Same shit, different medium

The internet changes nothing, argues Marshall Poe, whose ambitious new book, A History of Communications, has just been published:

We knew the revolution wouldn’t be televised, but many of us really hoped it might be on the Internet. Now we know these hopes were false. There was no Internet Revolution and there will be no Internet Revolution. We will stumble on in more or less exactly the way we did before massive computer networks infiltrated our daily lives …

Before the Web we were already used to sitting in front of electronic boxes for hour upon hour. The boxes have now changed, but they are still boxes. Of course the things we do on the Internet are different from those we did (and do) in front of the TV. But it’s important to remember that they are only different; they are not new. Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet. Not what you could do, but what you actually do. You email people you know. In an effort to broaden your horizons, you could send email to strangers in, say, China, but you don’t. You read the news. You could read newspapers from distant lands so as to broaden your horizons, but you usually don’t. You watch videos. There are a lot of high-minded educational videos available, but you probably prefer the ones featuring, say, snoring cats. You buy things. Every store in the world has a website, so you could buy all manner of exotic goods. As a rule, however, you buy the things you have always bought from the people who have always sold them. You play games. There are many kinds of games on the Internet, but those we seem to like best all fall into two categories: the ones where we can kill things and the ones where we can cast spells. You look things up. The Web is like a bottomless well of information. You can find the answer to almost any question if you’re willing to look. But you generally don’t like to look, so you get your answers from Wikipedia. Last, you do things you know you shouldn’t. The Internet is great for indulging bad habits. It offers endless opportunities to steal electronic goods, look at dirty pictures, and lose your money playing poker. Moreover, it’s anonymous. On the Web, you can get what you want and be pretty sure you won’t get caught getting it. That’s terrifically useful.

But what exactly is new here? Not very much. Email is still mail. Online newspapers are still newspapers. YouTube videos are still videos. Virtual stores are still stores. MMORPGs are still variations on D&D. A user-built encyclopedia is still a reference book. Stealing mp3s is still theft. Cyber-porn is still porn. Internet poker is still gambling. In terms of content, the Internet gives us almost nothing that the much maligned “traditional media” did not. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one. Let’s be honest: that’s amazing. But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing—it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.

What you see depends on where you stand, and from one viewpoint – a high one – Poe is absolutely correct. He puts his finger on a tragicomic fundamental of human existence: Whenever we come upon a wild new frontier, we jump up and down and say we’re going to restart history, and then we proceed to do exactly what we always do: build houses, shops, brothels, bars, gaming emporiums, churches. And then more shops. Modern electronic media, from this view, simply allow us to do all the same stuff with less physical effort. Lots of big boxes collapse into one small box, but the contents of the box remains the same.

The problem with a high vantage point is that you can’t see the details, and if you stand there long enough you begin to believe that the details don’t matter. But the details do matter. The texture of our lives is determined not only by what we do but by how we do it. And that’s where media play such an important part: they change the how. Which is what Poe misses. Just as the dishwasher (along with the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, and all manner of other electrified household appliance) altered in profound ways the rhythms and roles of home life during the last century, so the internet changes, in ways small and large, everything it subsumes. The same shit, when routed through a different medium, becomes new shit.

18 thoughts on “Same shit, different medium

  1. Tom Lord

    Poe is wrong for a more important reason. Here (for example):

    “Email is still mail.” Wrong. Email is qualitatively easier for central powers to spy upon. This is not a mere detail Poe misses from his lofty perspective — this is a massive bifurcation of society into a new form of powerful elite and powerless masses.

    “Online newspapers are still newspapers.” Online newspapers resist actually funding reporting. They afford surveillance of news consumption at the individual level. They make it considerably more difficult to be certain history isn’t being rewritten a la “1984” and to be sure everyone is actually seeing the same news. Again, these are not mere details of difference that Poe can’t see from his altitude…. these make on-line news a profoundly different thing.

    Perhaps Poe is trying to say that, to the non-worried consumer, life before and after the Internet is little different. We are born. We celebrate, mourn, thrive, suffer, and die. Nothing has changed, right?

    The Internet can not leave those things untouched. Its changes to the power relations that govern day to day life can’t help but to deeply alter all of those basic human experiences to the point where only a nihilist could ignore the difference.

