2019 Year in Review

The 2010s: When the Media Lost Their Gatekeepers

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan's work best explains how the world changed in the 2010s—and what we can expect in the decade ahead.


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What did the 2010s add up to?

I spent the decade at Reason creating videos about the democratization of everything and the declining power of society's gatekeepers.

"Everything that we prize in our Western world, in matters of individualism, separatism, private point of view…all of those things are highly favored by the printed word," said media theorist Marshall McLuhan in a 1965 BBC interview

McLuhan, who coined the axiom "the medium is the message," argued that history's prime mover isn't the Great Leader or the Great Thinker but ever-changing communications technologies. 

As societies moved from oral traditions to written ones, McLuhan argued, there was a  bottom-up cultural shift. Tribal groups who relied on face-to-face communication and mythology morphed into more complex, less homogeneous societies thanks to the written word. And when the printing press standardized communications, the distribution of literature created the very concept of "a public" bound together by common languages and texts. This set the stage for the rise of modern nation-states and the Enlightenment. 

In the 1960s, McLuhan identified our current epoch as the "Electric Age," in which circuit-based media gave rise to what he termed "the global village." For the first time in history, the entire world could follow a single event.

McLuhan predicted that this electric "global village" would undo both the national homogeneity and personal individuality engendered by print, reviving our more fractured and tribal past.

"Involuntarily, we're getting rid of individualism," McLuhan said, identifying the shift away from print towards "electric" media like radio and television as the main causal factor. "We're more concerned with what the group knows, of feeling as it does, of acting 'with it.'"

And as the electric age evolved into the digital age with its cheap, limitless replicability, this retribalization accelerated in the 2010s. This is why the past decade has both created opportunities and dangers for the libertarian worldview.

Barack Obama epitomized the best and worst of the decade: As a long-shot candidate, he used new modes of communication to route around and eventually co-opt media gatekeepers. 

He built a cult of personality through social media, using inspiring rhetoric so vague that people could project anything onto his words.

The Obama White House produced and distributed its own content, undermining the ability of the establishment to define him. 

Photojournalists, for example, were denied access to the president's most intimate moments—but were free to publish the selective imagery of the official White House photographer.

"The White House went to create an identity for the president. And because they [could] distribute directly through all these channels, there really [wasn't] much downside to it," photojournalism analyst Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures told Reason's Todd Krainin in 2014

Obama wasn't the only one who understood new media better than the gatekeepers. Disruptive figures like Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe embarrassed the establishment, bringing down national political organizations like ACORN and Rep. Anthony Weiner. The same dynamic was at play when teenage boys were accused of harassing a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial until Reason's own Robby Soave did a more thorough analysis of the raw cellphone footage.

Occupy Wall Street protestors capitalized on the digital age to gain widespread attention for their movement. And, of course. there's Edward Snowden, who carefully selected his own gatekeepers to bring U.S. government secrets out into the open and then spoke directly to the public to defend his actions. 

DIY culture is hardly new, but the 2010s are when journalists, governments, and the public at large were forced to take it seriously.

In 2016, Renegade gunsmith Cody Wilson created not just the 3D-printed gun but, just as importantly, content about the 3D-printed gun.

"The media cannot help themselves," Wilson told Reason in a 2016 interview. "If I can get something 80 percent of the way, they will take it to its completion."

Wilson also epitomized the permissionless attitude that accelerated in the 2010s by enabling his customers to make firearms without the involvement  of the state.

Or take the DIY genetic engineering kits, pioneered by former NASA biologist turned biohacking entrepreneur Josiah Zayner.

"Why are people dying and suffering needlessly because of all these committees and all these rules?" Zayner told Reason in 2016. "And what happens if people just start saying, 'Fuck you, I'm going to do it anyway?' And what if people start getting cured?"

Ross Ulbricht launched the first, but not last, dark web drug market. And Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB disrupted and undermined entrenched industries with ubiquitous pocket computers.

If Obama mastered the use of new media to control image and messaging, Trump exploited its tendency to discombobulate and, yes, retribalize.

Trump, with his background in reality tv and mass marketing, understands that the American public has a limited attention span that's stretched thin by today's media, and cartoonist and writer Scott Adams told Reason in 2015 that he believed Trump's unusual communication style was likely to result in him winning the presidential race in "a landslide."

"It's more of a strategy than you imagine it is," Adams said of Trump's repeated use of phrases like "low energy" to describe his political opponents. "I've said that if Trump wins, it might change how we see the world…and how humans are influenced and how little reason has to do with what we do." 

Foreign actors capitalized on the declining trust in institutions to spread their own propaganda.

So it's not surprising that many people yearn for the return of the gatekeepers, such as comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who accused a "handful of tech companies" of running the "greatest propaganda machine in history" in a November speech to the Anti-Defamation League.  

Congress has demanded that Facebook, Twitter, and Google do something, holding multiple hearings over the past four years related to the spread of disinformation on social media. 

In many ways, the gatekeepers tried to reassert power. Twitter and Google punished users for violating their vague and overly broad terms of service, which were partly exported to the U.S. from more censorious jurisdictions.

"Things that would be politically difficult or… unconstitutional to mandate [in the U.S.], we don't have to even consider because they get mandated in Europe and then companies apply them globally," Stanford law professor and tech expert Daphne Keller told Reason earlier this year.

But if McLuhan is right, there's no going back.

His technological determinism will seem bleak to some, but it also offers a path to personal agency and self-awareness. 

What kind of media do you want? Not what kind of press or set of journalists: But through what technological means do you want to communicate and get information?

If the 2010s were the decade of the stream or the feed, what if, for instance, the 2020s bring the return of the channel?

Content giants like Netflix, HBO and Disney, are in a mad scramble to lock their copyright behind subscription paywalls, roughly reconstituting the branded TV channels "cord cutters" thought they'd left behind. But they're also part of a consequential shift towards deriving revenue from subscriptions instead of advertising, which generates a more direct relationship between content consumer and producer.  

And we've already begun to see dedicated, encrypted communication channels supplant public timelines and further fracture mass media.  Following the habits of its users, even Facebook has pivoted hard away from the newsfeed towards private groups and chat. 

Could the revived channel, with its emphasis on personalization and constant exchange, signal a return of community, privacy, and free thought in the 2020s? 

Or will the 2020s see the continued erosion of those values, in which we turn our major communications platforms into public utilities, heavily regulated and controlled by the state?

If we begin to treat media consumption as a personal responsibility with an awareness of how electric media predisposes us to tribalism and manipulation, we can better opt out, resist, and persuade others to do the same. 

If not, society could be destabilized in the 2020s—or perhaps we'll see a new, more pernicious form of gatekeeping, like the techno-authoritarian control mechanisms being developed in China. In that scenario, the only recourse will be to turn more urgently to state-resistant encryption tools and decentralized internet platforms. 

"A decentralized framework where there isn't that middleman that can be manipulated or coerced or regulated into exposing your data, that's a better, safer, more resilient world that doesn't end up … as susceptible to authoritarian control," Molly Mackinlay, project lead on a decentralized system called the Interplanetary File Systems protocol, told Reason earlier this year.

The future demands a greater commitment to liberal tolerance of difference and the fair and free exchange of ideas.

The coming decade, with its opportunities to leverage the tools that for so long were out of reach for so many, could and should be a time of liberation, choice, and prosperity rather than one of collectivism, control, and misery. 

Produced and written by Zach Weissmueller. Opening and closing graphics by Lex Villena.

Photo credits: Xinhua News Agency/Newcom, Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI/Newscom, Anthony Nowack/Photoshot/Newscom, Henrique Casinhas/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Ron Sachs/SIPA/Newscom.

"Machinery" by Kai Engel licensed under a Creative Commons License.

"Where Are My Clothes," "Red Dead Masque," "Sink Whole Dream," "I Can't Remember I Can't Recall," and "Sunburned Salvation" by the 129ers licensed under a Creative Commons License.


Referenced Reason TV videos:

Reality Show President: inside the Obama PR Machine

An AR-15 in Every Home: 3D Printer Cody Wilson on Resistance, Trump, the Media, & More

The $140 Mail-Order CRISPR Kit: Is Unregulated Biohacking the Future of Science?

Dilbert Creator Scott Adams on Donald Trump's 'Linguistic Kill Shots'

How Europe Censors What Americans Say Online

The Decentralized Web is Coming

NEXT: How Vaping 'Might Just Save Your Life!'

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  1. The future demands a greater commitment to liberal tolerance of difference and the fair and free exchange of ideas.

    One hopes. Some have imagined the future demands a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

    1. The future doesn’t demand anything. It would be nice if we end up living in a “tolerant” society, whatever that means, but there is no guarantee of that.

      1. Yep. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. From the printing press on, the communication trend has been more information and less centralization, and politics follows that trend. The Industrial Revolution was a natural follower, and wealth began following the same trend — more of it, and less centralized.

    Our poor brains are still, in some ways, adapted for tribal ways, where everyone was in the same boat. Whatever was hunted or gathered had to be consumed toot sweet or it would rot and have no value to anybody. If you happened to kill a deer or elk or buffalo, or find a good honey bee nest or hidden bed of berries, it did little good to hoard it. You could choose who to favor, ad if you were an especially good hunter or forager, you could repeat that more often than others, but generally that was the limit of capital you could build up. You had to share, and if you didn’t, others felt justified in stealing your hoard.

    That’s what seems to me drives the anti-profit motive, the instinct against the rich. Most people are somewhat aware that buying property, like a boat or RV, is justified; it’s when you get to 20 bedroom mansions and 300 foot yachts or business jets that people lose their sense of scale and forget their principles. Billionaires with investments are beyond comprehension if you’ve lost your principles.

    1. We always will be tribal. We’re human beings. Human beings ARE tribal.

      Tribes can make nice with each other for a common good, they can even merge to a certain extent, but you cant undo millions of years of evolution because “reasons”.

      1. Nope, you are right, can’t undo all that evolution. But we can control it, as we have, partially. People are envious of RV and boat owners, up to some size limit. We have tamed our tribal nature to some extent.

        Principles are the solution. Unfortunately, politics despises principles. The Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were good first attempts at enshrining principles. but alas, they still left politicians in charge and with enough rope to hang principles from every lamp post in sight.

        If politicians did not have the coercive power of a monopoly government, we’d be a lot better off. The Constitution was supposed to keep them isolated and away from power, but they found some loopholes and fabricated others.

    2. “From the printing press on, the communication trend has been more information and less centralization,”

      I’d say greater centralization. Post and telegram offices, giant networks of radio/television conglomerates. Wealth, too. With industrialization wealth and people were concentrated into cities in a trend that continues today. On the internet, google for search, facebook for social media. More information, yes, but more centralization.

  3. They say Whites, a mere 10% of the world, uniquely must accept mass immigration and assimilation, diversity, open borders to fix the ‘race’ problem. They clearly mean the ‘White’ problem.

    The 90% of the world we call minorities has no obligation to ‘diversify’. They don’t have to ‘assimilate’ anybody.

    Africa can stay African. Asia, Asian. There’s no ‘race’ problem there.

    Diversity means Chasing Down the Last White Person. “Racist” is an anti-White slur.

    1. only in western civilizations as well. the slavic nations are never called racist even if they do the same things. You’ve got a be a post WW2 western power to get the wonderful gift of being able to be called “racist” by the establishment.

    2. No, it’s just a slur against people who don’t follow the party line. If it was about color then progressives wouldn’t be so biased against the wrong types of minorities. They are eager to let in illegal immigrants and refugees who will give them votes in exchange for entitlements. But minority potential-immigrants who would be escaping actual persecution and thus not motivated by entitlements, i.e. Venezuelans, Hong Kong protesters, and middle east Christians, can suck it.

      1. This progressive train of thought has origins back in eastern europe/russia and like most progressive manifestos was a Christian/Jewish issue from the Jewish side…the anti-western thoughts have their core in the tribal views of socialist/secularist Jews as a response to the Christian rulers and peasantry.

    3. “Whites, a mere 10% of the world,”

      They don’t stand a chance if they want to go against the non-white 90%.

  4. Ah yes, I always enjoy reading mid-century theses about human behavior, they have that feel of “not quite there, but close” in their premises and solutions. Few hold up, but it’s fun nonetheless.

    1. I saw your name and expected an update on the terrible state of the economy, with a reminder it was much better under Obama. But you’re the fake Buttplug. It’s not nice to impersonate one of Reason’s best commenters.


      1. You err. This name is mine, it was used to pay off a bet.

        1. Well, maybe Reason’s leading economics expert can return to posting as “moneyshot.” I miss his unique insights in any case.


  5. “Involuntarily, we’re getting rid of individualism,” McLuhan said, identifying the shift away from print towards “electric” media like radio and television as the main causal factor. “We’re more concerned with what the group knows, of feeling as it does, of acting ‘with it.'”

