The democratization of access to information – what could be more beneficial for a healthy democracy?
Such were the expectations regarding the internet in its early years. Let’s recall: in the 1990s, the internet was perceived as a global library that provided instant access to everything. In the 2000s, with the blossoming blogosphere and early social media, the internet became seen as a huge Hyde Park with instant access to self-expression for millions. In the 2010s, the internet became a threat to public and individual health.
Why has the disruption of the narrative monopoly of the elites become a malicious cacophony in just 10 years?
In Human as media, I calculated that, before the internet, humankind had had hardly more than 300 million authors – people able to communicate beyond their physical surroundings. All of a sudden, the number of authors has grown tenfold and reached four billion. We are living inside an enormous explosion of authorship.
Do all these four billion emancipated authors really seek knowledge or truth, as the early romantic expectations of the internet suggested? No. The nature of the emancipated authorship of the internet is completely different from the authorship of predigital societies. And this is precisely because of the format of authorship provided by the medium.
With the limited access to authorship in the predigital eras, the linear and structured written narrative fostered “long-range” rationality. Non-literate media, starting with radio, TV and now the internet, favour “short-sighted” emotionality.
Literacy supported the colonization of meaning. Post-literate media have facilitated the colonization of attention. As people need each other for survival, they trade their individuality for attention. Social media incredibly empowered this human inclination and allowed everyone to seek the attention of others.
Statistically speaking, almost all the emancipated authorship is wasted on leaving a physiological mark to warn and attract others rather than on creating knowledge and seeking truth. Even though the emancipated authorship actually produces now more truth than ever, the significance of every single truth merely drowns in the cacophony of attention-hacking.
In “Technopoly” (1992), Neil Postman wrote:
“A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything. In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe.”
With emancipated authorship, we haven’t got “more” of a public sphere with the democratized narrative seeking the truest truth. Instead, we have a completely different public sphere where truths are multiple and a truer truth is proven by volume.
McLuhan stated that any medium provides services and disservices. The ability of emancipated authorship to disrupt the narrative monopoly was one of the greatest services of new media. But it comes in a package, and the whole package is the ability of post-literate media to disrupt any institution of the literate era. The medium is the breakage. In the 1990–2000s, we were amazed by the service of new media. Now, it’s time to admire its disservice.