  2. Marcell Mars

    “Stealing mp3s is still theft.” – the most important *wrong* one.

    internet became the largest public library ever. it will take some time for many to adopt or they will burn the internet. either of results would be revolutionary.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Well, the details matter, but they are still details. I don’t think he’d dispute your point at the relevant level. But it’s not what he’s talking about.

    Concrete example: In punditry, the “power-law” effect means a tiny, tiny oligarchy dominates attention and basically, if you’re not a member, YOU DON’T GET HEARD :-( . As you’ve written, blog-evangelism was a con job denying this. Now, at some level, who gets to be a member of that A-list matters in some way – that’s the whole “bloggers vs. journalists” battle. Some people are losing out, and they’re unhappy, and some are gaining, and they’re happy. Moreover, various factions overall are losing and gaining. But it’s not a refutation of making the point of the oligarchy itself to note that there’s battles and changes within it.

  4. jayden

    Internet is just like toys, sony tv, and any other objects that is compared to a knife. A knife can either be revolutionary or a cause of destruction depending on how a person uses it. For the common good, we have to use the Internet wisely.

  5. Bbetts

    I have to admit at first glance it was an interesting premise, but just as the review states and the comments seem to concur, Poe misses the point.

    Whilst the mediums themselves have simply evolved, the platforms that underpin them have shifted significantly and continue to do so. It is at the tangents to change that things become interesting.

    Take an old British example… In 1980 the Thatcher government passed a bill which allowed people the right to buy their council homes – houses which were essentially rented from the state before. Most people in these houses had been employed in jobs where the wages were too low to afford typical mortgages; they were the people who kept the country going. Builders, plumbers, labourers and so on. So far, so familiar. But what this led to was actually an explosion in the trend for DIY. People with manual skills improving their own home, on their own terms. Which in-turn led to a revolution in DIY retailing, spiralling house prices and the last 10 years of “property improvement” programmes ruining that “box” in the corner of your living room.

    You don’t have to change much to change everything. And if Poe knew all of the consequences of how much these little changes in medium will come to affect the next 30 years, then I rather suspect he wouldn’t be spending so much time writing books – interesting though they are.

  6. dturcqboostzoneblog

    This is an old debate, new vs.old.Revolutionary vs.evolutionary. I tend to agree with Poe’s point up to one, important, degree: the net has changed our lives drastically not because of most of the substance (he is right on most “substance” points) but because of the change of the nature of our access to this “substance” i.e. what I call the Einstein formula E=mc2.

    Indeed the energy (E) found on the web, whatever the substance, is a new beast because the masses (m) have never been so big, millions at a time; the speed (c as in celerity) has never been so fast, everything within a fraction of second; the transparency (c as in clarity), everything so visible to so many that we are deeply troubled (in all senses of that word).

    An information on Twitter is not exactly the same as an information from the grapevine yesterday. It travels so fast to so many and with such a transparency that it might within a few seconds be confirmed or contradicted. This energy applied to the information is new and revolutionary, not the piece of information itself.

  7. Gordirish

    The same sort of argument could be made for the personal computer we all use to access the internet. At a high level, what was the point of creating a desktop metaphor on a PC and then plunking it on top of my desk? What did that change? How is electronic files in electronic file folders really different from paper files in paper file folders?

    At a detail level, there are of course many ways the PC is different from a desk, being networked and able to access the internet being one.

  8. Peter Cripps

    Isn’t the fact that we can have this conversation, here in this way another reason why Poe is wrong, wrong, wrong. All the pre-web things Poe refers to (with the exception of mail) were essentially one-way. We took what others made for us (TV, games, news)and consumed it. Now we can consume and also have the option to produce.

  9. Stewart Dinnage

    An author who peddles the myth that:

    copyright infringement = theft

    is likely to be as poorly informed as the rest of the excerpt (of Poe’s work) appears to be.

  10. Devin Byrka

    “There was no Internet Revolution and there will be no Internet Revolution”? Talk to a tech savvy 13 year-old kid and tell him that. Kids that age are so immersed in the digital age that they can hardly distinguish between the two. Arguments like Poe’s will fail to exist in 30 or 40 years, as ‘the Internet’ and ‘real life’ essentially become the same thing.

