My column in the DNA on January 31st
“The Medium is the Message” declared Marshall McLuhan, a phrase that has become the most misinterpreted phrase in the short history of mass media. What McLuhan talked about was far deeper than mistaking your TV set for a soap. What he meant was, that every so often a technology manifests itself, that is so revolutionary that it disrupts the very way in which society is structured, the way people think and our very concepts of the way the world about us is ordered. He begins by describing the invention of the printing press and the evolution of print as a medium. That invention led to the printing and sharing of ideas, allowed for scientific ideas to be duplicated in an error free manner, allowed religious texts to be available to a larger audience, allowed mass literacy– by enabling the printing and reprinting of books, and allowed ideas of equality, fraternity and freedom to permeate through the world. Each subsequent mass media– film, radio waves, terrestrial broadcasting, satellite broadcasting and now the Internet – has changed the world – not just because they exist as boxes in our house, but the way they allow for the exchange of ideas, the permeation of values and the empowerment of people.
The digital world is exciting not just because technology is exciting, but because of what it allows consumers to do with that technology. Fifteen years ago, before the first dotcom bust, the technophiles were talking about consuming news on a handheld device, ordering milk, getting your pizza delivered, get your heart rate monitored – and many people laughed. Today, we take the apps on our smartphone for granted. The office on the go, is not just a promise for the distant future, but very real. But, the digital revolution is exciting not just about the conveniences that technology offers us. It allows far more than that. The real promise of digital technology is not what advertisers or large corporates want us to consume, rather it is the enabling of peer to peer communication. Where we, as citizens or as consumers, talk to other citizens or consumers on issues that bother us, on things we like, or causes we support– and thereby bypass the entire mode of broadcasting.
The earlier modes of communication were one way– from those who wanted to say something to those who wanted to listen. Those who had something to say were the elite, challenging the views of other elite. Those who wanted to listen, were the commoners– people like us. There was certain etiquette, a certain politeness, a sort of ‘let the status quo remain’ attitude that permeated through the system. Digital has changed that. It is as though all the barricades, all the inequality of access, all the proper way of behaviour that tied us down – has come crumbling down, dissolved by the power of digital. Purists and public intellectuals often argue that the rise of digital has given rise to uniformed opinion, and therefore diluting the nature of debate. That people who don’t have expertise should not be taken seriously. That the new media is not so much democratic but anarchic. A babble of voices blurting out whatever they want, consequences be damned. These arguments are the death knell of a dying system- a stratified, inbred hierarchy that is trying to keep control on the way the world thinks and behaves. We are at the dawn of the digital revolution.
There will be mistakes made. But, those mistakes will be quickly rectified– by the very same crowd that the elite hold in contempt. The advantages are many- sacred cows are no longer considered exempt from questioning or indeed, considered sacred. People’s issues can no longer be buried. Brands can no longer run roughshod on consumers. If that isn’t a promise for a better future – I’m not sure what else is.