In the 1960s, technology futurist Marshall McLuhan rose to fame with a seemingly simple catchphrase: "The medium is the message." With the integration of television, computers and databases, he argued, communication technologies have taken on a meaning of their own that extends beyond the mere content of the information they deliver to customers. The ability of these technologies to instantaneously connect people across the globe, tearing down the physical barriers of time and place, likewise inspired McLuhan to dub the digital world a "global village."
But in many ways, what modern media users experience online today is a far cry from living in a global village. Children can't safely roam the internet without supervision; adults can't surf the web without risking their identifying details, or being inundated with messages, ads and news items optimized for companies' commercial gain; users can't participate in trendy forums without expecting to get in an online shouting match. Many have responded to these dangers and inconveniences by restricting their activities to likeminded circles on the web or, in some cases, withdrawing from the digital world altogether. So where did it all go wrong?
Fraying at the Fringes
A recent book by Ramesh Srinivasan gives us some insight into the answer. An associate professor at UCLA, Srinivasan holds degrees in engineering, design and media arts from Stanford, MIT and Harvard, respectively. His latest book, Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, can be read as an academic treatise on protecting the diversity of communities on the cultural fringes of our increasingly globalized society. But it also serves as a case study that can help to diagnose what went awry as the revolution in information and communication technologies unfolded.
One thing is clear: Though the original vision of a digitally interconnected world placed a premium on globalization, it largely ignored the difficulties that harmoniously amalgamating an array of different cultures would present — even in the West, where it all began.
For more than a decade, Srinivasan has sought out a front-row seat to the social experiments underway around the world. From Zuni Native Americans, to social activists in Kyrgyzstan and Egypt, to Zapatistas in southern Mexico and coca farmers in Bolivia, he has seen the effects that media have on many communities that were once isolated from more technologically developed parts of the globe. After all, the ideas propagated through new technologies often include, ever so subtly, a vision of society that can conflict with that of the local communities they are meant to serve.
Consider the Zuni, who are keen to see the return of ancestral items that have been scattered among museums throughout the world. Until those items can be physically repatriated, it might seem as if the next-best solution — a virtual library of high-quality photographs that can be viewed from anywhere with an internet connection — would be well-received. But as any community elder could tell you, a "digital museum" cannot even begin to fulfill the Zuni sense of ownership passed down from generation to generation. The casual observer, moreover, would lack this sentiment, which is so necessary to truly appreciate the objects on virtual display.
Srinivasan also points out that the developed world rather naively expected the globalization of technology to automatically promote the liberal and democratic values it held so dear. Even today, well-meaning founders of tech giants such as Google and Facebook vow to bring the digital age to "the last billion on Earth" through swarms of stratospheric balloons and fleets of high-flying drones. But even if these far-flung communities could technically access the internet, local economy and infrastructure often hamper the distribution of the devices, electricity and internet services that digital communication equally relies on. In fact, the provision of a networking skeleton can even exacerbate existing inequalities, since the wealthy few often have more opportunities to profit from more timely and more widely distributed communication.
The Arab Spring is a case in point. Experts routinely claim that political activists' astute use of social media enabled the Middle Eastern revolts. But the truth is that the death of the Tunisian street vendor credited for triggering the Arab Spring, for instance, rallied the country not because of the media's extensive discussion of it but because it activated a social matrix established by what Srinivasan describes as "a long-standing revolutionary labor tradition." The same can be said of the Egyptian protests that began in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Only 10 percent of households in Egypt have access to the internet; social media was less a digital highway to mass revolt than it was an on-ramp allowing the rest of the world to follow the activists' plight. And though embattled authorities were quick to snuff out this avenue of global outcry to the extent they could, they had to resort to dictatorial decrees to clamp down on the strong communal information networks embedded within the country's age-old social structures that tie unions, mosques and local councils together.
Finally, Srinivasan notes how adept local communities are at appropriating technology for their own use. For example, residents in certain regions of New Guinea generally lack the credit to make phone calls; instead, they remain perpetually on call, waiting for job offers from more affluent citizens to complete one chore or another. In the meantime, their cellphones serve more use as flashlights handy for hunting crocodiles at night. The Zapatistas of southern Mexico are more sophisticated: More than a decade ago, they began using shortwave and citizens band radio to coordinate cells across the country, and internet groups became the conduit for getting their message out to the rest of the world.
The Center Cannot Hold
Participating in a recent panel discussion on MSNBC, Srinivasan was quick to point out the effects that new communications technologies have had on the developed world as well. The flurry of social media activity that has engulfed political campaigns and elections over the past year, he says, cannot be prevented unless fundamental changes are made to the metrics that drive the confidential moneymaking strategies proprietary to each major social media platform. Tagging news items with labels of substance from reputed fact-checkers, stepping up oversight on contributors and slowing down comment cycles are just some of the proposals that have been made to stamp out the media fires set in recent months. But as long as social media algorithms are designed to maximize profit via mouse clicks, these measures will only slow the acceleration of the spiral between social media platforms and those eager to game them.
In the meantime, we can track the survival of the bustle of business startups that have sought to carve out their own niche by taking advantage of the failings of mainstream social media platforms. Almost as if they took cues from Srinivasan's findings, several ventures have adopted new tactics of shepherding social groups in order to differentiate themselves. According to Harvard Business Review's author, Lydia Laurenson, some companies have pivoted back toward the journalistic practices that once separated the wheat from the chaff in the "old media" newspaper industry. Others have abandoned the approach of counting superficial interactions on a massive scale, replacing it instead with monitoring the stability of relationships formed within tighter, focused social networks. The economic scale that venture capital funds still demand is then translated in the development of platforms that offer a much wider spectrum of interaction styles from which groups can choose. For instance, each collection of users can decide whether to operate on the basis of a subscription, or a sponsorship model, or some combination of the two. The rules that dictate which items are pushed to network members are transparent and can be adapted to the interaction style that each group prefers. Comments can likewise be slowed and vetted using a combination of automatic and human checks, while listings are sorted into more meaningful combinations than a simple "like" or "dislike" option can provide. Only time will tell which features will last.
But one thing is clear: Though the original vision of a digitally interconnected world placed a premium on globalization, it largely ignored the difficulties that harmoniously amalgamating an array of different cultures would present — even in the West, where it all began. In time, a cross-cultural networking etiquette may develop on its own. But until then, nurturing a common identity, relationship style and interest will do more to bring people together than trying to boost page views on a large scale. In this way, media platforms might someday allow individuals to feel at ease engaging in any number of virtual communities of their choice, turning the false promise of a single, global village into a worldwide network of many villages better sized to our needs.