Marshall McLuhan famously noted, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the path of information has such a direct impact on the content of a message that the path of the message is more important than the content itself. Basically, the fact that information is being transmitted through a newspaper, or through an email, or phone call, or a television, has such direct control over the person crafting the message, that inevitably the method of communication embeds itself in the DNA of the message.
So, if we accept McLuhan’s premise that the medium really is the message, what happens when every message we send to one another is mediated by a digital middle-man? We rely on smartphones to transmit our voices (sometimes via voicemails, sometimes through live verbal conversation), we limit ourselves to 160 characters in a text message (140 in a Tweet), and we accept our posts out to friends and followers to have certain layout and size limitations across Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on.
What happens as our technology gets smarter? As Facebook learns what we are more likely to click, when Google customizes our search results to fit with our search history, and when our recent actions are used by our computers to anticipate what we might do next? All of these aforementioned things happen now, and trends indicate that we’re heading further in the direction of customized everything. In this way, the medium through which information travels impacts the content in ever-escalating ways. Ever heard of “The Internet of Things (IoT)?” The basic idea of this is that as many aspects of our lives are digitally connected, many of which learn our habits and preferences, increasingly working in tandem to make life more convenient. Companies now work to build devices that embrace the IoT in areas both mundane (home lights and temperatures adjusting on their own, based on your schedule) and significant (wellness indicators that can directly connect with health providers). As our technology gets smarter, its role in our communications and actions grows larger. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it is primary reason why devices like smartphones are so useful.
The implications of a more fully integrated, intelligent, and responsive world around us are being realized every day. One such implication, however, is the idea that our devices and applications are reflections of ourselves. Think about it this way — In the movie Her, Samantha (the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson) layers an encyclopedic knowledge of information onto a complex analysis of the preferences of the user (played by Joaquin Phoenix). So, the system operates with an infinite set of resources, all designed to cater to the user’s every specific whim.
If our devices are really becoming reflections of ourselves, many questions are raised. Are the reflected images accurate, or are they skewed, as in a funhouse mirror? Are our actions changed, based on the assumption that other people will likely see those actions publicly online (see: Cooley’s Looking-glass self theory)? Do our interactions with one another contain the same value online as they do offline? Are the screens through which we exchange information barriers to communication in addition to serving as facilitators? Do the multiple layers that exist between person A and person B in a digital message result isolation for both parties?
I’m not entirely certain where I stand on these issues, to be honest. Either way, I think we owe ourselves an ongoing audit of our technologies, in a search for good, bad and in between. I’ll end with one of my favorite videos/songs from last year that points a critical eye at our reflective age: