Social media and the Arab uprisings: Gladwell 0: McLuhan 1

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Among the peoples of the world strange new vortices of power will appear unexpectedly. —Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

To honour what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday this coming Thursday, I offer these reflections on McLuhan’s thinking as applied to the so-called Arab Spring—really a set of suggestions for further exploration.

The struggle continues across the Maghreb and the Middle East—in Libya, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Algeria, in Syria. Keep track here.

We have yet, however, to see anything close to a comprehensive analysis of what’s going on. We’re used to the classical sort of uprising, with leaders, programmes of demands, years of conspiratorial planning—the Leninist model, in other words. What we are observing is something relatively new.

Old reactions are there in abundance, of course: army and police repression, palace counter-reformations, the usual bread-for-the-masses” stuff—higher wages, free land, whatever bribe might work.

But it’s as though the protesters are living in a different world. Spontaneous uprisings are not new in history, of course, even on this scale. Yet the people in the streets are not being led, have not formed factions, and do not appear ideological in the narrow sense of the word.

Moreover, these uprisings have spread with surprising speed from country to country, each of which has its own specific history, governance and local lifeways. And, for spontaneous upwellings, they have shown unprecedented staying power: the Arab Spring is now the Arab Summer.

Something is happening here, and we’re all Mr. Jones.

I would like to suggest that the social media everywhere in evidence—texting, Facebook, Twitter—are not simply tools in the hands of revolutionaries, but at the very core of the revolution itself. They offer, of course, the efficiency of lightning-fast communications, but they have also created a new way for people to be in the world, and with each other.

The medium is the message.

Marshall McLuhan’s star rose and fell some time ago, but it’s now apparently on the rise again, and just in time. His theories of media and consciousness, with a few tweaks, perhaps permit us to grasp more fully what is going on in that part of the world. In particular, a review of those theories serves to counter the ever-glib Malcolm Gladwell’s abrupt dismissal of the role of the social media in those uprisings.

To Gladwell first. His claim in a recent interview is that the social media are merely good communications tools, but that revolutions have happened without those forms of instantaneous communication, which are tangential to what’s going on:

But I can’t look in the past at social revolutions and see examples of cases where people had a problem under - under dire circumstances of getting lots of people together to voice their concerns, right? I mean, in East Germany, a million people gathered in the streets of Berlin. They were - the percentage of people in East Berlin in East Germany who even had a telephone in 1989 was 13 percent, right?

So, I mean, in cases where there are no tools of communication, people still get together….

So, that’s sort of my - when I - when I - I’m a little bit skeptical of some of the more grandiose claims on behalf of social media is because I come back to this position. The real work is elsewhere, right? [emphasis added]

So my question is not can you - can you reach someone in two seconds? Fine. Have you done the 20 years of preparation necessary to build a coherent movement? And when you look at the really successful revolutions, they’ve done that, right? Castro did it, you know? The Civil Rights - the Civil Rights Movement in America did it.

But this is all independent of the tipping-point—another Gladwellism, plain language for the dialectical materialists’ revolutionary transformation from quantitative to qualitative change, or Kuhn’s paradigm shift, or what Foucault more generally described as a discursive rupture. McLuhan himself calls it a “break boundary.” You can try to force the tipping-point to happen more quickly, and do what you can to control what happens next, but you simply can’t generate it yourself, and it often happens without your aid.

Moreover—and this is key—through the lens of what comes after, what comes before is virtually incomprehensible. During the period in which they co-exist, they are related only through anxiety and open antagonism.

A better explanation of the massive upheavals we have been observing, then, is to be found in the clash of two ways of, for want of a better term, being-in-the-world. And McLuhan, in his idiosyncratic way, was on top of all this before it happened.

A health director … reported this week that a small mouse, which presumably had been watching television, attacked a little girl and her full-grown cat…. Both mouse and cat survived, and the incident is recorded here as a reminder that things seem to be changing.

With that wryly-cited quotation, from an article in the New York Times by James Reston in 1957, McLuhan begins his provocative Understanding Media: the extensions of man. (Fortunately, the entire text is now on-line).

His overly-simplistic notion in The Gutenberg Galaxy and elsewhere of integrated, collective “tribal” societies versus linear and fragmented Western ones—the former allegedly in the process of being re-created though electronic communications (at the time, radio and television)—is not particularly helpful in this context. But his more general point about different media profoundly affecting how we grasp the world and relate to each other is directly relevant.

