McLuhan, freedom and the web

January 24, 2011 § 8 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.

Or we could make conscious choices that keep freedom and openness baked into the web. We could ensure that the next pieces of the web — video, mobile, identity, social, etc. — are built on the same open principles as TCP/IP, HTML and JavaScript. We could fuse the culture of creativity, innovation and open-endedness into the broader world of media as it reinvents itself. This is what Mozilla and so many others are working to accomplish. And, given the head start that we’ve got, it’s possible.

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.

§ 8 Responses to McLuhan, freedom and the web

  • kolembo says:

    Great read. We shape our words, and then our words shape us.

  • karl says:

    It might be why each time, we put a brand, a flag, a identity behind each of our words we fail to achieve the goal of openness. What’s different with the web is that we’ve built it around some very particular notions of freedom and openness from the start. is a bit of an abuse. The Web has been created to solve an issue of documentation. The “magical” thing about it are basically encapsulated in two decisions.

    1. A system to be able to label an information anywhere on the network (URI). It means in terms of information, I can point my finger to this other there and *choose* to name it. That’s very important. With that came a protocol (HTTP) to manage this communication space and a markup language (HTML) to give a shape (as in structure not layout) to these messages.

    2. The decision to release that system created at the CERN so it could be used by a larger public. The funny thing is that the Web was a failure at the CERN. But we were frustrated by the fact that the Web’s use within CERN itself was very low. –Tim Berners-Lee, p.55, Weaving the Web. The CERN and Tim decided to make it public. That’s an important decision, but not enough. When organizing the conference and wondering about setting up a consortium for the Web (aka future W3C) The conference was the way to tell everyone that no one should control it, and that a consortium could help parties agree on how to work together while also actually withstanding any effort by any institution or company to “control” things., p.80.

    What worries me the most is that the new empires such as Google and Facebook are sometimes actively developing stuff outside of any common organization. The social structure of a vendor/organization/brand neutral organization helps to create the necessary dynamics of a development but seems to not be fully enough now for keeping the Web open. When there is so much power in aggregating information and capturing services. Mail, Web, Usenet have been all open protocols, not in the sense of an open specification, but in the sense of an open infrastructure. clients and servers distributed and clearly separated.

    Search, social network messenging, photo sharing are these days all captured in centralized infrastructure and this I think is really bad.

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  • karl says:

    I realize that the “q” element is not styled so the meaning is a bit lost 🙂 in my previous comment.

  • Nice post. And a great gift idea! Marshall might have quipped, ‘Lego my ego’…then again, maybe not.

  • Tristan says:

    (nitpick: The LEGO URL is broken You may want to use this instead: .)

    Other than that, I *LOVE* these quotes from McLuhan! Will reuse them at Fosdem 🙂

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