seeing the figure through the ground

Models can give us a place to start to have a conversation in order to develop shared understanding. Mental models are one of the five disciplines of a learning organization, according to Peter Senge. I have frequently used the model of the Laws of Media developed by Marshall and Eric McLuhan which state that every medium (technology) used by people has four effects. Every medium extends a human property, obsolesces the previous medium (& makes it a luxury good), retrieves a much older medium, and reverses its properties when pushed to its limits. These four aspects are known as the media tetrad.

As our society becomes immersed in the technology of social media, whether they be Facebook, Twitter or something else, we read much criticism as well as hype. But with the tetrad, we can have a conversation around the four effects without the hype or fear. For example, there is little doubt that social media extend our voice, as mine has been extended with this blog. They enable what Seb Paquet calls “ridiculously easy group-forming”, so that we can find similar voices in the wilderness. I remember what it was like waiting for new books to come to the school library in the 1970’s. They were my connection to the outside world. Now we have this connectivity, to information and people, in our hands.

Social media obsolesce human to human conversation. They are asynchronous, bridging time and space, and often remove the human side of conversation. Gerd Leonhard says that today, “offline is the new luxury”. So it seems.

Social media retrieve the tribalism of long ago, for better and for worse. We feel connected to our tribes but then see other tribes as ‘the other’. David Ronfeldt, creator of the TIMN (Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks) model, sees dangers in malignant tribalism.

“TIMN implies that malignant tribalization will make our society far more vulnerable to information warfare. The ultimate goal of strategic information warfare at the societal level, whether waged by foreign or domestic actors, is to tribalize a society, the better to divide and conquer it.”

When social media are pushed to their limits — several billion people on Facebook is likely getting near the limit — then they reverse what they originally extended — our voice. John Robb sees an emerging online orthodoxy.

“The REAL danger facing a world interconnected by social networking isn’t disruption. As we have seen on numerous occasions, the danger posed by disruptive information and events is fleeting. Disruption, although potentially painful in the short term, doesn’t last, nor is it truly damaging over the long term. In fact, the true danger posed by an internetworked world is just the opposite of disruption.

This danger is an all encompassing online orthodoxy. A sameness of thought and approach enforced by hundreds of millions of socially internetworked adherents. A global orthodoxy that ruthless narrows public thought down to a single, barren, ideological framework. A ruling network that prevents dissent and locks us into stagnation and inevitable failure as it runs afoul of reality and human nature.”

The McLuhan media tetrad gives us a common framework to look at the effects of social media. It also can provide us with some insights and questions to ask ourselves and our elected officials.

  • How can we educate people to extend their voice to help themselves and make for a better civil society?
  • How can we provide time and space for everyone to be offline, so it is not just a luxury for the rich?
  • How can we reinforce the good aspects of tribes (e.g. extended families, cooperatives, etc.) while countering their ill effects such as online propaganda?
  • How can we ensure that online orthodoxy does not throttle public debate and inquiry, which is one of the treasures we inherited from the Enlightenment?

Wikipedia: figure & ground

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>