Is the medium the message?

It’s hard to know if the world has changed since I was a kid, or if how I see it has changed. The truth is probably both.

The world has changed, and in some spectacularly obvious ways – hey, there was no internet when I was growing up. And it’s natural too that as I age and mature, as I experience good and bad, that my outlook will change too. I can look upon the same things, and see something different.

It’s not new though. We may live in an age when change is more rapid than ever before, but little is unique. In a way the change we see about us is superficial. It’s the form of things that change. The appearance.

What was once a horse and cart, for example, is now a slick electric car. A journey that once would have taken months, now takes hours. Computers were unique once, but old school now – what’s changed is that we now have computing power in our pocket equivalent to what was housed once in a building.

These are significant advances, but almost exclusively they’re an improvement on an existing function, or mode. Naturally, these advances have impacted heavily how we interact with each other, and with the world about us. The internet by itself has been revolutionary in that regard.

The question is, have we changed as people as a result of this? Or is it simply our behaviours?

I ask because the world is different now to when I was 20 years old. Some of that is that my experience leads me to look at things another way. And I suspect the different mediums now available to us make it so much easier to discern the change I’m talking about. It’s there in your face. And it’s because its so prevalent I think people have changed.

I’m not much for Facebook, but I’m on Twitter everyday, and I consume all manner of news reporting, both formal and informal.

The available mediums mean that everyone now has a public voice. And even if you don’t want to express your own voice, you have access to a multitude of other voices. It’s unrestrained and barely regulated, democracy in all its messy glory. The medium has created its own eco-system. There’s a culture, which can be bright and inclusive, but is often dark.

Here’s a question for you? Did trolls exist before the internet? What did people like that – bitter, nasty, abusive – do before they got a platform to express it through? Or did they not exist? Has the internet age created them?

Twitter is the most divisive of the social media applications. The need for pithy expression has simplified issues. That simplification skips the grey areas because the medium does not allow it, and filters most users into political/social factions – most frequently according to the left/right split. In 140 characters or less members post an opinion, proselytise, or just abuse. Opinions are retweeted and morph into movements and memes, often losing something in the passage just as a Chinese whisper does.

I’m a man of strong opinion, and occasionally I’ll express it. I’ll retweet the views and articles I support or have sympathy for. This is one of the positives of Twitter, that can also be a negative. The mass of support for a cause, worthy or not, shapes public and political opinion in a way not possible before. The medium has given the common man a voice in a way that was never possible before. They’re only opinions though.

In the political divide I come down on the left, but softly. I make up my mind on individual causes and issues, independent of my politics. I know well enough that neither side has a monopoly on truth, and I’m far from being didactic about anything much. I think of myself as an independent voice.

When Abbott was in power it was easy being one of the millions opposed to him. He was pretty bad. But then Turnbull became prime minister and, for me anyway, it got lot greyer. It was quite an education. Many I’d been shoulder to shoulder with opposing Abbott now turned their focus onto Turnbull in much the same way. It didn’t matter that Turnbull was a much more moderate and reasoned man. In fact for many that seemed evidence of his slippery nature. They attacked him as they did Abbott.

I couldn’t be a party to that. I’m not a rusted on, one eyed supporter of one side or the other, and could never be. For me Turnbull started square with the book, and a long way ahead of Abbott. I’d support or oppose him according to his actions – in other words, on his merits as I saw them.

These are divisive times. It seems the same all around the world. The split between one side and the other has never been so wide, nor so bitter. Look at the States, where it’s become diabolical and ugly. That’s the way the world is. It’s disheartening, and just plain dumb.

The same question then: has it always been thus? Was it just hidden before social media made it plain? Or is it new?

I’ve read somewhere how attention spans have reduced markedly in the last 20 years, allegedly because of social media. I’d guess that has affected our ability to think things through properly, and encourages an inclination to flock to an established position.

It’s one of my major beefs in the world today that people don’t think as they used to. They receive their opinions from tabloid newspapers and memes on Facebook. For whatever reason most never bother to think beyond that. Most importantly, they don’t think for themselves.

For someone who thinks a lot, who enjoys thinking (and feels defined by it in some ways) this is extremely depressing. If I could gift anyone a life affirming skill it would be the gift of independent thought.

Social media media doesn’t encourage deep consideration; it’s about pithy reaction. The constraints of the medium have become constraints in the world. When everything is fast there’s no slow.
When the limit is 140 characters your thoughts stop there – but real intelligence is nuanced and considered, and goes beyond 140 characters.

Would someone like Donald Trump have become so (bizarrely) popular in a more reasoned age? His whole campaign aligns with the ethos of the day: he’s brazen, extreme, controversial and catchy. He throws out lines people remember easily and they catch on. He’s eminently tweetable, never mind he’s the nearest thing to a fascist in western politics today. He wins on sensation. It’s the sizzle, not the sausage.

The other day on Twitter one of the less popular Liberal senators posted a quote, incorrectly attributing it to Voltaire. Cory Bernardi is a controversial character I find hard to take seriously. He’s deeply conservative, and generally has the suspicions and prejudices the deeply conservative do. I suspect he’s more sound than fury, so while I disagree on pretty well everything I just think he’s misinformed, not evil.

The quote he posted happened to be from an American neo-Nazi, which is where all the predictable trouble started. Naturally Bernardi himself was denounced as a Nazi sympathiser himself by many, and it was on for young and old. If you have a sense of humour – fanatics rarely do – it’s a bit funny, and there were a number who took it as an opportunity for humour (which is the best part of Twitter). But it’s also a bit depressing, but not in the way those who leapt on it would claim.

I have no truck with neo-Nazis either, but the quote itself is reasonable and probably quite accurate. (I’m guessing originally it was an expression of paranoia – something else the deeply conservative are prey to):

“To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.”

Bernardi said Voltaire, it was actually Kevin Strom who said it. Bernardi’s point was clear in quoting it, his problem was quoting the sort of person you don’t want to be seen quoting. People ignored what was being said, and focused on who said it instead.

When this erupted it was funny for a while, except when people – so many of them – began to take it seriously.

There are a lot of sensible people out there who will see this for what it is – not evidence of a neo-Nazi lurking in our polity, but rather a silly storm in a teacup.

That’s the way of the world it seems, and how it’s changed since I was young. Hyperbole, stupidity, tribalism, unthinking reaction, and extremes.

I saw Bernardi quoted on Twitter last night about how he was enjoying watching The Sound of Music – but how likely that was to be misconstrued as supporting the Nazi’s. Thankfully it was very much tongue in cheek.

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