McLuhan, freedom and the web
January 24, 2011 § 7 Comments
If he were still with us, Marshall McLuhan would turn 100 this year. What to get him for his birthday? I’d get him LEGO. Partly because LEGO’s fun. But mostly because it’s a great metaphor for open-ended nature of the web. As a medium, the web has one big message: build me.
I plan to spend 2011 exploring this message: looking at the open-ended nature of the web and at how it is shaping other media. I want to play with this very practically: making software, web sites, events, etc. that fuse old media with the culture and technology of the web. Riffing on last year, ‘media, freedom and the web’ may well be a major Mozilla Drumbeat theme for 2011.
Why now? Partly it’s poetry. It’s McLuhan’s big birthday. Partly it’s opportunistic. Mozilla Drumbeat is experimenting with cinema, journalism, language and the web. But the biggest reason: this feels like an important moment in media, one where we move from the web as disruption to the web as reinvention.
McLuhan famously said: We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. This is very important right now.
We invent and play with media, and then things slow down. The printing press. Pamphleting. Newspapers. And then things slowed down. Motion pictures. Splicing. Montage. And then things slowed down. In all of this is a process of disruption and reinvention. Breaking down what was, shaping what will be.
With the web, we’re still sitting on the edge between disruption and reinvention. For example: Hollywood and the TV networks have been disrupted by camcorders, youtube and a legion of 11 year olds. But we have yet to see the new forms of web cinema that are clearly around the corner. We haven’t yet met the next Eisenstein or Vertov. We haven’t had our montage moment. These intersections between old and new media are what matter most when we think about shaping our tools. We get to invent and reinvent. We get to make choices.
Many have credited McLuhan with predicting the web 30 years before it was invented. Whether you think it was a prediction or not, what he wrote in 1962 helps us think about the intersection we’re currently staring at:
The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
It’s clear that the web has embraced and engulfed almost all media that came before. Print. Photography. Radio. Film. Television. Or, from another angle > Storytelling. Prose. Journalism. Cinema. Conversation. As we all have witnessed, these media are all caught up in a wave of disruption sparked by the web.
Which brings us back to freedom. With every new medium there are always waves of freedom and openness, followed by something much more closed. What’s different with the web is that we’ve built it around some very particular notions of freedom and openness from the start. We’ve cast it in a forge of transparency, sharing, remix and participation. We’ve baked these things into, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. We’ve built the web as an open-ended system. It’s built to be built on.
It’s important to remember this as we move from disruption to reinvention. The choices we make in the next few years will determine whether this freedom and open-endedness remain at the heart of the web. Our choices will also shape what everything from journalism to cinema to language become: our choices will determine how these media are reinvented.
We could choose a web that keeps us connected but drops the freedom. Imagine a web where we trade privacy for convenience. Where your digital identity and credentials are locked up by one company. Where a handful of players get to choose which software applications make it into ‘the market’. Tim Wu’s recent book warns of this future, reminding us that past media disruptions have started open then fallen into a pattern of rigidity and empire.
McLuhan provides a helpful reminder here: paying attention and making good choices can shape the future. He wrote:
… there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening …
What is happening now is that we’re at a crossroads: we’re making choices about the web today that will shape society and media for a very long time to come. Choices about technology. About whose in control. About freedom.
It’s this set of choices that makes me want to dig into the connection between media, freedom and the web right now. Over the coming weeks, I’ll post on different aspects of this. My next post will be on what the words media, freedom and web mean to me — defining the terrain a little better. I’ll then jump to some of the practical things we can do to play with these ideas, especially as they relate Mozilla Drumbeat work on cinema, journalism and language.
This is the first in a series of posts about media, freedom and the web.