’s and 0’s. Quite metaphorically, the medium that we call web 2.0 (e.g. social media) divides us into binary tribes (e.g. politics). The message that has been beaten into us through Facebook and Twitter, but also through digital talk radio stations and digital news channels, is that we are right and they are wrong.
This morning, one of our teachers didn’t turn up to class. I took the opportunity to share a TED Talk from Stefon Harris (There are no mistakes on the bandstand) so that our students could learn how creativity happens when open-minded creative people actively listen to each other. An unexpected note or a skipped beat is something to be celebrated and explored, not dismissed and ignored.
Ten years before Marshal McLuhan wrote his seminal thought, two scientists discovered that human life isn’t binary at all. James Watson and Francis Crick unlocked the Double Helix structure of DNA and accelerated our understanding of life. Instead of 1’s and 0’s, there are four different bases (adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine) that make up everything that lives, from amoeba to us. In fact, we are each made from about 3 billion pairs of these bases.
In other words, we are far more complex than the binary culture that our digital media has created.
Facebook went down last night, together with its offshoots Instagram and WhatsApp. Suddenly, we were no longer fed interactions through an algorithm, in which everything has been gamed to make us angry and divided, for profit.
Before social media, we discovered news from sources that we trusted, and who had reputational skin in the game. Journalism had a dark side, no doubt, but when it broke a story it was often through forensic investigation and due diligence. Other stories were discovered at the pub, where there were no secrets.
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name
These were lyrics from the TV show, Cheers, which was probably the last global hit sitcom before the internet age.
We need to change the channel, or switch off social media for good. At the very least, they urgently need to be better regulated, led by people who have read the wisdom of Marshall McLuhan and have both the intelligence and the intention to use their algorithms to improve our culture, rather than harm it.