    I’m old enough to remember when the news only came from four sources–all of whom agreed with each other. Because of market barriers like distribution, most cities, even major ones, only had one newspaper. You couldn’t buy the New York Times in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, all the news came from ABC, CBS, or NBC (both TV and radio), and when they told you something, it was authoritative by necessity. You couldn’t Google it to get some other perspective or double check the facts. If an independent counsel put out a report of his investigative findings, you couldn’t go online or the library and read the report for yourself. The only thing you could know about the contents of that report in real times was what the liberals at ABC, CBS, NBC, and the liberals at your local newspaper decided to tell you about it. If you think liberals have a stranglehold on information now, you should have seen it when their news organizations controlled ALL the channels of communication.

    I’ve railed here before about the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which, among other things, mandated that cable companies carry local television broadcasts. This has had a terrible effect in the age of streaming, making it harder for cable companies to compete with streaming services that are exempt from the requirement to pay through the nose to carry local television stations. At the time, however, this mandate was wildly popular with Republicans and conservatives because the fear was that liberals who control the cable companies would simply keep Fox off of cable–both your local Fox station and the cable Fox News station. The Fox Network was seen as a breath of fresh air, that the news might be reported without the liberal bias that went unchallenged in the marketplace at the time.

    There’s no doubt that liberal bias still exists today, but one of the reasons we know this is because despite the best efforts of liberal news outlets (ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, NBC, Washington Post, etc.), conservative views are still accessible to average Americans everywhere. I don’t even need to go to Breitbart, Fox News, One America News, the Wall Street Journal USA Today, or some other paper that isn’t dead set biased against President Trump in order to get an alternative view of whatever Trump is doing today. I can go straight to President Trump’s Twitter feed and see what he wrote for myself!

    We know the liberal outlets are biased because we have access to, yes, alternative facts. When the only facts that are available are those that are reported by people TDS, having an independent source of verifiable facts makes all the difference.

    McLuhan was right about the carefully orchestrated media Americans consumed back in the 1960s and 1970s, but those days are over. We’re seeing massive telecommunications and media companies stumble and fall in the age of streaming.

    1. I’m old enough to remember when the news only came from four sources–all of whom agreed with each other.

      They all agreed with each other because they were really all the same source. ABC, CBS and NBC all read the New York Times to see what the important stories of the day were so they’d know what to report.

    2. conservative views are still accessible to average Americans everywhere.

      You’ve identified the problem. So what’s the solution?

      1. “You’ve identified the problem.”

        Views are cheap. News costs money.

    3. “McLuhan was right about the carefully orchestrated media Americans consumed back in the 1960s and 1970s, but those days are over. ”

      That was Chomsky who critiqued the media on those terms. Manufacturing Consent is the work you have in mind. McLuhan was the guy who coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message.’ What McLuhan would have made of the internet is not clear to me. It has the latency and low res features of the ‘cool’ media like TV, But the angry and fear that it stirs up is definitely symptomatic of the ‘hot’ media like radio.

  6. This sort of verbal diarrhea passes for deep thought among intellectuals. Right there you have the reason why people increasingly reject traditional media and elites.

  7. Foreign actors capitalized on the declining trust in institutions to spread their own propaganda.

    Behold the power of an animated Bernie gif.

    1. It is funny how one man’s policy position is another man’s foreign propaganda. Everything that reason claims about the evil Russians and their “propaganda” could be said about reason and its writing about Iran and the nuclear deal with Iran in particular.

  8. “The Obama White House produced and distributed its own content, undermining the ability of the establishment to define him.

    Photojournalists, for example, were denied access to the president’s most intimate moments—but were free to publish the selective imagery of the official White House photographer.”

    Except…that’s wrong. They weren’t required to submit themselves to that, they chose to. Had they don’t their purported jobs, they WOULD have been able to define him quite effectively, they simply chose not to.

  9. But if McLuhan is right, there’s no going back.

    That may be – but I think there is still a remote possibility of restoring the alternative idea of the Internet that existed in its early days before the VC scum and their emphasis on eyeballs turned everything into portals/platforms in order to extend/reinforce the old ad-based mass media model.

    Back then, the tech capability/skills didn’t really exist to create many thousands of relatively siloed (or channeled I guess) ‘online communities’. The idea behind the vast majority of those would have simply been to better enable the localized oral face-to-face communication of our daily lives. Now it does exist. But I’m not sure the will exists now. At least its damn hard to see that will with everyone’s face glued to their smartphone paying attention to nothing that matters while around them the communities of their physical vicinity crumble away.

