I should start by admitting I shot this picture with my phone, on the subway last night. I should also admit that I was no less absorbed in my personal rectangle than everyone else on the subway (and I do mean everyone) was with theirs.
I don’t know what the other passengers were doing on their rectangles, though it’s not hard to guess. In my case it was spinning through emails, texting, tweeting, checking various other apps (weather, navigation, calendar) and listening to podcasts.
We shape our tools and then they shape us. That’s was and remains Marshall McLuhan‘s main point. The us is both singular and plural. We get shaped, and so do our infrastructures, societies, governments and the rest of what we do in the civilized world. (Here’s an example of all four of those happening at once: People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the ground. From Quartz.)
Two years from now, most of the phones used by people in this shot will be traded in, discarded or re-purposed as iPods, Sonos remotes or whatever. But will we remain just as tethered to Apple, Google, telcos and app providers as we are today? That’s the biggest question. Dependent or independent? Subject to sovereigns or self-sovereign on our own? Probably some combination of the both, but the need is for greater independence and agency for each of us.
For sure most phones will do less old-fashioned telephony and more audio, video, VR, AR, and other cool shit. Just as surely they’ll also give us whole new ways to shape and be shaped. Perhaps by then mass media will finish getting replaced by mess media.
But I have to wonder what comes after phone use spreads beyond ubiquity (when most of us have multiple rectangles). Because everything gets obsoleted. That doesn’t mean it goes away. It just means something else comes along that’s better for the main purpose, while the obsoleted media still hang around in a subordinated or specialized state. Radio did that to print, TV did it to radio, and the Net is doing it to damn near every other medium we can name, connected across its Giant Zero at approximately no cost.
So, while all our asses still sit on Earth in physical space, our digital selves float weightlessly in a non-space with no gravity or distance. This is new shit.
McLuhan says the effects of every new medium can be understood through four questions he calls a tetrad, illustrated this way:
Put a new medium in the middle and then sort effects into the four corners by answering a question for each:
- What does the medium enhance?
- What does the medium make obsolete?
- What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
- What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?
These are posed as questions because they should help us understand what’s going on. Not so we can come up with perfect or final answers. There can be many answers to each question, all arguable.
So let’s look at smartphones. I suggest they—
- Enhance conversation
- Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
- Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
- Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)
I don’t think we’re all the way into any of those yet, even as every damn one of us in a subway rewires our brains in real time using rectangles that extend our presence, involvement and effects in the world. Ironies abound.
Item: New York has just begun putting up notices that claim every subway station in the city now has wi-fi and cellular service. In my own experience, this checks out. But New York is still behind London, Paris and Boston in full deployment, because there is mobile phone and data service in the tunnels under those cities and not just in the stations.
Which to me says we’re still climbing toward peak phone.
My main point, however, is that there’s still a slope down the other side. Count on it. Something will put smartphones in that lower right box.
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