WHEN Marshall McLuhan — The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962); Understanding Media (1964); and The Medium is the Message (1967) — announced to the world that the medium is the message more than 50 years ago, ripples were created among scholars and policy elites on news ways of looking at the media, new worlds of media, and new definitions of media. The boundaries were extended beyond the conventional.
The medium does matter. But that itself may mean that the message, ideology and theology are suppressed. Now the environment is online, interconnected and seamless. Beings, minds and technologies become one and many at the same time. The experience of reading words on a network computer, whether it’s a PC or an iPhone, is very different from the experience of reading the same words in a book, or a newspaper.
As a technology, a book focuses our attention, and tends to isolate us from myriad distractions — cacophonic, visual and psychological — that fill our everyday lives. A network computer does precisely the opposite. It is designed to scatter our attention, as I would sometimes poorly devise a haiku — Screen appears/Words scatter/Meanings matter — and send to my former university mates’ WhatsApp group comprising former journalists, editors, writers and other media people.
Online technology does not shield us from environmental distractions; it adds to them. The words on a computer screen exist in a welter of contending stimuli. Our brain adapts readily to its environment. The adaptation occurs at a deep biological level, in the way our nerve cells or neurons connect — in what deep artificial intelligence is mimicking, and moving on in the language of spiritual machines. The technologies we think with, including the media we use to gather, store and share information, are critical elements of our intellectual environment, and they play important roles in shaping our modes of thought and spirituality.
This has not only been proved in a laboratory, but is also evident from even a cursory glance at the course of intellectual history.
Our thinking habits have shifted dramatically. In navigating the rapids of the Net, we experience a steady decay in our ability to sustain attention. It chips away our capacity for concentration and contemplation. Our mind is shedding its “analogue” properties and expects the intake of information to respond to the way the Net distributes “the fluidity of particles” — giving life to the overrated vocabulary of “multi-tasking” as they say. The Net affects the depth of individual intellect, collective and spiritual cultures. The cognitive wave leads to more complex systems, which pressure us to adapt and inter-operate.
This is the new consciousness and a new rationality. The research methodologies we know of is derived from an age of Rationality and Reason. They have their origins in early modern times and were perfected in recent modernity, especially over the last 200 years. They assume a rational mind and a secular mind — the mind of the European Enlightenment. The father of modern science, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), still has his day. And it is not yet goodbye to Rene Descartes.
Methodologies in the social and human sciences trust the rationality of questionnaires, surveys, interviews, sampling, content analysis, etc. where they govern the precepts of objectivity, and mitigate values and biases. But there are extremist views on anything, and extremism is the anathema of rationality. The Internet is a symbolic system. And when we study various facets of the online dimension, we are studying another symbolic system.
Any assumption made must not take the Internet as reality itself but a stylised, artificial order. The growth of the Net has reversed a few assumptions — the private is now public; the local appears global; everyone is an expert. Social media platforms such as WhatsApp for example, is an amphibious private public group, free flowing, and perennially it seems, expecting experts and their avatars. Subsequently the new media, the content of which arose for or on the Internet which includes blogging, Wikipedia and YouTube, along with new forms of shared communication such as Facebook, Google Groups and Twitter, are replacing ready-made contents and established values. Or will this be the case? It is unclear.
Can conventional methodologies segregate the virtual world from the actual world? Or are we standing before the interface of our virtual and actual selves? The new selves and sites are begging to be researched and explored — but in what context? It can be a moral minefield even for researchers skilled in established methods. Can offline and online observations be fused? Are online interviews able to produce high quality data? How does a researcher sort through the vast mass of material available? Is ideology and spirituality significantly structured in the Internet, new media and social media research? Or is it insignificant? Are the phenomena studied agents unto themselves?
How has the idea of public sphere (in the Habermasian sense), religious consciousness, political ideology affected representations of self, identity and collectivity? New worlds require new methodologies, or at least a new look at current methodologies, and a new lens in (re)constructing the collusion between theory and method. Or a new look at Dan Brown’s Origin (2017) — the implosion of identity in our daily reality? As good as fake news, one review describes Origin as a specimen of phoney fiction, and author Brown, a false Nostradamus “for our muddled, crazed and probably terminal times”. How would present methodologies grapple with the “post-present” condition?
In my 2005 book, Media History: Worldviews and Communication Futures, I discussed the technologies of the mind — of technocultures and technoscience. Such wordplays are with us. But these merge into the other, there is no determinism anywhere. There are complications and implications — inter alia, transgression of things. Boundaries melt, factuality and imagination mingle and linger. Complexity becomes a closed system.
And for those in sociology, history, media, communication, journalism, science and technology studies, literary and design studies, and philosophy, etc., it is critical to shift from print to the digital paradigm. It is not so much subscribing to the future, but more grappling with questions of causality in the new narrative. Imagine a conversation between McLuhan, Brown and Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, 1999). And how would our methodologies deal with Sophia (the social humanoid robot) or such characters as Winston in Brown’s Origin? But is that for the future? Thoughtfulness for print (and conventional logic) will always be around, perhaps as competing and complementing, not to be relegated as a fiction of sub culture.
The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org