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The journey from social media to violence is irresistible, and we are living it

Mediums have always shattered societies. Transition of man from one technology to the next one has never been simple and steady.

Updated: Jul 12, 2018, 15:10 PM IST

In one of his columns contributing to Italian weekly magazine L' Espresso in 2010 and posthumously collected and published as 'Chronicles of a Liquid Society' in English in 2017, Umberto Eco (1932-2016) an academician, novelist and leading philosopher of contemporary Europe wrote - "I'm not on Twitter, not on Facebook; the Italian constitution allows me not to be. But there is evidently a false Twitter account in my name, as there seems to be for other well-known people. I once met a woman whose eyes brimmed with gratitude as she explained how she read me all the time on Twitter and sometimes even corresponded with me. I tried telling her that it was a false me, but she gazed back as though I were telling her I wasn't really who I am. If I was on Twitter, then I existed. Twittero ergo sum." 

I tweet, therefore I am.

Most likely, the soul of 16th century French philosopher Rene Descartes must not have felt offended with this spoof of his counterpart of the 20th century when he had theorised this path-breaking axiom in his epochal work 'Discourse on the Method', saying, "Cogito ergo sum," meaning famously hereby, "I think therefore I am."

Having been impressed with how wittily Umberto Eco remarked upon his age of social media, one might intend to think how Marshall McLuhan - a seminal scholar, professor of English by livelihood at St Michael's College, University of Toronto, and author of 'The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of a Typographic Man' (1962) and most famously known for 'Understanding Media: The Extension of Man' (1964) - would have expressed his opinion upon the present-day state of social media and the angst and anxieties it has caused.

"The medium is the message,'' is the phrase which made McLuhan reckoned as one the most influential philosophers and post-modernist thinkers of the 20th century. So, forget the content of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other ancillary social media platforms; we, hitherto, are changed men with altered 'sense-ratios or patterns of perception', with no impact of media content alone on us but through the whole media itself. In his field of vision, electronic media is nothing but an extension of our central nervous system. The crescendo of electronic media has brought us to the newer generational forms of social media where by having a structural capacity of organising a posse in no time with 'electric speed of information' as McLuhan suggested, it has mutated us either as mobster or beguiled countless youths as hatemongers. These are the portents he had hinted about electronic age of information decades back when social media was yet to be conceived.

The world is unlucky in this sense that McLuhan died on the eve of New Year, December 31, 1980 - seven years after Martin Cooper had engineered a 1 kg bare Motorola cell phone for us, but quiet premature, before he could see and critically examine how few grams weighed present day cell phone by its covenant with divergent social media apps has tribalised the globe, whereas TV as a cool medium had introduced a kind of 'rigor mortis into the politic'. For TV in particular and electronic media in general, which he profoundly evaluated, he had quoted Howard K Smith, an American journalist and TV anchor, that, "The networks are delighted if you go into a controversy or 14,000 miles away. They don't want real controversy, real dissent at home." Shouldn't it explain sufficiently our irresistible interest in the things like wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? Though the wedding was not a controversy at all notwithstanding few general curiosities of us like who were the invitees there! Oh lucky ones!

Though McLuhan is not amongst us now question is whether his work, especially his path-breaking book 'Understanding Media', published in 1964 by McGraw-Hill, could help us in understanding present day media. He devoted his whole life in understanding it, even coining myriads of idioms like 'Global Village' and many others. Though he lives not to see the impacts of media especially its newest extension - social media - upon 21st century societies, his prophetic prescience proves him unflinchingly assiduous in his philosophic work.

