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The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear

Posted on Apr 23, 2012
Lapham's Quarterly

By Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly

A longer version of this piece appeared in the Spring 2012 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly. The following abridged version was republished at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s excellent introduction here.

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
—Emperor Charles V

But in which language does one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response? The questions arise from the accelerating data-streams out of which we’ve learned to draw the breath of life, posed in consultation with the equipment that scans the flesh and tracks the spirit, cues the ATM, the GPS, and the EKG, arranges the assignations on and the high-frequency trades at Goldman Sachs, catalogs the pornography and drives the car, tells us how and when and where to connect the dots and thus recognize ourselves as human beings.

Why then does it come to pass that the more data we collect—from Google, YouTube, and Facebook—the less likely we are to know what it means?

The conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing 50 years ago the presence of “an acoustic world,” one with “no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis,” a new “information environment of which humanity has no experience whatever.” He published Understanding Media in 1964, proceeding from the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”


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Media were to be understood as “make-happen agents” rather than as “make-aware agents,” not as art or philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers. Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought.

To account for the transference of the idioms of print to those of the electronic media, McLuhan examined two technological revolutions that overturned the epistemological status quo. First, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, which deconstructed the illuminated wisdom preserved on manuscript in monasteries, encouraged people to organize their perceptions of the world along the straight lines of the printed page. Second, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the applications of electricity (telegraph, telephone, radio, movie camera, television screen, eventually the computer), favored a sensibility that runs in circles, compressing or eliminating the dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into montage, the word replaced with the icon and the rebus.

Within a year of its publication, Understanding Media acquired the standing of Holy Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age. The New York Herald Tribune proclaimed him “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.” Although never at a loss for Delphic aphorism—“The electric light is pure information”; “In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin”—McLuhan assumed that he had done nothing more than look into the window of the future at what was both obvious and certain.

Floating the Fiction of Democracy

In 1964 I was slow to take the point, possibly because I was working at the time in a medium that McLuhan had listed as endangered—writing, for The Saturday Evening Post, inclined to think in sentences, accustomed to associating a cause with an effect, a beginning with a middle and an end. Television news I construed as an attempt to tell a story with an alphabet of brightly colored children’s blocks, and when offered the chance to become a correspondent for NBC, I declined the referral to what I regarded as a course in remedial reading.

The judgment was poorly timed. Within five years The Saturday Evening Post had gone the way of the great auk; news had become entertainment, entertainment news, the distinctions between a fiction and a fact as irrelevant as they were increasingly difficult to parse. Another 20 years and I understood what McLuhan meant by the phrase, “The medium is the message,” when in the writing of a television history of America’s foreign policy in the twentieth century, I was allotted roughly 73 seconds in which to account for the origins of World War II, while at the same time providing a voiceover transition between newsreel footage of Jesse Owens running the hundred-yard dash at the Berlin Olympics in the summer of 1936, and Adolf Hitler marching the Wehrmacht into Vienna in the spring of 1938.

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By Anarcissie, April 26, 2012 at 3:06 pm Link to this comment

Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple and so on are not in a different direction from the government, which is why I mentioned CISPA.  However, they have somewhat different methods and purposes, and I think they are conflicted between a desire to choke off the Internet and a desire to use and exploit it, which means allowing it to thrive.  Most of the old-media companies and the education industry would just like to kill it, since their profits and power depended on maintaining a class monopoly over certain kinds of information which has now been compromised.

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By gerard, April 26, 2012 at 10:43 am Link to this comment

Dear Surfboy:  (Woops!  Is that allowed here? Seems so extraordinarily nice!)
  Thanks for your good words. Coming when they did, they kept me from licking wounds caused by being yammered and hammered half to death by certain people whose names .... etc. Or maybe they are three-in-one, with a fourth due to appear at any moment.  Tin ears aside, that doesn’t mean there are no dangers online. Ears is the least of it when souls are at stake!
  That raises the question Maani raised:  Which would we rather have, government surveillance or commercial intrusion, or neither? I’m looking for the guy who will soon invent a red alert you can activate by saying “YUK!” which will instantly disconnect both government and business and cast them into outer darkness for one full hour while the world takes a deep breath.  I figure that so many people will be pushing the “yuk button” that both agebcues will be blocked from the human race for most of the time and give us a chance to recover from their depradations. Call it “The Tin Ear APP”. Thanks, Lapham.
  P.S.  A little bit of cursing of darkness doesn’t hurt a bit!

