We Can Change the Media

IMG_8021We can’t begin to fix our world’s most urgent problems using the media that facilitated them. Emerging, sui generis media are necessary to confront the existential threat of the climate crisis and the increasing tribalization of society. It’s entirely within our power to deliberately engineer a media ecology that will promote human virtues like kindness, compassion, and community, at precisely the moment our planet needs these virtues most.

As the media evolves, it alters brains and societies which subsequently invent new mediums, which alter brains and societies. It’s easy to forget that the media we consume is undergoing a constant transformation. We used to gather around the family piano for music. Now we check our phones every three minutes. Just as people no longer buy sheet music, one day we will no longer be so obsessively glued to our pocket computers. The media will change, and we’ll change along with it.

Decades from now, it will be said that in the early years of the twenty-first century, mass adoption of portable computing and communications devices coupled with the spread of social network technologies, Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AIML), cloud computing, virtual and augmented reality, and the blockchain created conditions that rewired the human brain and subsequently changed society.

What’s striking, in 2019, is the overriding sense that we’re stuck with the conditions of our media ecology, manifest through apps on our smart phones and other devices. We’re not. These conditions are historically anomalous. For the most part, we uncritically accept the properties of our current media ecology, even though key elements of this interconnected system of hardware, platforms, and apps barely existed a decade ago.

Twitter, Fox News, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix pull us into an uncertain future while technologies like books, DVDs, and network television provide a sort of umbilical cord back to the twentieth century. We exist in a painful, liminal state in which we seem to have traded intimate and private human connection for instantaneous, global connectivity. The malaise of the early twentieth century lies in the strange sensation that we enjoy advantages undreamed of by people a hundred ago, yet find ourselves partioned from one another, incubating in either of two increasingly strident ideological echo chambers.

We seem to have come to a cultural consensus that the state of the world is terrible and getting worse. We feel more divided than ever, and attempts to connect with those who perceive the world in radically different terms than our own are futile at best, and at worst acquiescence to the morally repugnant. This isn’t because a fundamental property of being human makes it so. It’s because our platforms create a vortex of self-fullfilling negative prophecy that drag us deeper into hopelessness. Life doesn’t have to be this way. It’s going to stop being this way soon.

To understand how, we can first consider how the field of media ecology has proceeded through two phases and is about to enter a third: awareness, exploitation, and deliberate mindfulness.

First came the awareness that the methods by which we receive content influence us more profoundly than the content itself. We woke up to the fact that watching a lot of television changed how human beings conceived of reality in some fundamental ways. The media ecologists who continued pursuing the questions that theorist Marshall McLuhan initially raised, including Neil Postman and Sven Birkerts, spent much of the eighties and nineties critiquing television. Their engagement with media ecology took the form of elegies for print and the observation that we were “amusing ourselves to death.” Some of these mildly subversive critiques crept into popular entertainment, in such works as Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the TV series Max Headroom, John Carpenter’s They Live, and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.

Then the Web appeared. In the late nineties and early decades of the twenty-first century, our academic understanding of media ecology got absorbed into the business strategies of disruptive new platforms. Exploiting a new understanding of the neurological consequences of consuming various forms of media, these companies, some of which Jaron Lanier has come to call behavior modification empires, used what they understood about manipulating the brain’s pleasure centers to improve their shareholder value. These efforts were enough to sound alarms throughout Silicon Valley’s leadership class, prompting some to limit their own childrens’ access to the very devices and platforms they had invented and to issue public warnings and mea culpas. The government, meanwhile, has struggled to regulate platforms that they largely misunderstand, and which have proved to be major players in the drama that is the dismantling of democratic norms.

Any time that I feel unsatsified or disappointed with whatever is going on in my own life, I ask: so how is it I want things to be? I’m also tempted to ask this question to various friends or acquaintances who seem trapped in negative world views. At some point, it can be useful to ask such a person: how is it you wish to feel?

We can pose a similar question whenever we confront the tornado of knives that is Fox News, Twitter, and the rest. In 2019, the media itself is making us feel pretty miserable. So what would a medium that uplifts, empowers, and helps us truly connect with one another look like? What parts of the brain would it stimulate? How can we engineer user interfaces to encourage a bias for belonging? How can media—not the messages delivered by media, but the structural properties of media itself–prepare Generation Z to confront the growing threats of our own making to the existence of life on earth?

These are the sorts of questions I intend to take up on this blog. I have some kernels of ideas about how to engage emergent technology to honor humanity’s more noble and loving tendencies, and I’m curious to see where they lead. My goal is to use this blog as a petri dish for these ideas, and hopefully inspire a conversation among others, like me, who know that more humane methods of communication are yet to be invented if only we can imagine them.