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Its now chic to bash the Internet, raising the ghost of Marshall McLuhan

by Mark P. McDonald  |  June 16, 2010  |  1 Comment

It was inevitable, the backlash.  Every revolution has a counter-revolution.  Even the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution, if you watch Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network you know what I mean – Dance Dance Counter Revolution.

The summer of 2010 is shaping up to be the summer of ‘the web is melting my brain’ and that argument will be carried out in books such as Nicholas Carr’s latest “The Shallows” which came out a few weeks ago and got a big splash in the major media outlets.  My review of Carrs book is here.  Other authors are making similar claims, although not with the volume and marketing style of Mr. Carr. He has set up another around of debates, this time pairing with Clay Shirkey of social media fame.

The basic premise is this that either the volume of connected communications or their nature is destroying our ability to think deeply, form deep relationships, etc.  Each author points to one or more personal situations, and friends who perceive that their brain and the way they think has changed and not for the better.

Each of these authors has invoked the words of Marshal McLuhan to prove their points.  “The media is the message” is the catch phase they use most often, explaining that the nature of the media shapes the message, society and the way we think and interact.

Every technology has change society from the invention of speech, to writing, to books, telegraph, telephone, cell phone, etc.  This is nothing new.  And every new technology raises issues of the undesirable aspects of these technologies.  That was part of McLuhan’s writings and he and other authors are right to point out the societal impact of the Internet and social media.

Dragging out and dusting off the ghost of McLuhan is a convienant way to doing this.  After all McLuhan was cited frequently at the start of the Internet era to show technology will change everything.  He is coming full circle.

However, as I read these books, a few things strike me.

  • The general complaint is that the volume of communications reduces the value of communication, thought and the quality of life.  The view is that people are powerless to control what they pay attention to, as we are all Pavlovian dogs waiting for the “new message” tone.  That is not a function of the technology, but rather people’s ability to manage themselves and focus.
  • This seems to be due in part to the age of the Internet, which is now 20 years old.  It has been around long enough so we can see some of the longer-term effects.  Its natural that time has taken the bloom of the benefits and raised the volume on the costs and shortcomings.
  • This also seems to be due to the age of the authors as the complaints they raise may have something to do with the other changes that go on in the brain as people reach middle age.  I hate to say it, but most of these authors are in the middle age of their lives and while they are a few years older than me, I am noticing changes in my brain that are more due to age.  Perhaps these changes are highlighted by the pace of work created by being connected, but connected in and of itself is not the only cause.  It does suck getting old.

Why am I mentioning this?

This is an issue that may come up in your conversations with others and plans, as the points are tailor made to have ‘great debates’.  The same debate was about video games, violence on TV, etc.

As CIOs and technology leaders you need to be aware of these arguments as while they are interesting, they also set the tone of executive views about technology.  They become convenient reasons why performance falters, or things take longer – it’s the Internet and its impact on my brain – not me.

Will this create a series of luddites?  No, but these and other authors are grabbing attention by refocusing on an issue that we all face or will face – the passage of time and increasing demands on that time.

Category: economy  personal-observation  technology  

Tags: personal-observation  public-policy  society  strategy  technology  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

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