Minerva’s Owl

Introduction: This post is worth reblogging after 10 years, what Doug Ahlers writes  is still true; tho’ a lot of time has passed by and little effective work has been achieved. Discuss



The message of the new media
Harrold Innes said that the nature of any society and the form of its government were shaped by the characteristics of its media. Innes’ student, Marshall McLuhan went on to express this idea as, “The medium is the message.” Innes, made a scholarly historical analysis where he showed for example that societies based on aural media were limited in size and in their ability to spread over wide distances. In a society where everything depended on what could be remembered and what could be passed down from generation to generation, these societies were limited in their ability to have complex legal and commerce systems. It was not until the invention of papyrus and a written alphabet (the medium of text) that large societies, such as the Roman empire could, cover wide geographic distance and have a uniform and standardized system of politics, laws, and commerce.

Innes said that all media could be measured by their characteristics to be used over space and time.

The online-interactive medium is a new medium with new characteristics of conquering space and time. It makes distance irrelevant – linking people in disparate parts of the world as if they were right next door. It also bridges time as no other medium has done before. The largest single store of human knowledge is being created—beyond the size and scope of any library ever conceived.

Never before has a medium had such reach in both space and time. Text/print media have a moderate reach in space and a high duration in time. And radio/TV media have a high reach in space but a short duration in time. But the new online-interactive media has both a high reach in space and a high duration in time.

But there are two other factors that come into play when evaluating the impact of a medium on shaping societies and governments. The factors of access and control.

The new online-interactive media is unprecedented in its access. It is a medium built on an open-network concept where anyone is free to connect to the network to create, transmit and receive, anyone is free to create content and put it onto the network without restriction. And whatever minimal restrictions are imposed, are easily worked around by simply locating a server in a country that does not impose restrictions. Never before has there been a medium so open and free for people of the world to express their ideas and to access the ideas of others.

This factor combined with the medium’s ability to obliterate the barriers of distance, gives this new medium its real impact for changing society and political institutions.

Suddenly isolated voices can come together to gain strength and reinforcement. In the past, geography kept these voices isolated. But the real impact of this new medium is in its ability to create new communities. These are communities of interest rather than communities of physical proximity.

For example, an individual living in a small town in the United States might have certain leanings, and beliefs. But isolated, as a lone wolf, they have little opportunity to develop these ideas further. They are a lone wolf. They are not part of a community that supports and nurtures these ideas. Indeed, they are members of a physical community that tends to put pressure on these lone wolves to conform to the norms of community.

But in a wired world, lone wolves can link-up and become members of a community of interest. It does not matter that this community of interest might be spread over hundreds of cities and towns in dozens of countries. One problem with these communities is that they are mechanisms for doctrination. So a lone wolf who might never been exposed to ideas is suddenly welcomed into the community and taught the ropes.

Most notably, the community-building aspect of the new medium creates real threats in the areas of hate groups, terrorist organizations, religious zealots, demagogues, and other radical and extremist groups.

But technology itself is neutral. It can be used for good or for evil and for everything in between.

So the new technology can be used for activists, dissidents for liberty, democracy, human rights, etc., in places like China’s Burma, it allows disparate voices to come together to meet-up and to organize—to encourage and support—and to give voice.

But the mediums ability to cross all borders also allows these communities to become truly global. For example, it allows international human rights activists to actively communicate with, educate, train, and organize activists and dissidents within a country.

By nature, these online communities are grass roots in nature. They are true communities—formed from the bottom-up.

But Howard Dean’s early rise in his campaign for presidency is a glimpse how enterprising politicians or even demagogues can step-in to co-opt and manipulate these virtual communities. The Kennedy-Nixon television debates gave us a first glimpse at the power of the medium of television in politics. The Dean campaign has given us a glimpse of the power of the Internet. Imagine the power should it ever really be harnessed and manipulated.

One certain future impact will be the use of this medium from the top down—where savvy and inspirational leaders step-in to lead these bottom-up formed communities of interest. These leaders might be for good—the next Martin Luther King’s or they might be the next Bin Ladens or Hitlers.


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The message of the new media

October 2005
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