The Arab societies that are now under attack from within are rigidly hierarchical, their structures kept in place by brutal enforcement mechanisms and religious indoctrination; tribal (but not in McLuhan’s naive collective sense); for the most part literate (which may surprise some), but culturally ossified.

The new technologies, on the other hand, are egalitarian, instant, uncircumscribed, freely collective (one can opt in or opt out at any time), anonymous, nonlinear—and hence deeply subversive. The whole created by these “extensions” does indeed resemble McLuhan’s notion of an integrated technological consciousness:

[W]e have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man— the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.

Shorn of McLuhan’s trademark ponderousness, is this not what we are seeing with flash mobs and the more permanent or at least ever self-refreshing Arab uprisings, the new cool media (in both senses) serving as their wellspring?

The new generation has distinguished texting from text: in their hands the linearity of print becomes something else, rapid-fire information in short bursts, quanta, transmission per se. Written, yes, but nonlinear in effect; ephemeral, like speech; a paradox, in fact—written orality.

More of McLuhan’s prescience:

Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree. It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro [sic], the teen-ager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media. This is the Age of Anxiety for the reason of the electric implosion that compels commitment and participation, quite regardless of any “point of view.” [emphasis added]

What is maddening to Gladwell—the lack of a centre (or, put another way, too many of them), of control, of planning, of a programme—is arguably the very strength of the movement. While he suffers political vertigo, the people who poured into the streets are still there. In Libya the rebels are showing no signs of tiring, and in Syria ordinary people are being shot down every time they show up, but they show up anyway, and in ever-greater numbers.

Here’s McLuhan again:

Electric speeds create centers everywhere. Margins cease to exist on this planet. Lack of homogeneity in speed of information movement creates diversity of patterns in organization. It is quite predictable, then, that any new mean of moving information will alter any power structure whatever. So long as the new means is everywhere available at the same time, there is a possibility that the structure may be changed without breakdown. Where there are great discrepancies in speeds of movement, as between air and road travel or between telephone and typewriter, serious conflicts occur within organizations. The metropolis of our time has become a test case for such discrepancies. If homogeneity of speeds were total, there would be no rebellion and no breakdown. [emphasis added]

Why are the people rising up, most of them young, judging by the photos and various commentaries? Not simply because they are living under brutal regimes, not for something called “freedom,” not because of their often hopeless prospects and miserable living conditions. All of these are, of course, factors: but many people at various different times in recent history have endured such privations, or on occasion taken heroic individual stands that have landed them in jail or worse.

People are in the streets because the old order literally makes no sense. The logic of hierarchy and power does not jibe with the counter-logic of egalitarianism and radical decentering generated by the social media, posing a fundamental challenge to the institutions, attitudes and perceptions of the past.

Confronting the logic of tradition is the here-and-now of instantaneous communication, of living in the moment:

Both time (as measured visually and segmentally) and space (as uniform, pictorial, and enclosed) disappear in the electronic age of instant information.

This clash of media-generated logics—print, TV, radio and oral tradition vs. the social media—and the wrenchingly different speeds of transmission of information within the two incommensurable ways of being thus created, produce crises:

Disintegration and reprieve, alike, are the consequence of ever faster movement of information by couriers on excellent roads.

Speed…accentuates problems of form and structure. The older arrangements had not been made with a view to such speeds, and people begin to sense a draining-away of life values as they try to make the old physical forms adjust to the new and speedier movement.

But those old forms cannot contain the new electric logic. They must give way. They have become literally absurd and superfluous. More and more people cannot see or find themselves in those suffocating forms, and that’s already a kind of death. No wonder they risk all: as though swamped by a mudslide, they claw their way almost instinctively towards the surface, whether in vain or not, knowing not what awaits them.

As noted, what I have set out is really a series of suggestions, not even well-formed enough to be hypotheses. McLuhan was above all an erudite showman with a proclivity for oracular utterance, who could be insufferably shallow in his sweeping pronouncements. But his insights into media and their effects on how we are and who we are are nevertheless well overdue for a revival.

The full McLuhan treatment of the social media, as an addendum to Understanding Media, would be an interesting project to undertake. In the meantime, as always, comments are welcome.

[H/t Marie Ève b/c for the Gladwell reference]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on July 17, 2011 7:31 PM.

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