Why we Repeat Ourselves


“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication …

Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our 'Age of Anxiety' is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools–with yesterday's concepts.”

[Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects]

    It was 1967, McLuhan's ideas about the nature of media, the increasing speed of communication, and the technological basis for our understanding of who we are are still applicable. According to some sources, McLuhan adopted the term “massage” to refer to the effects each medium has on the human senses. According to his estate, however, the word was a typo.

    Both terms express his main thesis that technologies — from clothing, to the wheel, to the book, and beyond — are the messages themselves, not just the content of the medium. He says:

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.

    In Reclaiming the Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, Sheryl Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT argues that we are at a crossroads as we continue to move from conversation to just connecting in the name of efficiency, out of convenience and time. But, a we do that, as we indulge in “moments of more,” we may find ourselves in lives of less.

    We've observed how even online people don't converse, they comment, which make a big difference. Our addiction to our devices has become uncontested. Many of the social networks are engineered to be sticky, the culture in the various communities that form in them encourages a (mostly) new/improved and edited version of ourselves.

    Face-to-face conversation is important, we can learn to improve our conversations, and advance our knowledge in the process. For conversation is one the ways in which we kick the tires on what we know, it helps us think out loud and learn more about our own ideas. It is a physical skill we can practice to experience autonomy and agency as we discover and appreciate reality.

    McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage begins and ends with quotes from English mathematician and philosopher Albert North Whitehead — “The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” and “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”

    We repeat ourselves because we don't learn from the past. In Phaedrus, Plato reports Socrates commenting on the alphabet:

The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves …

You give your disciples not truth but only semblance of the truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.

    McLuhan's observation is that the effects of the media on individuals are profound at individual citizen's level, all the way to how we relate to family and our neighborhoods. He documents the effects on education, our jobs, government, and the relationships with other groups.

    His comments on on the tyranny of devices are prescient:

Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community's need to know.

The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions —the patterns of mechanistic technologies— are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank—that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early 'mistakes.'

We have already reached a point where remedial control, born of knowledge of media and their total effects on all of us, must be exerted…

    This illustrates the issue of privacy and the paradox of our age — we have all kinds of information at our fingertips, yet take little time to build our knowledge base as a framework on which to hang our opinions. We welcome interruptions but overlook the toll they take on our ability to develop coherent thinking.

    “Solitude is where we learn to trust our imagination,” says Turkle, as in the glory of being alone developing our thoughts or just appreciating being alive. We flee this state to be online, where we look for cues from our algorithm-curated circles on how to judge what is happening.

    Because of the way social media works, we end up seeing a lot of the same things. Based on how we're wired, biases and all, we end up connecting to people who think like us and bringing our untested assumptions with us wherever we go. Taken with this meaning, the medium affects us in more than one way.

    We can learn to think better, solve problems, and create new opportunities at work through the design of strategic conversations. Conversations are tools we can use to negotiate meaning, where we can listen, learn and be heard.