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 everybody else on the subway (and I do mean everybody) was with theirs.
I don’t know what those 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 what Marshall McLuhan‘s main point. The us is singular and plural. We get shaped, and so does infrastructure, society, policy and the rest of civilization.
Here’s an example of all four: 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 or whatever. But most of us, I’m guessing will be tethered to Apple, Google, telcos and app providers through phones do almost no actual telephony. For sure they’ll all make much better videos, take much better photos and do much better VR and AR than any of the phones we have today. They’ll give other other new ways to be shaped, and to shape what we might call Mess Media.
But I have to wonder, as phone use in civilized places spreads beyond ubiquity (most of us have multiple rectangles), what comes next. 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 it to print, TV did it to radio, and the Net is doing it to damn near every other medium we can name, as everything gets turned from atoms to bits, and connected across the Net’s 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.
Every new medium, McLuhan said, can be understood through four questions he called a tetrad, illustrated this way:
Put a new medium in the middle and 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, games, whatever)
- Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
- Reverse into isolation (also into privacy lost 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.
Every effect phones give us, so far, is just practice for more of the same, and much more, as the tech improves.
Fact: New York has just begun putting up notices that every subway station 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 means we’re still climbing up toward peak phone.
But there’s still a slope down on the other side. Count on it. Something will put smartphones in that lower right box.