    “Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet.”

    Poe paints a pretty dismal picture of what people do on the Internet. In addition to e-mailing people we know, we also read blogs of people we don’t. We post comments on their blogs, and have discussions with them. We sign up for social newspapers like The Huffington Post and engage in conversations with people from all over the world. We connect with future business partners and interact with angel investors from all over the world. Sure, some people watch stupid cat videos. Some people also watch inspirational videos from Discovery or There will always be a divide in intellectualism in humans, as there has been throughout history. The difference is that in the past, a smaller percentage of the masses had access to the intellectual media. In the digital age, the playing field is becoming increasingly levelled. With just a mobile phone and a 3G network, you have access to a multitude of information and the ability to connect to billions.

    What Poe misses is that while email resembles mail, YouTube videos resemble videos, and MMORPG’s resemble D&D, the new versions are strictly dealing with bits, not atoms. And that changes everything. The reach of these new digital media is far greater than their predecessors, as we can connect and interact with people and cultures all over the world, and the means of distribution are far cheaper and more sustainable than the physical goods of the past.

  11. Pitsch

    these observations are nearly idiotic. sure there are similarities between a book, a radio, a television, a mainframe terminal, a pc, an internet pc, a browser, an mobile app. its like saying there are similarities between aristoteles and darwin. yet another book not worth to read. thank you.

  12. John Schoettler

    ‎”Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance…. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified.”-Marshall McLuhan

  13. Refudiate Me

    I think Poe is completely wrong, and I think Carr is substantively wrong by not reacting more strenuously to Poe’s thesis…the same stuff, delivered by the Internet, is no longer the same stuff. In fact, it is so completely NOT the same stuff that Carr does a disservice by ending with a cutesy turn of phrase. It’s too serious to be cutesy about.

    Primarily, the problem is that the delivery system is so much more fine tuned, with explicit permanent logging of sender, content, and receiver, while still GIVING THE APPEARANCE of transient anonymity that it changes everything.

    1. The tracking of the “stuff” allows groups which include governments, marketers, insurance companies and unscrupulous exploiters to wield influence in ways which are almost guaranteed to NOT be in the best interests of the consumer. And it will be largely invisible to the consumer how it is that this influence arose.

    2. The ability of consumers to filter the information coming to them on a very granular level, which *seems* like a good thing, really is a bad thing. Gone is the serendipity which accompanied flipping the page in a newpaper and reading the story you weren’t looking for, by the writer you’ve never heard of, about the subject you didn’t know existed. Disappearing is the general social “mixer” among people you don’t already know who share interests you already have. Facebook creates an info stream with your existing friends that is both richer in depth, but narrower in scope than the “old” way of interacting, I feel. People get even narrower in their points of view, maybe.

    3. The tendency of people to “clump” with those who share their views is made more invisible due to the Internet. By “subscribing” to many, many info sources via the Web, people have the illusion that they are getting a balanced point of view because they get more “stuff”…but it is an illusion, because they tend to deselect points of view (with only a click) that differ from their own. Clumped people have a tendency to be unaccepting and intolerant of people and ideas outside their group, IMO. That is bad.

    4. Nothing goes away on the Internet and events are amplified. Mistakes of youth are never forgiven; incidences are rebroadcast…even with errors, and consequences for momentary public inane, dumb acts can exceed consequences of being convicted of felonies. Woe be unto anyone who does something stupid and whose video of that “goes viral”. Job loss, spouse loss, children estrangement, public derision…..all due to the Internet’s amplification.

    In a nutshell, I think that the explosion of the use of the Internet, and its breakneck usurping of every other media publication and transmission source (Books and bookstores, newspapers and discussions about stories everyone read in their similar newspapers, TV and discussion of TV shows, radio, telephones etc) is creating a much more intellectually segregated, isolated, and punitive world… we are very quickly moving away from living in this big shared bubble we call “society”, and into our own little, custom designed, narrow minded bubbles; to be watched and silently judged and punished from afar by the powers that be. The panopticon has arrived and anyone with enough $$ can step up and use it.

