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Re-inventing the wheel in the 21st century

It seems that hate speech and outrageous lies will have free rein once again on Twitter – thanks to Elon Musk’s reckless ownership. It’s just one more sign that the internet, the dominant way we communicate these days, is a very messy place where standards of truth don’t have much of a toehold. You see the impact of that all around us. Social media, especially, encourages violence, misleads voters, and leaves us isolated in fact-challenged bubbles.

But we’re in what’s often called the season of hope, so let me share a little history that might give you some. It starts with an incident almost 20 years ago, as I sat in a conference center north of Manhattan with a few dozen people involved in the media industry. There were magazine publishers, broadcast executives, marketing leaders and perhaps a couple of other journalists. We found ourselves getting schooled by an older fellow named Marty Sklar. He had been the creative head of “Imagineering” for Disney — sounds like a cool job, right? — so he clearly knew a thing or two about how to reach and inspire audiences. That’s why he had been brought in to speak to a group of media leaders – who were struggling to understand the emerging digital world.

So this Disney guy said to us, “The internet has altered things, hasn’t it?” He went on, “I’ve heard people in your kind of work say that it’s as big as the invention of moveable type, which, as you media people like to say, changed the world. But you’re wrong.”

We might have been even a bit hopeful at that — thinking that maybe this wise man was about to reassure us that everything would work out just fine for the so-called legacy media. Incidentally, I love the smell of ink on newsprint.

But here’s what he said next: He said, “Digital is not like Gutenberg. It’s like the wheel. And the wheel has just been invented. You’re here for it. So what are you going to do?”

Think about that. If the internet is as seminal an event in human history as the invention of the wheel, and we’re just 40 years into this new age – well, no wonder our digital world is confounding us. Things didn’t get better for humans right after they invented the wheel, you know.

Scientists say it was about 6,000 years ago when humans in Mesopotamia started using a wheel to make pottery. Then, after a number of decades, they began to use the round thing to transport stuff – and then, finally, to carry people in carts. Suddenly, then, the world both shrank -- as people traveled farther – and also grew more complex – as they built more and came into conflict with distant people unlike themselves. Other than learning to walk upright, have humans done anything bigger than invent the wheel?

Maybe they have, as the Imagineering guy was saying, and maybe it is happening in our lifetimes. No wonder things are a bit messy for humankind these days, with political systems stressed to the breaking point, tensions mounting internationally and human-induced climate change about to put our way of life at risk as we dawdle in response. Maybe we’re just trying to figure out how we roll in this new era, and it’s bumpy. So was the first ride in a wheeled cart, I figure.

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan argued that humans use technology to extend their power. In the digital age, technology has extended our capacity to glimpse the world beyond what previous generations ever could have imagined. But McLuhan also noted that these so-called “extensions” also create what he called “amputations” — like, the automobile extended our ability to travel quickly but also took away the ability of most people to ride a horse or drive a buggy.

Most of us have trouble adjusting to both our extensions and our amputations. I would argue that just now, neither our brains nor society’s systems have quite figured out how to deal with the digital revolution. And that is why so much of the world seems a bit unhinged.

But perhaps the long view may help us feel a bit less anxious about the challenges we face in our eyeblink of time. It’s like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, coolly casting aside the heartbreak of lost love, as he asserted, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” You know, Ilsa flew off with her husband, Rick went back to his saloon, and the world still turned.

That’s not to say that we should just shrug off challenges to world stability… or that we shouldn’t fight the anti-democratic ugliness of Trumpism, and do all we can to save our planet from our own destructiveness. But maybe the best we can hope for is enough good sense and good luck that we might muddle our way through this changing world … to a point in some years when humans will figure out how to cope with the extensions of power and the losses of agency wrought by that the digital revolution. This is our moment, but it is only that: a moment.

Scientists believe that it wasn’t until 300 years after pottery first turned on a wheel that somebody attached the round things – that is, wheels – to an axel, and used them to propel a person on a chariot. So maybe there is hope for us yet.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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