The Zuckerberg Revolution
Social media have increased the volume of our communications yet diminished the substance of them.
By Neal Gabler
November 28, 2010
America's favorite boy genius, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has announced a new form of messaging. E-mail, the last Internet link to traditional, epistolary, interpersonal communication, is, he said, outmoded. Young people, by which he meant younger than his own 26 years, desired something more nimble for their iPads, mobile phones and other devices. What he proposed was a "social inbox" where users could readily access messages from friends and then sort them - sort of a cross between instant messaging and Twitter.
We are so accustomed by now to declarations of new technological revolutions that another one hardly gets noticed, especially when it comes to finding new ways of minimizing how we communicate with each other. And it is entirely possible that this proposed geological change will be no more geological than all those other alleged game-changers. But whether his messaging system really transforms how people communicate or not, Zuckerberg issued what amounts to a manifesto that in its own terse way conveys what is already altering our lives - not only how we interact but also how we think and feel. It may even challenge the very idea of serious ideas. Call it Zuckerberg's Revolution.
It qualifies as a revolution because how we communicate largely defines what we communicate. You know: "The medium is the message." When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first movable-type printing press, it was rightly considered one of the signal moments in human history. By allowing books to be mass produced, Gutenberg's press had the immediate effect of disseminating ideas far and wide, but it also had the more powerful and less immediate effect of changing the very construction of thought - through typography.
The social theorist Marshall McLuhan, in his book "The Gutenberg Galaxy," posited that the printing press resulted in what he called "typographic man" - humans with a new consciousness shaped by the non-visual, non-auditory culture of print. He felt that print's uniformity, its immutability, its rigidity, its logic led to a number of social transformations, among which were the rise of rationalism and of the scientific method. In facilitating reason, print also facilitated complex ideas. It was no accident that it coincided with the Renaissance. Print made us think better or, at least, with greater discipline. In effect, the printing press created the modern mind.
Writing scarcely 20 years after McLuhan, in 1985, Neil Postman, in his path-breaking book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," saw the handwriting - or rather the images - on the wall. He lamented the demise of print under the onslaught of the visual, thanks largely to television. Like McLuhan, Postman felt that print culture helped create thought that was rational, ordered and engaging, and he blamed TV for making us mindless. Print not only welcomed ideas, it was essential to them. Television not only repelled ideas, it was inimical to them.