If the Medium is the Message, What is the Message of the Internet?

by Tim Sommers

What’s the greatest prediction of all time?

By “greatest,” I mean something like how big a deal the thing predicted is multiplied by how accurate the prediction was.  I would love to hear other proposals in the comments, but mine is Andy Warhol’s prediction that, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

It was made somewhere around 1968. Not only were there no social media and no internet at the time, but computers were barely even a thing. Could you have looked around at celebrity culture in 1968 and predicted Instagram and Twitter and influencers?

Yes, I know. Many doubt that Warhol said this. Wikipedia, for example, baldly asserts that this quote is “misattributed” to Warhol, while the Smithsonian Magazine more judiciously reports that he “probably never said” that. But I don’t think the evidence that they cite really confirms their skepticism. The Smithsonian Magazine, for example, reports that art critic Blake Gopnik (never even mentioned as one of the suspects in the Wikipedia article) claimed credit for the quote, and then they take it as confirmation of Gopnik’s story that later on Gopnik also said that he (Gopnik) heard Warhol say that he (Warhol) never said that. It’s like Wittgenstein’s example of someone trying to confirm what’s in the newspaper by buying a second copy of the same newspaper. Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and David Bowie all credit the quote to Warhol. That’s good enough for me.

On the other hand, maybe the fact that it’s hard to figure out to whom to attribute the quote, works better for our subject. Which is this. ‘If the medium is the message,’ as media theorist Marshall Mcluhan said, ‘what is the message of the internet as a medium?’ (Mcluhan, despite being an academic, became so widely recognize, largely for that line, that he did a cameo as himself in Annie Hall.)

My philosophy training forces me to begin by saying that I think Mcluhan should have said, ‘The medium of any particular media technology is itself also itself a kind of message in addition to the particular messages merely conveyed by that medium…” (Or something like that.)

Anyway, what is the message of the internet as a medium? The techno Utopian message of the internet, according to early enthusiasts, is that, “Information wants to be free.” Unfortunately, that’s wrong. The real message of the internet is, “All information is equal.”

Hence, contemporary conspiracy theorists are fond of directing others to ‘Do their own research,’ where “research” involves watching a lot of YouTube videos of crazy people spouting unsourced, often violent or at least dangerous, nonsense.

Hence, according to a recent article by political scientist Brian Klass, the asymmetrical level of conspiracy thinking in the US, as opposed to Britain, is largely attributable to the continuing wide-spread respect for the BBC as a, more or less, objective new source.

Hence, the whole edifice of Trump/MAGA ideology is founded on the idea of “alternative facts.” You have yours, I have mine. This predates Trump, of course. I remember watching a Republican Senator being interviewed during a Tea Party event complaining that Obama had raised income taxes. When the reporter pointed out (correctly) that Obama had just, in fact, lowered taxes, the Senator said, “Well, that’s your opinion. But I don’t accept that.” I remember thinking, wait, something has gone really wrong. There has, in fact, been a complete repudiation, by a huge number of Americans (at least thirty-percent), of what previously held our democracy, however tenuously, together: namely, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”

Now, there are always naysayers with any new technology, and certainly always with new media (writing, printing press, mail, telegraph, radio, tv, internet, social media, etc.). I always enjoy it when I get to be the first person to tell my Intro to Philosophy students that Socrates and Plato were steadfastly opposed to the new technology of – wait for it! – writing stuff down. (It’s bad for your memory and, pretty much literally, it takes the “spirit” (nous) out of the conversation.) And yet, final twist, we probably wouldn’t know who either of them was if Plato had written so much down.

There are always naysayers, yes, but here’s the thing. What the internet, as a medium, is telling us – that “all information is equal” – is true. Yes. True.

Computing understand information the way information theory understands information. Information theory is the objective, scientific study of how to measure, quantify and ultimately express in abstract mathematical equations (which turn out to be to be oddly similar to thermodynamics) the amount of information in a message. For example, how much, or little, information can be send by via a certain type of signal and how much information survives an attempt to transmit a message. Information, in the information theoretic sense, the sense relevant to computing, is objective, but such information is neither true nor false.

Sometimes we think of information as something that must be accurate by definition. It’s information, if it’s true. It’s disinformation, if it’s false. But that’s not how information theory, and by extension computing, treats information.

As an information theorist, if I ask you if the message you received is accurate, I am not asking if it is true, or accurate in the colloquial sense, I am asking you if it correctly duplicates the original message that I was attempting to transmit.

The things that are different and appealing about the internet as a medium – it’s diffuse and open with fewer gatekeepers than almost any other media in history – creates its greatest problem. Almost anybody can say almost anything and almost no one is going to be around to offer any definitive ruling on if what was said was true. In fact, it’s always much harder, and more time consuming, to quash misinformation on the internet, than it is to spread that misinformation in the first place. (Hey, that should be an internet law named after me. Here’s Sommers’ Law, pithy-ied up: “It always takes more effort to discredit misinformation, than it does to spread it.”)

Even information that constitutes knowledge can be problematic. You might think that all knowledge is good. But you’d be wrong. Here are some classic examples from epistemology. Look up. Are there spots on your ceiling? How many? Look down. How many strands are in your carpet? How many blades of grass in your lawn? There are surely a definite number of spots, strands, and blades. But who cares?

At a minimum, since we can’t know everything, some things that we could know, it would be positively detrimental for us to actually know.

(Though used often in epistemology, and featured for a different purpose in my own work on equality, I have never able to find out, and so don’t actually know, where these examples come from originally. Figures.)

Let me end, appropriately, I think, with a supertrivial example. I am not going to link to any of the sources for the incident I am about to canvass. They are easy to find, if you care. I don’t recommend doing that, however. Anyway, in December an influencer, Ali Spice (yes, you guessed it, not her real name), was killed in a car accident. One early report said she was killed by a “Kamikaze.” The internet went nuts. (Or rather the small corner of the part of the internet that I happened to looking at around then was all over it.) Obviously, she wasn’t killed by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service during WWII. So, was she killed by some kind of a contemporary, car-driving Kamikaze? Well, was it on purpose? No. Did the driver who hit her know who she was or who was in the car? There’s no evidence that they did. So, why call it a kamikaze car accident? Probably, just poor writing. But maybe on purpose. After all, this tiny, little-linked-to web site suddenly had thousands of hits and links and second-hand references – including right here, right now. Why, though?

Because whether it is true that, in some sense, Ali Spice was killed by a kamikaze demanded to be known. Because the truth is out there? Nah. Because information wants to be free? No.

To be clear, I am not above any of this and I spent five- or ten-minutes googling this one (at least I hope it wasn’t longer than that).

So, why?

It just caught my attention for a second and then I wanted to know why the writer was using the word “kamikaze.” But, put another way, because on the internet, all information is equal. Why spend more time on whether or not the Reconstruction amendments were meant to be color-blind (as so many on the Supreme Court falsely assert), when I could spend time figuring out if someone I didn’t know was misusing the word kamikaze to describe the death of someone I had never heard of?

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (T.S. Eliot, The Rock (1934))