2010s – The Decade When Media Lost Their Gatekeepers


Media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s work best explains how the world changed in the 2010s—and what we can expect in the decade ahead.

By Zach Weissmueller

What did the 2010s add up to?

I spent the decade at Reason creating videos about the democratization of everything and the declining power of society’s gatekeepers.

“Everything that we prize in our Western world, in matters of individualism, separatism, private point of view…all of those things are highly favored by the printed word,” said media theorist Marshall McLuhan in a 1965 BBC interview [by Frank Kermode], (see below).

McLuhan, who coined the axiom “the medium is the message,” argued that history’s prime mover isn’t the Great Leader or the Great Thinker but ever-changing communications technologies. 

As societies moved from oral traditions to written ones, McLuhan argued, there was a  bottom-up cultural shift. Tribal groups who relied on face-to-face communication and mythology morphed into more complex, less homogeneous societies thanks to the written word. And when the printing press standardized communications, the distribution of literature created the very concept of “a public” bound together by common languages and texts. This set the stage for the rise of modern nation-states and the Enlightenment. 

In the 1960s, McLuhan identified our current epoch as the “Electric Age,” in which circuit-based media gave rise to what he termed “the global village.” For the first time in history, the entire world could follow a single event.

McLuhan predicted that this electric “global village” would undo both the national homogeneity and personal individuality engendered by print, reviving our more fractured and tribal past.

“Involuntarily, we’re getting rid of individualism,” McLuhan said, identifying the shift away from print towards “electric” media like radio and television as the main causal factor. “We’re more concerned with what the group knows, of feeling as it does, of acting ‘with it.'”

And as the electric age evolved into the digital age with its cheap, limitless replicability, this retribalization accelerated in the 2010s. This is why the past decade has both created opportunities and dangers for the libertarian worldview.

Barack Obama epitomized the best and worst of the decade: As a long-shot candidate, he used new modes of communication to route around and eventually co-opt media gatekeepers.

He built a cult of personality through social media, using inspiring rhetoric so vague that people could project anything onto his words.

The Obama White House produced and distributed its own content, undermining the ability of the establishment to define him.

Photojournalists, for example, were denied access to the president’s most intimate moments—but were free to publish the selective imagery of the official White House photographer.

“The White House went to create an identity for the president. And because they [could] distribute directly through all these channels, there really [wasn’t] much downside to it,” photojournalism analyst Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures told Reason‘s Todd Krainin in 2014.

Read the rest of this essay at https://tinyurl.com/u3zrm55

The 2010s: When the Media Lost Their Gatekeepers

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