What does the Internet make of us?

Nearly all the people in this photo are using a mobile phone. These people are not the same as they were before those devices extended their minds and bodies in the digital world no less than they do in this subway car.

“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” wrote Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham and a colleague of Marshall McLuhan, whose magnum opus was Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man.

So: who — or what — are we, now that we are extended by, say, our phones?

Explained McLuhan, “All media are extensions of some human faculty — psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot.The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric curcuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change.”

In The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects, he goes farther: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive… that they leave no part of us untouched unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

And he wasn’t just talking about communications media. He was talking about every thing we make, which then make us. As Eric McLuhan (Marshall’s son and collaborator) explains in Laws of Media: The New Science, “media” is “everything man[kind] makes and does, every procedure, every style, every artefact, every poem, song, painting, gimmick, gadget, theory — every product of human effort.”

Chief among the laws Marshall and Eric minted is the tetrad of media effects. (A tetrad is a group of four.) It says every medium, every technology, has effects that refract in four dimensions that also affect each other. Here’s a graphic representation of them:

The McLuhans apply these laws heuristically, through questions:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

Questions are required because there can be many effects, and many answers. All can change. All can be argued. But there are effects in all cases, and they do work us over.

Take what happened to blogging, for example.

When blogging was still new, back in the early ’00s, my blog of the time (now archived at weblog.searls.com) had about 20,000 subscribers to its RSS feed and daily readership was often a multiple of that. Those numbers were already dropping when I switched to my current blog in 2007, and have continued to drop ever since. Today my blog gets dozens of readers per day, mostly from visitors following a search for a topic I’ve written about in the past. My writing there has also fallen off. Where I used to write several posts per day, now I write several posts per month. What happened?

In two words, social media. Most of the writers in my old blogroll (top link in the paragraph above) are still active, but not on blogs of their own. They’ve moved over to “social” accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere. I write in those places too, because that’s where the readers are.*

[*Though, compared to what my old blog had, not many. According to Medium’s stats for this post, as of 31 December 2019—about 3 months after this piece was posted— it had 656 views, 154 reads, a read ratio of 23% and 17 fans. Among thouse views, 194 arrived here by email, IM, and direct; 102 from Twitter (where I have 24,800 “followers”); 49 from Google; 15 from feedly; 6 from the RCCGNA Seminary; 6 from smartnews.com; 3 from full text RSS readers and 2 from Facebook, where I posted a pointer to it for my 1157 “friends.” ]

So let’s look at social media through the McLuhan tetrad, and ask the four questions listed above. Here are four answers:

In the ENHANCED corner, social media surely make everyone more social, in the purely convivial sense of the word. Suddenly we have hundreds or thousands of “friends” (Facebook, Swarm), “followers” (Twitter, Instagram) and “contacts” (Linkedin). Never mind that we know few of their birthdays, parents’ names or other stuff we used to care about. We’re social with them in ways we weren’t before.

Blogging clearly got OBSOLESCED, but —here’s the kicker — so did the rest of journalism. And I say this as a journalist who has long made a living at the profession and now, like too many others who did the same, am out of the business. Linux Journal, which I served as editor-in-chief, was shut down last month after a run of 26 years, the last 24 of which I was on the masthead.

Linux Journal punched far above its weight in the technology world, for example helping make open source a thing. At the end we were in the middle of the fight for personal privacy online, which we fought by accepting only the old-fashioned kind of advertising that sponsors media and isn’t aimed at spied-on eyeballs, which is now pro forma in the online publishing business, even though laws such as the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California essentially make the practice illegal. (But, absent enforcement, both laws are more gesture than handcuffs.)

In the online publishing world today, journalism has largely been supplanted by “content production,” because that’s what social media and its publishing co-dependents get paid by advertising robots to produce in the world. What’s more, anybody can now participate. Look at that subway photo above. Any one of those people, or all of them, are journalists now. They aren’t professionals, but they are reporters in the literal sense; and what they publish, mostly on social media, is a huge percentage of today’s news flow.

We’ve RETRIEVED gossip. Hell, what’s more social than that? In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari says gossip was essential for our survival as hunter-gatherers: “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” And now we can do that with anybody and everybody, across the vast yet spaceless nowhere we call the Internet. Who needs the old formalisms of journalism, education and law? (What used to be must with each of those is now should at most.)

Social media has also REVERSED us into tribalism. Algorithms designed to drive up engagement amplifies both homophily (the tendency of like to group with like) and argument (because that’s especially engaging). So it wants us all to be both friends and trolls.

All the “news” we produce and consume amounts to self-reinforcing of group opinions and prejudices, both within our echo chambers and outward toward others with opposing opinions and prejudices. Mocking and dismissing other groups becomes a stock in social trade.

For a view of how social media has algorithm’d us into opposed camps, check out The Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed / Blue Feed site, which showed (alas, it ceased updating in August) the completely opposed (and hostile) views of the world that Facebook’s polarizing algorithms inject into the news feeds of typical folk on the left and the right. Here’s a sample from 2017:

In this algorithmically divided media environment, it’s a helluva lot easier for a politician to lead one’s conversational base—and play on all its prejudices, chief of which otherizes opposing bases, (which are easy to characterize and mock, because they are other’d and dismissed)—than it is to take the high road and at least try to talk across the divide.

Now let’s look at the mobile phones we all carry everywhere.

Not surprisingly, the McLuhans were hip to the implications of mobile phones almost three decades ago. Dig this from Gregory Sandstrom‘s “Laws of media — The four effects: A Mcluhan contribution to social epistemology” (SERCC, November 11, 2012):

The REVERSES items might be off-base, the but others are right on. (Dig cameras and tribal culture under RETRIEVES quadrant.)

For what it’s worth, here’s my mobile phone tetrad, applied to the photo at the top of this essay:

ENHANCES conversaiton—via voice, text, email and chat—in subway cars where in many past decades they stood or sat in bored silence.

RETRIEVES agency, the power to act with full effect in the world. These people are doing more than they’ve ever done before in this place where there used to be nothing to do but wait.

OBSOLESCES mass media, which were our cultural center, a place or a way where we could at least share the same consumption experience and agree on facts and trusted sources of wisdom about the world, is less gone than subordinated to every other voice we might be interested in—including ones that drive us into tribes and reinforce prejudices old and new.

REVERSES into isolation, as our earbuds and fully media-immersed attention block out possibilities for interacting with society in the physical world.

All of those are off the top of my head. Again, the McLuhans saw the tetrad as a heuristic, asking only questions and leaving open countless answers.

What matters here is that the tetrad helps us see below the “Jeebus, everybody’s on a smartphone now” level of observation and interpretation. Media—technology—changes us by extending us. How it changes us is not always obvious. Laws of Media again: “The motor car retrieved the countryside, scrapped the inner core of the city, and created suburban megalopolis. Invention is the mother of necessities, old and new.”

Beyond clothing, shelter and tools made of sticks and stones, all the artifacts that fill civilized life are ones most of us didn’t know we needed until some maker in our midst invented them.

And some tools — extensions of our bodies — don’t become necessities until somebody invents a new way to use them. Palm, Nokia and Blackberry all made smartphones a decade before iPhones and Androids showed up. But none of them mothered invention for everyone. iPhones and Androids did that with something those earlier phones lacked: apps.

Apps retrieved the original ground laid down by programs (aka applications) on computers, obsolesced old-fashioned telephony, enhanced damn near everything you do with a connected rectangle, and reversed into capture in the walled gardens of Apple and Google, plus those of the phone and cable companies that are our gateways to the Internet. (In 2012, Cory Doctorow wrote a prophetic piece in BoingBoing titled Lockdown: The coming war on general-purpose computing. We are losing that war today. Linux Journal is just one casualty.)

Still, all the things I’ve talked about so far—blogs, social media, mobile phones, apps—are effects the McLuhans want us to look behind for deeper causes. This is hard, they note, because effects are figures, and causes are grounds, which are the contexts from which figures arise. In Media and Formal Cause, Marshall and Eric McLuhan write, “Novelty becomes cliché through use. And constant use creates a new hidden environment while simultaneously pushing the old invisible ground into prominence, as a new figure, clearly visible for the first time. Every innovation scraps its immediate predecessor and retrieves still older figures; it causes floods of antiquities or nostalgic art forms and stimulates the search for ‘museum pieces’.”