  14. Tom Lord

    Refudiate Me:

    You wrote “In a nutshell, I think that the explosion of the use of the Internet, […] is creating a much more intellectually segregated, isolated, and punitive world…”

    You left out “ephemeral” (e.g., think of George Winston’s day job at the Ministry of Information, revising historical news).

  15. thinkfeeldo

    I’m surprised more people didn’t see information overload and information anxiety as obvious outcomes from mankind’s sudden exposure to such powerful communication technologies and interactive systems.

    It’s all pretty new when we consider just how quickly the world of communications has changed in the past 10 years or, what it was like several decades ago. How many readers remember the ubiquitous ‘Pager’ and how cool and revolutionary we all thought it was?

    As a child, my father didn’t have a telephone or television set until he was well into his 20’s! His grandfather never even knew of their existence. Consider the reaction people must have had when experiencing these fantastical new objects – the ‘speaking boxes’!

    And yet today, practically everyone claims to be an expert!

    Yet how is this possible?

    How can everyone in the world suddenly have an opinion on such a complex and rapidly evolving system? How can people everywhere claim to understand what’s really going on, when for most, it’s just a game – a new kind of toy – and they’re condensing their understanding of these ultra-sophisticated technologies into a very short time-span while at the same time believing that by interacting with it, they somehow ‘get what it is’!

    Personally, I don’t think many people really understand it at all. In fact, many just take it for granted. Somehow it’s become a matter of “I am what I use” (think Mac owners). The device I hold or the medium I operate makes me equal to its capabilities (as described in the manual).

    In some respects, what we are really witnessing is some kind of modern day ‘Tower of Babel’ – an explosion of many (billions) of tongues all trying to speak and to be heard at the same time.

    Is it any wonder people are tuning out and turning off?

    In respect of this mass exodus from the raging babble, here’s a little prediction and I’ve made many which have been accurate: in the not too distant future, one of the most popular videos on YoutubeTV will be a continuous 24hr video recording of the Amazon rainforest (without accompanying and often annoying music).

  16. Steve

    It is sad to observe what passes for academic thought and discourse. A struggle between the doers, the users and the effete critics and reviewers.

    What isn’t being mentioned is that the Internet allows us to overcome space and time. That is, we do not need to visit a library to access a book or go to a store to make a purchase. Likewise, the content is often curated or made more accessible by categorization sorts. We are able to more easily search the contents of books to isolate what we want. We are altering the granularity of access.

    As for theft, much of which passes for copyrighted content is little more than a re-arrangement of ideas, concepts and materials in the public domain, wrapped in an electronic-wrapper which the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) makes it a crime to break — even though the material is in the public domain. Copyright laws have be subverted by the content distributors to extend their monopoly.

    What moron thinks we can restart history — which is simply an irreversable forward arc of time in which constant incremental improvements to large ideas is the cornerstone of progress. And if you read your science fiction, many of those breakthrough concepts were not merely breakthroughs, but concepts waiting for the materials sciences and manufacturing techniques to catch up with reality.

    Truth-be-told, we have a hell of a lot more computer power than can be unlocked by today’s programming, but it all comes down to limiting the user interface to deal with tremendous amounts of data that can’t be absorbed by humans. In essence, human nature requires dumbing down the interactive experience.

  17. Wintermute

    “As for theft, much of which passes for copyrighted content is little more than a re-arrangement of ideas”

    Yeah, those goddamn idea re-arrangers like Shakespeare and Joyce. Bunch of useless hacks, they deserve to starve, along with all writers.

  18. Tdparker

    Poe’s article simply doesn’t ring true for me because for every one of his examples, the way I do them with the internet is profoundly different than I did them before.

    With email I stay in touch with many, many more people much more frequently than I ever did before – by letter and phone. I have news sources – e.g. Sydney Morning Herald, that I would never have even heard of, let alone read regularly before. I watch videos from events e.g. TED, that I may never go to, but now I can still benefit from. And I buy things that are so arcane and obscure, that let me do things I couldn’t otherwise do, that I would never have been able to find prior to the internet – e.g. just bought a VHS>DVD digital converter card for $15 from Hong Kong to digitize and old, favorite video that isn’t available on DVD.

    I could go on. But in short his whole argument is based on a premise I don’t recognize. Therefore a waste of newsprint – or whatever we call it’s digital equivalent.

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