When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium’s effects are good or bad, it’s the content they wrestle over. Enthusiasts celebrate it; skeptics decry it. The terms of the argument have been pretty much the same for every new informational medium, going back at least to the books that came off Gutenberg’s press. Enthusiasts, with good reason, praise the torrent of new content that the technology uncorks, seeing it as signaling a “democratization” of culture. Skeptics, with equally good reason, condemn the crassness of the content, viewing it as signaling a “dumbing down” of culture. One side’s abundant Eden is the other’s vast wasteland.
The Internet is the latest medium to spur this debate. The clash between Net enthusiasts and Net skeptics, carried out over the last two decades through dozens of books and articles and thousands of blog posts, video clips, and podcasts, has become as polarized as ever, with the former heralding a new golden age of access and participation and the latter bemoaning a new dark age of mediocrity and narcissism. The debate has been important—content does matter—but because it hinges on personal ideology and taste, it has gone down a cul-de-sac. The views have become extreme, the attacks personal. “Luddite!” sneers the enthusiast. “Philistine!” scoffs the skeptic. “Cassandra!” “Pollyanna!”
What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society. “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” The showman exaggerates to make his point, but the point stands. Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself.