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« Wired For Sanctuary: Technology, Threat, Agency, and Intent | Main | Rewired For War: Militant Operating Environments »

Response to Innes: The Medium is the Message?

[Ed's Note: In a rather ironic twist, part of this post got lost in cyberspace somewhere, so it is now updated and in its complete form.]  

Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "The Medium is the Message."  By this, McLuhan meant that "This is merely to say that the personal and societal consequences of any medium -- that is, of any extension of ourselves -- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by such extension of ourselves, or by any new technology." (Unfortunately, McLuhan's prose is insanely dense and obscurantist at times).  In terms of the internet, this means that the net is an extension of ourselves and, well, the societal consequences of the net seem pretty obvious. 

Yesterday, Mike Innes, in discussing terrorist sanctuary, takes Andrew Exum to task for suggesting that "common denominator that has emerged from domestic terror threats in places like the United Kingdom is that their staging ground was actually on the internet rather than in a physical 'safe haven'." Mike then paints an image of terrorists uploading themselves into the net, and suggests instead that is is web-based propaganda that Exum refers to.  In response to Thomas Hegghammer's declaration that the medium is the message, Mike argues: "It's a vehicle, nothing more, unless you consider the stratcom implications of the message being in the medium - but even so, the messenger as active agent is a third party to all this. Perhaps, in a rewired-for-war robotics sense, the Internet could become the messenger at some point down the road, but that's a distracted aside."  

Mike, I am afraid, is being a bit too literal here, no doubt on purpose.  It is not a question of Osama Bin Laden uploading himself so that he can float around somewhere in cyberspace on the information superhighway.  Rather, it is a question of using the internet as a staging ground to hatch plans as the terrorists are dispersed, in different parts of a city, or a country, or in different nations, and so on.  Indeed, this isn't so different than how most of use the net.  So in the simple McLuhanite sense, the internet is central, it is the staging ground, it is the message, at least in a sense.

Mike also notes that the

People communicate through the web, and learn from resources hosted on it, and sometimes that communication and learning can lead down the road to extremism. But those features doesn’t really make the web any more an "operating environment" or "staging ground" than text messaging, the radio, or the local library...The point about terrorist use of the internet that’s consistently glossed over is that it’s just as "physical" a resource as training camps in Waziristan, cave complexes in Tora Bora, or safe houses in London. It's anchored in real world hardware and it takes real people to interface with it – but it’s organized, distributed, and accessed in ways that don't look anything like the macro territorial havens we’re used to thinking about. The distributed internet is, essentially, a reflection of the transnational networks that exploit the medium.

Here he is both correct and incorrect, I think.  The internet, due to its pervasiveness and the virtual world it creates, is very different than the local library, the radio, or txt messaging.  It is more interactive than either txt messaging or the radio, and it is more virtual and therefore, wider spread than the library.  However, I agree that it is just as real a resource as Warzistani training camps and caves in Tora Bora.  Note, however, that I use the term "real" and not "physical."  While the internet does indeed require human interaction, it is a different beast than those training camps or caves, precisely due to the fact that it is virtual.  

According to McLuhan, the medium affects how the message is interpreted, that there is a symbiotic relationship between the communicators and the message itself, according to the medium.  McLuhan suggests that the more interesting thing here is the medium, not the message.  From this angle, we end up back where Exum started, in suggesting that the internet was the staging ground for terrorist threats in the UK, at least.  This is where their plans were hatched, this is where they made arrangements to meet, to put plans into action.  Thus, the medium is the message, at least in the sense that McLuhan meant it.

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