Mediated existence (and the failure of ‘no more Facebook’ resolutions)

Note: modified from lecture 2, MGMT 3603, Winter 2015.

It is rather pedestrian to say the Internet matters. It impacts our lives in countless ways. From how we bank to how we procrastinate to how we find love. We use the Internet to connect with colleagues around the world, to share pieces of our lives with friends and family via social media, to learn about new things, to entertain ourselves – the list goes on.

Thinking about the ways the Internet impacts our daily lives, one can imagine that the invention of the printing press similarly invaded most corners of human existence. Newspapers for information, books for entertainment, posters for marketing and passbooks for banking. Again, the list goes on. But that is not necessarily how print media were perceived.

For many, books and other media were long thought of as being on the outskirts of existence. They were tools that could be used or could be ignored. They were not crucial to life, at the heart of existence or the core of social interaction. In a CBC interview with the well known Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan, this very point is underlined. McLuhan is asked about the seemingly obvious fact that media are quite separate from human life. He rejects the accusation and instead asserts: “The media are at the heart of our lives because they work through our senses.”

What he means is this, without media we interact with the world around us via sight and sound and touch and taste and smell. Media allow us to extend those senses beyond our immediate surroundings. Like a ladder making us taller, or a car making us faster, media technology modifies our ability to connect with the world in important ways. The printed word allows us to speak permanently and hear the past. The television allows us to see into cities from far away and the living rooms and lives of others. We can see what is happening across the ocean because we can turn on a television (or, today, stream BBC World).

Assuming you can get behind the idea that interacting with the world is pretty core to human existence, media have to be seen as at the heart of our lives because media let us interact. Media are not simply found on the edges of life, at least not for those who want to be connected to society.

Thinking about it in the context of current media availability and in the cultural context of a western democracy like Canada, there are a lot of technologies we might like to think are disposable but in practice we can’t seem to shake.

The somehow classic, ‘I will spend less time on Facebook’ New Years resolution is a prime example. Sure, you can say I’ll spend less time on it but then a Professor assigns group work and you need an easy way to connect. You either need to use Facebook or find some other tool that is likely rather Facebook-like in order to ensure all group members stay connected consistently.

Similarly, you may say you want to protect your privacy and put less information online, but then you are job hunting and every company you apply to expects a LinkedIn profile and links to your blog.

Now, there is certainly a debate to be had about what media are central and which are not, how that differs for people cross-culturally and over time – the point is that much of our lives are mediated and will always be mediated.

From the business perspective, being tuned in and central to social life is invaluable. A business needs to be situated in such away that many people can find it and interact with it — that is whether it be finding new funders, maintaining relationships with suppliers, attracting customers or, quite frankly, most any other step in a business’ life cycle. For a time that meant an add in the Yellow Pages and good recommendations through customers. Then TV and radio spots were added to print advertisement and now online visibility has become crucial. We can’t escape a mediated life. 

In a course I teach called Beyond Google at Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management we are exploring these themes and taking it a step further. We are interested in understanding the various ways the Internet impacts and can be used within information management. The majority of this online class happens in a closed Blackboard Learning environment but periodically I’ll post some of the content here. Feedback welcome!

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