In his eloquent exploration of how “Disinformation Is a Threat to Our Democracy,” Barack Obama is channeling Marshall McLuhan's media ecology perspective. Chris Riley and I dig deeper into the lessons of that perspective in our new piece in Tech Policy Press, “Understanding Social Media: An Increasingly Reflexive Extension of Humanity” (thanks to editor Justin Hendrix).

We open with that McLuhan insight: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” and quote Obama that “our new information ecosystem is turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses.”

As we observe,

Modern media increasingly does more than merely reflect the world it presents — it shapes it, such that content and context are inextricably interwoven, and the result is a reflexive chain of collaborative transformation.

Understanding how to modulate the harmful aspects of these wild messaging cascades requires stepping back and, instead of viewing the messages as individual items of content, seeing them as stages in reflexive flows in which we and these new media tools shape each other.

For fundamentally collaborative media, then, the collaboration is the message. And because social collaboration is inherently reflexive, the reflexivity is the message. …In other words, we shape our social media — as do all of those who interact with and propagate each message — and, thereafter, our social media shape us.

We suggest that

…a media ecology perspective suggests that growing reflexivity increases the transformative impact of media on the social ecosystem, thus intertwining cause and effect. That provides a unifying perspective: what matters is how media design can uprank and accelerate human proclivities toward cooperation while downranking and slowing those toward discord, thus complementing, not replacing, broader social remedies, and restoring the social space for them to work.

The reflexivity generated by this increasingly rapid and potentially universal feedback process is making “social” media as transformative of a change in civilization as language, writing, the printing press, and mass media. Adapting to it will take time — but a holistic understanding of what is happening in the pan-media ecosystem will facilitate the adjustment.

…the continued disintermediation and degradation of institutions that “once served as a kind of communal glue,” [Obama again] providing signals of authority and legitimacy to specific individuals or content. While this remains the current trajectory, there is both need and opportunity to change the path.

We point to

…opportunity for a re-intermediation — the introduction of user choices, values, and deliberations, as well as the mediating role of user-supported institutions — they can compartmentalize and modulate the cycles of hyper-reflexivity and restore more constructive agency and control.

And conclude that

Such an approach can empower each of us to shape our tools — individually and as communities — to define our social and personal living spaces. Obama said, “tools don’t control us. We control them, and we can remake them.” A media ecology perspective will help us orchestrate that effort to manage increasing reflexivity in a holistic, coherent, inclusive, and effective way.

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That new piece is the second in our series, which began with “Delegation, Or, The Twenty Nine Words That The Internet Forgot,” reminding us of this:

It is the policy of the United States… to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received by individuals… who use the Internet…” — from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

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Author of FairPay | Pioneer of Digital Services | Inventor, Innovator & Futurist

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