I mark 1975 as the year that personal computing really began. It was when the Altair and the IMSAI S-100 machines first hit the market. That was Year Zero.
In 8 BC (Before Computers), a fellow named Marshall McLuhan published a book called “The Medium Is the Massage.” He postulated that the way we receive content massages us—the way the information is delivered affects us even more than the content itself.
A newspaper can give us lots of information, but a radio commentator summarizing that information gives us an emotional envelope. A picture gives us a visceral impact; a moving picture gives us a direct experience. A small black-and-white television image is a gritty blur, demanding concentration. A high-def wall-size screen overwhelms us with its illusion of reality.
Part of that, of course, is how much information is being delivered and at what rate. The high-def television delivers more information per second than a whole newspaper can deliver in a week. It’s a different kind of information, but it has an enormous physical and emotional effect that we are not immediately conscious of. And that’s the massage that McLuhan was discussing.
One of the best examples of the effect of the massage is Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Radio had established itself as a voice of immediate authority. You got speeches from the president and reports of the war in Europe, you got music and news and commentary. Even the commercials were presented as authoritative. So when Orson Welles used that same context to deliver an invasion from Mars, radio audiences were already conditioned to believe it.
But there are other examples as well. The Nazi propaganda machine depended on the credibility of newspapers, magazines, movies and radio to give its propaganda the illusion of credibility. Likewise, the Soviet Union. Populations that had not yet had the opportunity to learn how to assimilate the new media—movies and radio—assumed that what they were seeing and hearing was accurate. It wasn’t until much later that a healthy skepticism about all media began to develop.
In 25 BC (the fifties), a new medium began invading American homes. Television quickly replaced both movies and radio as the medium of choice. Almost immediately, millions of people fell into synchronous behavior. A generation of baby boomers grew up with Beany and Cecil, Buffalo Bob, and Crusader Rabbit. Later, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Rocky and Bullwinkle. And eventually Kirk and Spock and McCoy.
There were only three television networks then, and the larger effect was a homogenization of American thought—and some very funny unintended consequences too. At 9:15 every Monday night, the reservoirs that fed the water mains of New York City would suddenly lose a million gallons of water. Why? Because that was the commercial break in the middle of “I Love Lucy” and millions of people were getting up to go to the bathroom. All those toilets were being flushed at the same time.
Because there were no videotape machines and no DVRs, all television was appointment television. And the next day, at school or the office, viewers would talk about what they had seen the night before. By 10 BC (the sixties), television was showing pictures of the fighting in Vietnam every night during the dinner hour, and that helped fuel public resistance to the war.
Today, 37 years after the Altair and the IMSAI, we have the Internet, a global network that links every computer, tablet, and smartphone into a vast system of communication and information exchange. And the system is still in its infancy. In coming years, with the expansion of IPv6 addresses, everything is going to be linked—video cameras, automobiles, home and public security systems, traffic lights, lawn-sprinklers, anything and everything that we want to observe, monitor, or control.
And that’s why the discussion of McLuhan is relevant. We are swimming in a rushing river of information and the water is not only getting deeper, the current is getting stronger. We are being swept toward a raging sea of raw data, processed data, sorted data, false data, filtered data and chaotic data (especially chaotic), and while we’re not exactly up schist crick without a paddle, the paddles we do have seem insufficient to the torrent.
Nevertheless, we are inventing ways to navigate, or at least avoid some of the bigger rocks in the river.
As much as we ridicule the rise of “social networks,” we might also want to recognize that such venues can function as an incredibly diverse common—a place where vast multitudes can gather to share, to discuss, to learn, and ultimately to connect as human beings. As much as we like to mock our own tools (“the Internet is a series of tubes, all filled with cats”), it has become a critically important part of our lives.
The Internet has become/is becoming the primary information channel for most people: our phones, our desktops, our laptops, our tablets, our smartphones, now even our televisions, are all connecting in a marvelous confluence of technology. Not all the pieces are in place yet, but within a few years, our total immersion into the Web will be complete. And that will change who we are in ways impossible to predict. What we are seeing today are only intimations of things to come.
One of the ways that the Internet is homogenizing us is the overnight spread of memes. The most obvious of these show up as photoshopped posters. Whether it’s Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka saying “Tell me more,” or McKayla Maroney being unimpressed, or Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair, an effective meme can go global in a matter of minutes. While a lot of this is frivolous, there’s also a deeper process at work, which will likely change who we are as nations and ultimately as a species.
The immediately obvious process is the effect that the Internet is having on the presidential election. More than ever before, this is the Internet election. If you missed any speeches at either of the conventions, they’re all available on various websites, especially YouTube. And even more than that, the various social networks are engaging in high-spirited discussions of each and every point of the political argument.
Most of the hard evidence is easily available. Anyone who wants to go looking for facts and data and research into debt and spending and budgeting can find it. If you want to make a donation, see a position paper or fact-check an assertion, you can do that as quickly as you can type your question. A representative government only works when the electorate is sufficiently informed. We are moving toward a global culture where that is not only possible, but inevitable.
And yes, at the same time, the signal-to-noise ratio is… uh, let’s say “unfortunate.” There are too many shills and propagandists, liars and fear-mongers, spreading misinformation. But that’s the true value of the social networks—the above-mentioned high-spirited discussions are places where the misinformation gets held up to the light, where the lies get exposed, where the propaganda gets examined and revealed as phony. Those who post knee-jerk talking points are almost immediately rebutted with facts, charts, posters and hard evidence. The lurkers, the folks sitting in the cyber-bleachers, get to enjoy a spirited debate on the issues. The information culture is an informing culture.
The mainstream media used to be the gatekeepers for what issues got publicity. That’s no longer the case. An Internet meme can overwhelm television and talk radio in a matter of hours. The mainstream media didn’t pay too much attention to Todd Akin’s assertion of “legitimate rape.” The Internet turned it into a firestorm of outrage. It’s becoming more and more difficult for any (you know the one I mean) “news outlet” to lie to us because the Internet is now functioning as a collective and verifiable cultural memory.
We should have seen it coming. Twenty-two years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. Boris Yeltsin resisted the coup. The fax machine in the Russian White House was a key factor. The coup plotters forgot to shut down the phone lines and that gave Yeltsin and his people a communications link to the outside world, so they knew they weren’t alone. They held out, the Russian people hit the streets, the attempted coup collapsed—and with it, the Soviet Union, without a shot fired.
Jerry Pournelle, notable science fiction author and long-time columnist for “Byte” magazine, made the point that no tyranny can survive where people have access to the free exchange of information.
The effects of instantaneous global communication can be seen everywhere today. The “Arab Spring” that’s sweeping across the Mid East, toppling dictators like dominoes, is an effect of the increasing liquidity of information. What we’re seeing now is just a foretaste.
Every government on this planet is going to be challenged and changed by the Internet. We’re going to see which governments are brittle and which are flexible. We’re going to see enormous changes in the world in the next 20 years.
And this is why the Internet must remain free. Any government can build amazing technologies of tyranny, but no government can control an informed and outraged population. The Internet is humanity’s best hope for the continuing evolution of political and social consciousness.
The Internet is the new massage.
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.