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By gerard, April 25, 2012 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment

Maani:  You may be right. Anarchissie, too.

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By Maani, April 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment

Uh…maybe I’m in the minority here, but while all that is being said about “the government” may well be true, I personally find Google, Facebook and Microsoft (chief among others) as suspect as the government.  I do not trust any of them, and neither should you.  In some ways, those three companies have “taken over the world” in a way that even the most successful dictator must be jealous of - to say nothing of democratic governments.

Even the president of United States does not wield as much overall power as those three companies.  If we (liberals, left-wingers, whatever) are suspicious of and even against the concentration of political or economic power in the hands of the few, where is the outcry against not simply the “fact” of Google, Facebook and Microsoft, but the tactics they have been increasingly using to consolidate and even increase the power they already have?

Google’s motto is “do no evil.”  Yet are increasingly becoming one of the most evil companies in the world.  Facebook is also engaging in truly obnoxious practices re data mining and sharing.  And Microsoft and Facebook are now joining forces AGAINST Google re patents and technology.

Personally, I think you are all looking in the wrong direction for the enemy.


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By Anarcissie, April 25, 2012 at 1:50 pm Link to this comment

gerard—I think the cleverer governments are of divided judgement about the Internet.  They want to shut off its egalitarian, democratic, populist, and libertarian aspects, but at the same time they recognize that it may serve as a much better means of surveilling and herding the lower orders than television; after all, it’s a form of television that not only has a buy button but a microphone and a video camera.  Unlike their business brethren, whose only concern is profit, they’re not sure what to do with it, how to deal with it.  Meanwhile, it grows, much of it invisible (the ‘Darknet’).

(By the way, Look up CISPA, now—this very week—to be voted upon by the House of Representatives.)

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By gerard, April 25, 2012 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment

anarchissie:  Your statement… “meanwhile, publishers and educationists have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to put the genie back in the bottle, at least until they figure out how to put a leash on the genie and make it serve their interests in terms of control and profit.” is probably the most in need of massive public attention—but not primarily because of “publishers and educationists”.
  I believe the government’s regard of the internet as a “dangerous” democratizing element, and further, as an organization in need of “surveillance” must be the people’s primary concern.
  Governments worldwide seem to fear the internet in direct proportion to their demand for orthodoxy and their lack of interest in democracy, in free thinking, and in how the internet could be used as an agency for mutual inter-governmental understanding and exploring peaceful initiatives.

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By Anarcissie, April 25, 2012 at 6:05 am Link to this comment

The Internet is not a panacea; it’s an industrial development.  It is unusual in that previous media have been of two kinds: one-to-one (telephone, telegraph, physical mail) and one-to-many (print media, radio, television).  The Internet is many-to-many, recovering the village agora on a much larger scale.  No one can say at this point what the consequences of that will be; meanwhile, publishers and educationists have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to put the genie back in the bottle, at least until they figure out how to put a leash on the genie and make it serve their interests in terms of control and profit.

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By Clash, April 24, 2012 at 5:37 pm Link to this comment

It is just possible that the education industry should take a few swift kicks. It seems that most students are better equipped to work together and solve problems at the age of six, than they are at eighteen when the system is finished with them.

The internet is a panacea, an imaginary solution to problems that could be solved, if only half of the energy, time and intellect spent everyday was used elsewhere. Yes it allows a type of instant communication and questionable information in a small corner, but in reality it is just the wall-mart taking over the smaller chain stores.

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By Anarcissie, April 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm Link to this comment

I’m wondering about the implications of the Internet for the education industry.  The education industry has pursued its interests for several generations not only by providing class filters, seats and redoubts for those with politics and manners satisfactory to the ruling class, and training and indoctrination centers, but also by sequestering knowledge.  The books laid up in the enormous libraries of Harvard and Yale were hardly available to the good citizens of Amarillo and Coos Bay.  Indeed, much of the information and discourse about the information were available only to those who were employed by universities, or paid tuition.

Their first reaction to the intruding tendrils of the Internet were similar to those of the arts’n'entertainment industry: lock everything up and call the cops. 

However, there has been a problem.  No one expects artists and entertainers to be idealistic or virtuous, much, but the education industry has also had charge of science and intellectuality, fields in which people frequently profess the belief that knowledge is good and should be spread about and pursued freely.  The contradiction is obvious, and the Internet may prove more dangerous to the education industry than it has to its book-, music-, and movie-publishing sisters.

