McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” is still very actual. Despite the book’s conservative views on media, it is not difficult to approximate the author’s evocative thoughts about media, society, and manipulation to the current context of platform capitalism.
In the year of the 10th anniversary of What’s App, I stopped using What’s App for personal use. Strangely, I found myself close to one of McLuhan’s rants about the inevitability of the medium:
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there’s a willingness to contemplate what is happening
Was I aiming to test my reliance on this tool? Is there an inevitability when it comes to the use of What’s App?
To put McLuhan’s quote into its original context, he referred specifically to the encompassing of the new media along with other aspects of life and politics. This inevitability is a critique of all of us finding ourselves locked in the “media environment” while not being able to express politically because we are confined to each medium’s design and affordances. Inevitability is the overwhelming power of the medium with little left for contestation:
All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.
Does this explain What’s App?
Well, it is hard to master the art of leaving it. People asked me why; a large part of my contact list stopped talking to me. In sum, I saw myself on an island with a smartphone in my hands. What’s App is owned by Facebook, the same company that owns Instagram and a bunch of other popular apps. People really use it heavily. It seems inevitable for many reasons but it is always your fault if you’re not on it. It is the abyss that stares back at us.
I found out that nobody actually texts you. People WhatsApp you. The rush to update on one’s slightest movement; the surveillance that entails being online or offline; all the emojis; it is all inevitable apparatus. In sum, we are happening in it, we exist or we do not exist in it. We react to it, and yet we are not authorised to speak without these “tools”. As McLuhan puts it:
We now live in a global village…a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us. We have had to shift our stress of attention from action to reaction. We must now know in advance the consequences of any policy or action, since the results are experienced without delay. Because of electric speed, we can no longer wait and see. George Washington once remarked, “We haven’t heard from Benj. Franklin in Paris this year. We should write him a letter.
With all that said, there is something outdated and very American in his moments of optimism while reflecting on the positive side of living the inevitable. McLuhan’s downplaying of the inevitability foresees the ‘classification’ of people’s emotions as a thing of the past, as opposed to chaotic, disruptive creativity that may still flourish on TV. He couldn’t be more wrong. The information in order is the body and soul of Google and it is far from representing the past. McLuhan’s frame of the new as this promising chaos, which is the superior space of learning and construction, leaves much to the imagination about what has not happened. How normalised is our present and how boringly supervised by tech it will still be:
The young today live mythically and in depth. But they encounter instruction in situations organized by means of classified information—subjects are unrelated, they are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint. Many of our institutions suppress all the natural direct experience of youth, who respond with untaught delight to the poetry and the beauty of the new technological environment, the environment of popular culture. It could be their door to all past achievement if studied as an active (and not necessarily benign) force.