What’s So Social About Machine Media? (1 of 2)

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In the beginning there was “grunt media”—communication centered on a series of modulated grunts, groans, yelps, yells, screeches, coos, etc. Next came oral media—communication centered on a group of people sitting around telling stories. The history of communication media continues thus—media centered on communicating via…

  • …clay tablets and a system of glyphs (typically about food stores)
  • …an alphabet
  • …a system of scribes
  • …print
  • …telegraph
  • …telephone
  • …radio waves
  • …television
  • …digital machines

Clearly there are other forms of communication media. We use art as a form of media to facilitate communication. And art goes all the way back to the cave art found in the Lascaux Caves of France (which date back to about 15,000 BC). Music is another media often used to facilitate communication. My goal here is to not create an exhaustive list of communication media. My goal is to ask one overarching question: Out of all the media that have existed for thousands of years why do we frame digital machine media as being “social?” Here are two follow-up questions:

  • Where has this “social” frame come from?
  • Why has the social frame been so widely, readily, rapidly, and unreflectively accepted?

In this two-part blog post I will take a first pass at trying to answer the above questions. Before we get started, you may well be asking yourself, “Geez, Rick, where is this line of questioning coming from?” Fair question. I’ll tell you.

I just finished a book by Dr. Mack Hicks (a clinical psychologist with thirty years experience) entitled The Digital Pandemic—Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age (2010, New Horizon Press). Dr. Hicks talks about Twitter, Facebook, email, texting (and even sexting), computer use, the Internet, etc. These topics are nothing new. They’re talked about in such books as…

  • Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Bains
  • William Powers’ Hamlet’s BlackBerry—A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (which I summarized in a series of earlier posts)
  • Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other

But there was something different about Hick’s book, and, for the life of me, at first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. As I read along I just had this nagging, gut feeling that something was off. Then at about the halfway point, it hit me: “Dr. Hicks is not using the ‘social’ frame to describe machine media!” There it was: Hicks was talking about Twitter, Facebook, (and, back in 2010, MySpace), email, texting, computer use, the Internet, etc., and not, I repeat, not using a social frame as in “social media.” Hicks insisted on using frames such as “machine media,” “machine thinking,” “human–machine relationships,” “machine culture,” and “mechanization process.” I have to admit that I was easily half way through Hicks’ book before two thoughts hit me: 1) Hicks was not using the ubiquitous “social media” frame to frame machine media, and 2) it is possible to frame machine media using a frame other than the social frame. It was this “aha moment” that triggered the question, “What’s so social about machine media?” And that question immediately led to the follow-up questions: “Where has this ‘social’ frame come from?” and “Why has the social frame been so widely, readily, rapidly, and unreflectively accepted?” I think that Dr. Hicks gives us clues to possible answers. Lets take a look (and I’ll be using George Lakoff’s theory of framing as a background).

Throughout his book Hicks defines and describes two overarching personality types: hunters and gatherers. Simply, gatherers are linear and left-brain oriented (e.g., comfortable with precision, certitude, and reliability); hunters are holistic and right-brain oriented (e.g., comfortable with approximations, guesses, and hunches). In his book, Hicks draws the following comparisons to the theories of Freud and Eric Bern (of transactional analysis fame):

Gatherers = Freud’s ego position = the adult position in TA or transactional analysis
Hunters = Freud’s id and superego positions = the parent and child positions in TA.

I’ve run into Hicks’ personality types elsewhere. Lets take a look.

In his book Nerds—Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (executive summary available), psychologist David Anderegg describes nerds in the same way Hicks describes gatherers. Anderegg describes nerds as effectively “brain workers.” In contrast, Anderegg’s descriptions of “back workers” fits with Hicks’ descriptions of hunters. Anderegg talks about the “men of thinking” (nerds) archetype versus the “men of doing” archetype. In Anderegg’s mind, President Obama would embody the Men of Thinking archetype while the second President Bush (Bush Jr.) would embody the Men of Doing archetype.

These archetypes are as old as, well, the Old Testament. The mythologist Joseph Campbell would often tell his audiences that Cain was a doer, cattle herder, while Abel was a thinker, sheep herder. The Cain and Abel story was dusted off for the 1950s movie starring Alan Ladd entitled Shane. The central conflict in Shane was between cattle and sheep herders in the Wild West. Ladd’s character Shane had to figure out a way to navigate and make peace with these two worlds. I’m not sure he did. He simply rides off into the sunset with a young farm boy yelling, “Shane, come back Shane.” I guess the farm boy too wanted to know how to bridge these two worlds—thinking and doing. I guess today we’re all Shanes to a certain degree. Where’s Shane when we need him.

Here are a couple of other examples of where the gatherer (thinking) versus hunter (doing) theme pops up. (As a side note, Anderegg takes a pro-gatherer position while Hicks tends to take a pro-hunter position.)

The Essential Difference—The Truth About the Male & Female Brain by autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen:

  • Baron-Cohen’s systemizer = Hicks’ gatherer
  • Baron-Cohen’s empathizer = Hicks’ hunter

The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by sociologist Richard Florida:

  • Florida’s digital creative class = Hicks’ gatherer
  • Florida’s analog creative class = Hicks’ hunter

Before I move on I should mention that Baron-Cohen takes a pro-gatherer position as does Florida. Baron-Cohen suggests that the male, systemizer (autistic spectrum) brain will be the brain of the future. And Florida argues that brain workers, along with their focus on digital creativity, shall inherit the earth. So, if you are keeping score, that’s three—Anderegg, Baron-Cohen, and Florida—for the Thinking archetype, and one—Hicks—for the Doing archetype. I would not trust my sampling here. I would invite you to leave a comment with other references that take a decidedly pro-Doing archetype position. As an example, I think Robert Putnam takes a pro-Doing archetype position in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. However, I get the sense that Putnam acknowledges that his pro-Doing position will be hard to maintain given the meteoric rise of Florida’s Creative Digital Class or Baron-Cohen’s systemizers.

So, how does any of the above explain where the social frame came from and why the social frame has been so widely, readily, rapidly, and unreflectively accepted? I’ll take this question up in part II by getting back to Hicks.