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The year I started university was the year of Napster. All the computers in the dorm were networked, and we’d stay up all night browsing each other’s music directory. I’d already heard Rolling Stones on Psychedelic Sundays, and now here was their entire discography. Might as well as download everything. Most of my Led Zeppelin are still those original MP3s I nabbed from the university network. I discovered Radiohead really through Kid A when it was leaked completely on Napster.

Before YouTube, if you wanted to hear a song instantly you searched, waited 30 seconds, and then listened. Even with all the technological improvements the ease of playing a single song hasn’t evolved.

After studying Philosophy, I was preparing for graduation and first ran into Marshall McLuhan. It seemed like media was everything people were talking about. Copyright and Web 2.0 and bootleg Metallica and Google Book scanning. The great benefit of the Internet was that it was going to free everyone’s content and take production out of the hands of the gatekeepers. Information wanted to be free.

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The little Coach House where McLuhan did his business. And where I studied with a former student.

 

With this interest in what Neil Postman called “media ecology“—the medium is the message—I started a Masters in Information. The department was the last shard of a legacy of McLuhan at the University of Toronto. I had a class in his Coach House. Sat on the couch where I am sure he must have slept. I read McLuhan and Postman, Walter Ong and Elizabeth Eisenstein. For me a lot of the cultural implications of print  culture were being undone, and copyright was one of them. Musicians at one time were roving entertainers. Then records were invented. And now that they were being uninvented musicians were becoming entertainers again.

Almost ten years later changes to media are the least interesting development of the computerization of everything. YouTube, iTunes, Spotify. These seem like obvious developments now. Sure, they were difficult to implement. But their logic goes back to those initial desires I had in 2000 to listen to any song and watch any movie anywhere I wanted. All the rest is logistics.

The real craziness seems to be happening completely outside of media, and even off of the Internet. It’s cars and banks and hotel rooms. Real people in the real world, not digital files. The Internet isn’t just communicating. It’s the global nervous system moving the human muscle.

Even more than products and services, culture and organizations themselves are adjusting. What is most fascinating to me now is not that books as objects are challenged, but that entire bureaucratic systems based on the efficiencies of paper are made redundant. 1

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The global nervous system in 2005.

 

McLuhan’s perennial insights therefore are much more relevant when he is not talking about media. Everyone could see that television was becoming important and that the children were somehow “re-tribalizing.” But in 1964 no one could fully think through the implications of this:

In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.

Or:

Obsession with the older patterns of mechanical, one-way expansion from centers to margins is no longer relevant to our electric world. Electricity does not centralize, but decentralizes. It is like the difference between a railway system and an electric grid system….Electric power, equally available in the farmhouse and the Executive Suite, permits any place to be center, and does not require large aggregations.

And:

In the the new electric Age of Information and programmed production, commodities themselves assume more and more the character of information. 2

The message isn’t the technology. It’s the change of scale, pace, or arrangement in they introduce in society. And it is not that information has become a commodity. Commodities are being “informationized,” vivified through connection and data.

I don’t care much about the Apple Watch. I care about what happens when I can carry a mobile, ever-connected, supercomputer to the top of Mount Everest.

And I don’t care much about startups or Slack’s 2.8 billion dollar valuation. I care about happens to organizations when I can have no boss and be on the beach and still file my TPS reports.3

  1. The University, based first on the Renaissance reintroduction of paper, then on the printing press, has itself become an ossified disaster.
  2. All from Understanding Media.
  3. Image credits: “Classic OPTE Project Map of the Internet 2005” by Mike Lee. “Napster” by bixentro.

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