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DANIEL VAUGHAN: Our culture of mob rule is destroying original thought
In the mid-20th century, technologists, ethicists, and futurists were trying to wrap their minds around the rapid pace of technological revolution, and especially the new invention of mass media. Over the span of just a few decades, new entertainment platforms like radio and television became undeniably mainstream, opening the door to loads of fresh, original content for the world to consume — and everyone was talking about what that might mean.
One of the people at the forefront of that discussion was Canadian professor and public intellectual Marshall McLuhan. But according to McLuhan, it wasn’t the content that was key to understanding the cultural upheaval, but the tools of conveying the messages — things like radio and television.
“We become what we behold,” he said. “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” To McLuhan, the tools and technology humans create are the real influencers in our society, not the ideas emanating from them. “The medium is the message,” he said.
Nowadays, that medium is the smartphone. It combines all the prior significant technological advances into one device, making each man and woman a broadcaster and a receiver. But more importantly, it does something no other technology did before it: it connects the world, creating a sort of global community — or “global village,” as McLuhan would say — that could never have existed previously.
Of course, mass media alone hasn’t created the impetus behind McLuhan’s infamous “global village.” But social media and the smartphone have resulted in a world lurching toward a cohesive whole — a homogenized global civilization in which everyone shares the same bright lines, friends, and enemies. One where people of all nationalities act uniformly.
Over the last decade or so, it’s been easy to see that in action. In 2011, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations across multiple Muslim countries called the Arab Spring erupted across the Middle East. People organized and planned the mass demonstrations using new apps for smartphones, dodging government censors and firewalls in the process.
Meanwhile, the rise of nationalism in the West — which led to the elections of Donald Trump, the successful leave campaign in Brexit, and other nationalist parties in Europe — was successful in part because of the democratizing impact of new technology and social media. The institutions that McLuhan and his cohorts argued over collapsed amid attempts to curtail rising populism on the left and right.
But it’s not just political movements that are being boosted by today’s connectivity — the ways we relate to each other as communities are shifting too.
The Pew Research Center reported that between 2004 and 2014, Americans’ ideologies shifted both hard to the left and hard to the right, making for political polarization and divide unlike anything researchers had seen in the decades prior. Pew went on to note that the respondents used this new polarization to self-distribute themselves into tight communities where everyone is alike, reporting:
…The differences between right and left go beyond disagreements over politics, friends and neighbors. If they could choose anywhere to live, three-quarters of consistent conservatives prefer a community where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.” The preferences of consistent liberals are almost the exact inverse, with 77 [percent] saying they’d chose to live where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.”
As McLuhan said, we’re being shaped by our tools.
When McLuhan and his contemporaries, like George Orwell, wrote about mass media, the inherent assumption behind their claims was that control of mass media led to control of the people. But it’s not the government molding us, as Orwell feared — rather, it’s the democratizing forces of technology. And it’s not an explosion of ideas or mixing of cultures, but a global homogenization and hardening of polarized lines.
It’s trendy in intellectual circles right now to describe all of this in tribal terms — according to many academics, everyone has a tribe and is self-selecting toward that tribe. But this slightly misses the point; it’s not just a tribal phenomenon, but homogenizing of culture.
The smartphone-and-social-media age we live in has done two things: First, it’s stripped the power of all institutions. One of the leading indicators of trust in institutions, the Edelman Trust Barometer used by the business world, shows historical lows of trust in nearly all key industries.
Second: This age has put social media influencers in place of these institutions. As Sandi Kempel observed in an article about Facebook’s issues with trust: “In place of institutions, people have placed their trust in other people.”
But when thinkers like Kempel say people are replacing institutions, they’re insinuating that we’re dealing with various forms of mob rule with individual leaders.
Mob rule doesn’t just describe a democracy gone wrong. It perfectly describes a world where social media influencers try to outdo each other on the political and cultural divides.
The Greek historian and philosopher Polybius called the process of governments devolving from the one to the few to the many as anacyclosis. We’ve experienced the same in our institutions and culture. What was once controlled by kings or popes turned into control by communities and businesses.
But as that hierarchy has collapsed, we’re left with a democratized society that’s leading to neither diversity nor variety in our ideas or attitudes.
Mob rule, in the smartphone age, is puritanical, and wants only whatever the mob declares. The medium is the message, McLuhan said, and the medium of our age is one of the social media tyrants pushing a homogenized and polarized culture.
The Greeks noted that dictatorial tyrants always rose in the ashes of mob rule. We’re still learning where our decisions lead.
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