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By gerard, April 24, 2012 at 11:34 am Link to this comment

Anarchissie:  I absolutely LOVE your comment. As the Quakes say to one another:  “Friend, you speak to my condition—as did Surfboy in quite another way. Thanks to both.
  Had I told you before that for six years right out of college I worked for publishing companies—text and “trade” books, and then Hearst Magazines. Boy, did they think they were (at that time) “the cat’s meow”? And they paid, like, $17.50 a week, every Friday so long as the wind don’t blow. I lived with a girl on the third floor of an ancient “brick tower” style house downtown, and Batten, Barton, Durstein and Evans was right around the corner in our future.  Then California and the Hearst syndicate.  SYNDICATE, no less!
  As to the Internet:  I find it a great “research engine” faster than going to the library,—especially at my age! I do still enjoy reading books. My main interest in it is as a speedy and indestructible unifier of cultures ...(Manning and Assange are heroes!) ...  and a way for people to get the facts they need in order to give up on war as a way to get where “we” want to go, even if “we” don’t know where that is. And to discover what empathy is and how you get that, and why it has a tendency to die out right when we need it most!
Anyway, thanks.

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By gerard, April 24, 2012 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

Surfboy:  I’m with you here—in spades!,
  “I’ve been intoxicated by being angry, impatient, justified, lonely and a few other attitudes including overconfident.  I have allowed these attitudes (and/or emotions) to cloud my thinking and have made wrong or bad or harmful decisions and actions.”

  Your thoughts about the gadget are interesting. Am I wrong to suppose that you suppose that I am looking for an audience? (To collapse that sentence, just push the button at the end.)
  Anyhow, not an audience. Not a lecture-hall. Not a stage.  Just one or two lonely friends standing in a corner somewhere who would like to talk about something besides “shit-asses” and “assholes” and
how utterly rotten religion and science are and how we ought to do this or that—so long as it is not some off-the-wall “terrorist thing” that the survillance machines are busily sniffing out.  Sniff!  Sniff! Ha! There I got one!

P.S.  I was talking to Sanfran Cisco last night and he says there’s no money in educating Africans. (I don’t need to label that “sarcasm”, do I?)  Best.

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By Anarcissie, April 24, 2012 at 6:16 am Link to this comment

Anyone who conflates radio, television, and Marshall McLuhan with the Internet is generally wasting our time.

The most significant thing about the Internet is that it radically reduced the cost of publication.  As a result, the social structures through which publication occurred—the corporations and wealthy individuals who controlled the publication of newspapers, magazines, books, and recordings, and the production and broadcasting of radio and television—lost power, and will continue to lose power, although they are scrambling hard to retain what they can through state repression. 

The old industrial structure required persons to go through a certain kind of performance to achieve publication, the new one a different and less forbidding, less class-based one.  Those who invested time and energy in paying the dues, learning the game, and making the right connections in the old system now find that much of that time and energy was wasted; it can’t be traded for much in the world that is now appearing.  That is really the substance of their complaint, although it is usually dressed up with aesthetics and intellectuality, as if the newspapers, books, radio and television of fifty years ago were entirely paragons of truth, reason, intelligence and beauty.

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By gerard, April 23, 2012 at 8:11 pm Link to this comment

Not One More:  Then is it your enemy. Or neither? Or do you think it is important to decide?

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By Not One More!, April 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm Link to this comment

google is not your friend.

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By vector56, April 23, 2012 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment


Well said!

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By gerard, April 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm Link to this comment

The last paragraph cinches up nicely, but misses a lot, too, as Lapham closes:
  “We’re still playing with toys. The Internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.”
  The release by WikiLeaks of the State Dept.cables
emphasized worldwide in a flash of words and pictures
(both langages capable of “inducing a change of heart”) that certainly “accelerated the hope of
political and social change.” 
  The problem is not so much with the internet itself as with the users’ lack of “human imagination and its powers of expression without which “the machines cannot accelerate the hope of political and social change.”  The gap between what the machines can do and what the human operators can conceive and do IS THE PROBLEM. (The attempt of governmental powers to punish and repress the releases is clear proof of the fact that the powers do not at all understand either the potentials of the internet machine or the encouragement of creative efforts to “fill the gap” the machines have created with adequately advanced solutions. 
  Most young people understand this situation, and the non-violent attempts at solutions of retrograde social injustices are evidence of efforts raised by the new medium—which may have a “tin ear” but yet is endowed with a “brain” that remembers everything—which also means that it does not forgive sins by dropping them down some convenient memory hole.
  Sobering thoughts, indeed!

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