Are few deviated ones amongst us not lynching their fellow people using WhatsApp and Facebook vigilantism, as recently reported from many states of North-East and states of Central and North India, casting ordinary and innocent people sometimes as child abductors or cattle smugglers? Are we not belligerent to charge upon each other as a group sometimes or as individuals often relying, and without knowing their veracity upon totally illogical and designed pieces of information being spread through many social media platforms? Where in our society does the crater for this volcano of violence lie? In one of his letters jotted in the penultimate year of his life on April 5 1979 to his friend Clare Boothe Luce, McLuhan wrote that on the telephone or on the air, man is in every sense discarnate existing as an abstract image, a figure without body. When discarnate, man has no identity and not subject to natural law. As electronic information moved at the speed of light, man is a nobody, when deprived of his identity, man becomes violent in diverse ways. "Violence is the quest for identity."
One may wish to differ with McLuhan's notion with regard to 'violent impact' of media on society as a whole or as an individual, but what makes him relevant is his understanding of this collision of man with the mediums and that this collision is not the first one for mankind. Mediums have always shattered societies. Transition of man from one technology to the next one has never been simple and steady. The same was attempted to prove by Professor Eric Havelock in his formative work, 'Preface To Plato'(1963). Homer, the composer of 'Iliad' and Odyssey represents the pre-literate society of Greeks. Information in Homer's Greek is fundamentally a memory; the sweetest thing for humans, as were our four Vedas for Indian society but things changed as the medium changed. Prof Havelock stated in his book that between Homer and Plato, the method of storage began to alter. "Information became alphabetised. Eye supplanted the ear as the chief organ for this purpose." That is why Plato hated poets, as they tend to reduce every experience of mind to memory thus obstructing rational examination of an object. Homer's time lost its relevance with regard to the age of Plato in terms of change in communicative media. Again, with the Guttenberg-invented printing press, 'sense-ratios' of societies were bound to alter. Newspapers gave us individualism, radio (which McLuhan called a 'tribal drum') tribalism, and TV, which he called in a letter to one of his colleagues 'as radioactive as radium', a kind of in-depth involvement. All these media in their respective phases changed our 'sense-ratios', if we may borrow Mcluhanian phrase, but the question remains in what way the social media (upon which McLuhan sadly was not alive to comment) has re-calibrated our ratios of sensibilities. Have we reached finally the phase he had presaged as the 'technological simulation of human consciousness'. Today, technology is omnipresent. It is ubiquitous for all of us whether we like it or not. A society with loss of privacy whom a renowned professor of sociology, Zygmunt Bauman, christens a "confessional society promoting self-exposure" with a pressure of being seen for everyone.

So, if the Facebook spies upon us, Umberto Eco long before the formal confession of Mark Zuckerberg, had satirised in 2014 in one of his articles for L'Espresso that for the first time in the history of mankind, those who are being spied upon are helping the spies to make their work easier and gain satisfaction from being observed as they live.

But what worries a reasonable man of today vis a vis an enforcement agency like the police, for that matter, is not the aesthetic transfiguration of human appearance through high mega-pixel mobile phone cameras or his/her narcissistic fondness of selfies. The subject of concern lies with the capacity in the hands of anti-social elements of making a mob in the open or through a closed WhatsApp group, which necessarily comes handy to them to fulfil their task of hate peddling. And this is what is happening in subterranean way and therefore posing a serious challenge to police and other state agencies alike to find a perfect counter to it. Even with the success of finding a legal or structural solution, residues of problematic are yet to persist in form of contamination with irrationality, bigotry and a complete wash-off of logic for which not only the content, but also the medium is no less reprehensible. If caught on time (which is rather difficult) one can force someone to add, reduce or mend the content in some way or other, but no law or no police on the earth can change the layout of medium. As McLuhan had quoted Mallarme in one of his letters and in his essays too that for the modern press miracle comes first, rationality later. This is the point where 'global village' is doomed to capitulate or at least seems to stumble, and this is what McLuhan had stated oracularly that there are no moral values at the speed of light and no legal structures for information at this speed will hold up any longer. We have come far ahead from the world of printed text with a bullock-cart speed. In a letter dated February 24,1957, to the then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, McLuhan wrote, "… at electric speed we all are disembodied. On the phone we are instantly present but minus our bodies. There is corresponding loss of personal identity and responsibility which creates separatism both in private life and family life and in all institutional existence."

Nonetheless, McLuhan didn't miss to overlook the positive side of new era of electric media. In democratic societies, instant electric communication 'turned-on' subalterns like 'Negros' in America, for whom according to McLuhan there was no 'Industrial Age', or no 19th century. "They started with electric information," he wrote to Hubert Humphrey, the Vice President of USA in the winters of 1967. Has not social media done the same in different contexts in Third World countries is a topic for detailed academic research.

The popularity of McLuhan's book 'Understanding Media' was such that it's paperback edition, published in 1965, sold around 1 lakh copies in the same year. In response to the critique of some of his notions in an Interview given to Weekend Magazine on January 4,1967, he had said that he was simply a pattern-watcher. For him, TV itself (not its content only) was polluting. "It goes right into the nervous system," he replied, on being asked how to handle it. What he would have commented on being asked for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, had he been alive in 21st century, as Umberto Eco said about Twitter. In his final times, the cell phone was evolving and TV had attained adulthood. But his ideas were infallibly prophetic with regard to the impact of media for future generations. To Peter Drucker, a famous Australian educationist, he said once in his correspondence, "Electronic man is the first since Neolithic times to live in a man-made environment, an information environment."

Involvement has taken its place. Under electric conditions there is no escape for anyone.

(Dharmendra Singh is an IPS officer of the 2006 batch, and is part of the Uttar Pradesh cadre.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)