We see this illustrated by Isabelle Adams in her paper “What Would McLuhan Say about the Smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the Smartphone” (Glocality, 2106). Note the division here between figure and ground in the tetrad:

And note how most of where we engage is on the left, in the world of figures. Not on the ground out of which figures arise. Consider this, from the opening paragraph of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet:

You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

Mr. Sammler’s lament was for the world of figures, standing above the the soul’s ground, with its natural knowledge.

This is hard to get one’s head around, because effects are figures, and causes are grounds: the contexts from which figures arise. For background on this, the McLuhans source Aristotle’s four causes:

  1. Material — what something is made of.
  2. Efficient — how one thing acts on another, causing change.
  3. Final — the purpose to which a thing is put.
  4. Formal — what makes the thing form a coherent whole.

The first three are the obvious ones. The fourth is the one that matters most and is hardest to see.

“People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside…”

In Media and Formal Cause, Eric also sources Jane Jacobs:

Current theory in many fields — economics, history, anthropology — assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work….Rural production is literally the creation of city consumption. That is to say, city economics invent the things that are to become city imports from the rural world.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, “Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment,” adding:

Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes….The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.

Thus railways were a formal cause that scaled up new kinds of cities, work and leisure.

So, when we look behind blogging, social media, smartphones and apps, do we see one formal cause for all of them?

Well, the most obvious candidate is the Internet, which clearly makes everything we’re talking about possible.

What made the Internet possible, however, is digital technology: binary code + semiconductors, integrated circuits, miniaturization. Or digital, for short.

The Internet is the way digital beings connect with each other and do stuff, over any distance. Some of those beings are machines. Some are human. Some are both.

We are both. And this is radically new to human experience.

The formal cause of the Internet is a protocol that gives digital entities a way to get along over any connection or collection of connections between them: TCP/IP. In a computing network, a protocol is just an agreement. As protocols go, TCP/IP is about as simple as they come, which is why it came into use, and why it works so damn well.

But the Internet, at its protocol level, is not a medium in the sense that it comes between things. Wires and waves do that. Those are not the Internet.

Instead, the Internet is us and our things—here, in this place without substance or gravity that’s a way and how but not a what.

So let’s pause to look at prepositions and how they work. There aren’t many of them (only a few dozen), and nearly all of them describe relative positions we understand as embodied animals in the physical world: above, below, around, beside, on, within, without, underneath, amidst, near, through, over.

None of those apply to the Internet, except to the degree that we understand the Internet as a what rather than a way and a how. So, we say we go “on” the Internet, because we have to conceive of the Internet as, well, something. (Again, we are physical beings, and our metaphors arise from that.) So we borrow the concept of place, or real estate, when we talk about “sites” and “locations” with “domains” and “addresses” that we “browse” or “visit.” But in reality we are just requesting a file from another device that happens to have what we call a “location.” We do that using both TCP/IP and the hypertext protocol HTTP (or HTTPS). And we carry on as if the Internet is a place resembling the physical world. What matters more, however is that it’s not like anything. As with the universe, there is only one of it. There are no other examples of it.

My wife likens the experience of being “on” the Internet to one of weightlessness. We have no weight there because the Internet is not a thing, has no gravity, and is by design not even a there.† (Gertrude Stein’s most famous quote, “There’s no there there” applies more to the Internet than to any other milieu of her time or ours.)

In adjusting to this weightless condition, our species has around two decades of experience so far, and only about one decade of doing it on smartphones, most of which we will have replaced two years from now.

But meanwhile we are not the same. We are digital beings now, and we are being made by digital technology and the Internet: no less human, but a lot more connected to each other—and to things that not only augment and expand our capacities in the world, but replace and undermine them as well, in ways we are only beginning to learn.

So here’s a good†† question: how do we research that?


†A friend with a small business near my house in Santa Barbara recently wanted my help in finding where their website’s server actually was. So I did a couple of traceroutes, which show the paths data takes between any two end points on the Internet. The first showed a path that started in Santa Barbara, then went to Atlanta, Miami and Tokyo before arriving at the site’s server in Virginia. The next connected Santa Barbara and Virginia by way of Atlanta, Seattle and Dublin. Subsequent sessions were just as wild. Yet the site itself was noplace at all. It was simply there.

††Ever notice that people say “That’s a good question” when they don’t yet have an answer?


An ancestor of this post is here.

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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