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Reflexive McLuhanism

swyx profile image swyx Originally published at swyx.io ・3 min read

This post is my attempt at a "red pill" for those who haven't had McLuhanite ideas applied to the world they live in.

I think people don't appreciate enough how much we are a product of our environment — and how much of our environment is socially constructed. Not only that, it is constructed by a small group of builders who never really thought they'd ever get this far (such is the nature of leverage).

To paraphrase Churchill: First we shape X, then X shapes us. If a defining characteristic of humanity is making and using tools, then a defining characteristic of society is being shaped by those same tools.

Social Everything Optimization

We are well past debating linguistic relativity and Sapir-Whorf. "Language shapes thought"? That's cute. Try everything around us shaping everything we do.

The Tough Tomato Principle by Florent Crivello, among many things, spotted the impact of Google Maps on names of hotels ("Good Hotel San Francisco"). How long until someone is born named "Best Lawyer NYC"?

Once you see it, you see it everywhere. Game developers optimizing for Twitch spectator experience, Museums optimizing for Instagram, Musicians optimizing for TikTok and their labels too. We're even renaming human genes because Excel.

Instagram is God's gift to colorful and niche products. Living in New York, I've personally seen the explosion of color even in ice cream shops - I used to work in SoHo, where the Black Tap put out increasingly obnoxiously unrealistic sundaes that work great on Instagram but would be a nightmare to actually eat.

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How about clothes? Listen to Jenn Hyman directly credit Instagram for women's increased desire for more variety in clothing, which helped her business, Rent the Runway.

A lot of people will deny the influence of media on their own preferences. The illusion of free will and desire for self-determination is strong.

But you can't deny the impact of media changing the real world/economy. And people who's job it is to reach people (marketers and politicians) are depressingly attuned to how much media shapes us. Alex Danco made a strong case that TV helped elect JFK, Radio helped Trump. AOC isn't on Tiktok, but you can bet she is reaching her voters in that format.

Design is King

I used to call this "Modern McLuhanism", because it was McLuhan that asserted the non-neutrality of media.

He observed that in the 1960s. Fast forward half a century, and we now live in a world where every company is a media company and every person is a media company. The modern affliction is not simply that the choice of medium affects us, but also that we are complicit in creating the medium in the first place.

Modern McLuhanism is reflexive.

In such a world, design is king. Thoughtful product design genuinely nudges society forward. Carelessness can tear it apart. Wilson Miner called out the implications of this for software in his classic talk, When We Build.

I'd go so far as to make it required viewing, and this idea required digestion, for all builders. We who have this awesome power, correspondingly have an awesome responsibility.

Side note: I have previously written about the duality of Mimicry and Reflexivity exploring more applications of reflexivity on its own.

Discussion (4)

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fatmonky profile image
fatmonky

Thanks for the thoughtful post: this is perhaps the first time I have encountered reflexivity (from Soros) and McLuhan in the same essay, which is a super interesting juxtaposition of two very different worlds. :)

Two responses:

  1. "Try everything around us shaping everything we do." -> That is linked to the Buddhist concept of non-self: if there was a self, that self would be fully in control of its own thoughts, body, etc. Instead of a self, the self is actually a process, heavily influenced by the surrounding conditioning. That is why there is a strong emphasis on "good friends" repeatedly in the early Buddhist texts: your friends make you, and vice versa.

  2. Your point that design is king feels necessary but insufficient to me, especially if one is heavily influenced by the environment: this implies that the context around your medium is also important, which means that the design doesn't just stop at your screen or software but extends to considering the possible contexts of use.
    So, perhaps it isn't just that design is king, but what is being designed, how it is being designed, and for what context.

PS: I came across your post from the Part Time creator manifesto, and am really enjoying your blog! :) Thanks for sharing.

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swyx profile image
swyx Author

thanks very much! appreciate both responses, not much to say except I agree.

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lepinekong profile image
lepinekong • Edited

For person it coud be go worse than that: Rise of Psychopathic Narcissist: Our Future? :) youtube.com/watch?v=ix-trtzii_8

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swyx profile image
swyx Author

TL;DW?