Medium is the message

From Stolen Focus by Johann Hari:

"In the 1960s, the Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan talked a lot about how the arrival of television was transforming the way we see the world. He said these changes were so deep and so profound that it was hard to really see them. When he tried to distill this down into a phrase, he explained that “the medium is the message.” What he meant, I think, was that when a new technology comes along, you think of it as like a pipe – somebody pours in information at one end, and you receive it unfiltered at the other. But it’s not like that. Every time a new medium comes along—whether it’s the invention of the printed book, or TV, or Twitter—and you start to use it, it’s like you are putting on a new kind of goggles, with their own special colors and lenses. Each set of goggles you put on makes you see things differently.

So (for example) when you start to watch television, before you absorb the message of any particular TV show — whether it’s Wheel of Fortune or The Wire — you start to see the world as being shaped like television itself. That’s why McLuhan said that every time a new medium comes along — a new way for humans to communicate — it has buried in it a message. It is gently guiding us to see the world according to a new set of codes. The way information gets to you, McLuhan argued, is more important than the information itself. TV teaches you that the world is fast; that it’s about surfaces and appearances; that everything in the world is happening all at once.

This made me wonder what the message is that we absorb from social media, and how it compares to the message that we absorb from printed books. I thought first of Twitter. When you log in to that site — it doesn’t matter whether you are Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or Bubba the Love Sponge — you are absorbing a message through that medium and sending it out to your followers. What is that message? First: you shouldn’t focus on any one thing for long. The world can and should be understood in short, simple statements of 280 characters. Second: the world should be interpreted and confidently understood very quickly. Third: what matters most is whether people immediately agree with and applaud your short, simple, speedy statements. A successful statement is one that lots of people immediately applaud; an unsuccessful statement is one that people immediately ignore or condemn. When you tweet, before you say anything else, you are saying that at some level you agree with these three premises. You are putting on those goggles and seeing the world through them.

How about Facebook? What’s the message in that medium? It seems to be first: your life exists to be displayed to other people, and you should be aiming every day to show your friends edited highlights of your life. Second: what matters is whether people immediately like these edited and carefully selected highlights that you spend your life crafting. Third: somebody is your “friend” if you regularly look at their edited highlight reels, and they look at yours — this is what friendship means.

How about Instagram? First: what matters is how you look on the outside. Second: what matters is how you look on the outside. Third: what matters is how you look on the outside. Fourth: what matters is whether people like how you look on the outside. (I don’t mean this glibly or sarcastically; that really is the message the site offers.)

I realized one of the key reasons why social media makes me feel so out of joint with the world, and with myself. I think all of these ideas — the messages implicit in these mediums — are wrong. Let’s think about Twitter. In fact, the world is complex. To reflect that honestly, you usually need to focus on one thing for a significant amount of time, and you need space to speak at length. Very few things worth saying can be explained in 280 characters. If your response to an idea is immediate, unless you have built up years of expertise on the broader topic, it’s most likely going to be shallow and uninteresting. Whether people immediately agree with you is no marker of whether what you are saying is true or right — you have to think for yourself. Reality can only be understood sensibly by adopting the opposite messages to Twitter. The world is complex and requires steady focus to be understood; it needs to be thought about and comprehended slowly; and most important truths will be unpopular when they are first articulated. I realized that the times in my own life when I’ve been most successful on Twitter — in terms of followers and retweets — are the times when I have been least useful as a human being: when I’ve been attention - deprived, simplistic, vituperative. Of course there are occasional nuggets of insight on the site — but if this becomes your dominant mode of absorbing information, I believe the quality of your thinking will rapidly degrade.

The same goes for Instagram. I like looking at pretty people, like everyone else. But to think that life is primarily about these surfaces — getting approval for your six-pack or how you look in a bikini — is a recipe for unhappiness. And the same goes for a lot of how we interact on Facebook too. It’s not friendship to pore jealously over another person’s photos and boasts and complaints, and to expect them to do the same for you. In fact, that’s pretty much the opposite of friendship. Being friends is about looking into each other’s eyes, doing things together in the world, an endless exchange of gut laughs and bear hugs, joy and grief and dancing. These are all the things Facebook will often drain from you by dominating your time with hollow parodies of friendship.

After thinking all this, I would return to the printed books I was piling up against the wall of my beach house. What, I wondered, is the message buried in the medium of the printed book? Before the words convey their specific meaning, the medium of the book tells us several things. Firstly, life is complex, and if you want to understand it, you have to set aside a fair bit of time to think deeply about it. You need to slow down. Secondly, there is a value in leaving behind your other concerns and narrowing down your attention to one thing, sentence after sentence, page after page. Thirdly, it is worth thinking deeply about how other people live and how their minds work. They have complex inner lives just like you.

I realized that I agree with the messages in the medium of the book. I think they are true. I think they encourage the best parts of human nature — that a life with lots of episodes of deep focus is a good life. It is why reading books nourishes me. And I don’t agree with the messages in the medium of social media. I think they primarily feed the uglier and shallower parts of my nature. It is why spending time on these sites — even when, by the rules of the game, I am doing well, gaining likes and followers — leaves me feeling drained and unhappy. I like the person I become when I read a lot of books. I dislike the person I become when I spend a lot of time on social media."

I highly recommend reading this book. I've only read (listened) about one third of it but it's been awesome so far. It ponders things deeper than "social media bad" or "TikTok fucks attention span"