  10. This is the dumbest and most pointless article. WTF does there not being a media gatekeeper have to do with companies using your personal data? Nothing as far as I can see. They are two different issues.

    And if the media are not longer gatekeepers, doesn’t that mean that the liberation and choice that the article speaks of has already arrived?

  11. “Involuntarily, we’re getting rid of individualism,” … “We’re more concerned with what the group knows, of feeling as it does, of acting ‘with it.'”

    prefer to run from that “We” like the fucking plague it is.

  12. IfObama mastered the use of new media to control image and messaging, Trump exploited its tendency to discombobulate and, yes, retribalize.

    New Medium . Same old Message.

    1. How did Trump retribalize? Trump represented the views of the voters who supported him, just like every other politician. There is nothing more or else tribal about Trump. This dumb ass just thinks Trump retribalized because he disagrees with Trump and hates the people whose interests Trump represents.

      1. We were all just quietly sitting here, minding our own business when all of a sudden, Trump started tweeting, the next thing you know, the Russians were controlling our Facechat feeds, and he was the leader of the free world. Now look at where we are.

        1. The elites and our institutions were working perfectly until that SOB Trump came along and violated all of the norms.

          1. Yeah, I agree with the sentiment. The ferocity of the pushback from the elites and the administrative state appears to be directly proportional to the degree POTUS Trump disrupts their control. The country elected a disrupter and he is doing exactly that.

            I am surprised we don’t see more media coverage of the FISA report and the FBI.

            1. We don’t have any because the national media and the FBI and administrative state are in bed together. It is terrifying the extent to which the media and law enforcement in general cooperate with and support one another.

        2. Sad state of affairs, now that China and Iran no longer love us

          1. We were very well liked by the rest of the world… until Trump came along.

            1. Thieves are pretty content as long as they can keep stealing everything they decide they want without any consequences…

      2. I just wanted to highlight “Obama mastered / Trump exploited” contained in that one sentence.
        Pendulum clocks on the same wall synchronize their ticks.
        Women living together sync their menstruation cycles.
        D.C. journolists eventually sync their though processes too.

        1. This is not accidental, and Reason has a clear and conscientious agenda: gaslight libertarians, and those who lean that way, into supporting Leftists and Progressives through demonization of Trump, his supporters, conservatives, and Rs.

          Coming from Reason, “free minds and free markets” is properly translated as “Global Socialism uber alles”

          1. Agreed. And unfortunately, despite recent events (several different Reason writers saying anyone who thinks the FISA abuses were politically motivated are dumb, only to have Horowitz come out a few days later and basically say it probably was but he had no proof as a recent example) making them look silly, they seem to be doubling down on this approach.

          2. lol… Right? It’s about as rich as Democrats trying to impeach Trump for Constitutional and/or Founding principles. Heck; I didn’t know the left even knew those things existed with the way they run their mobster-rule governing.

  13. People are quick to judge an industry dominated by half a dozen players as a “monopoly” (for example, chicken meat).

    It’s funny how some people pine for the days of 2-3 channels on television and nothing else. I guess monopolies are great when it comes to human thought.

    1. Having one source of news brought us together. Now we’re all fragmented, we get our own facts and news. We’re bubbleized!

    2. the days of 2-3 channels on television and nothing else

      Who gives a shit about TV. Everyone who watches TV news has always been either a manipulated sheep or near/post retirement and confirming their biases. Mass media manipulation has been known, practiced, and perfected since WW One (or roughly psychology as something ‘studiable’).

      The local newspaper OTOH is a serious loss. Not just the loss of a check on local governance which turns local governance into a mere franchise of national parties. You can see this even in an imperfect proxy like ‘ticket splitting’ – where it went from low % in the early 20th (the heyday of local machines and reform/googoo movements when the local drove the national results) to high % (25-40% of all votes during the 60’s-90’s) to very low % now (where the national drives the local – and all national ‘issues’/candidates now include entire platforms about what used to be of purely local concern).

      And also the elimination of local marketing which is IMO a big reason why new businesses have gone from hiring 4.5 million/yr during the 90’s and before to about 3 million/year now. And why a much larger portion of employment now is with bigger companies than with smaller. And the movement of job postings online is imo a big reason why those whose resumes don’t fit neatly into some ‘keywords’ format aren’t in the workforce as much and employers complain they can’t find employees who fit their keywords.

  14. The gatekeepers voluntarily gave up their helm as the fourth estate when they chose to become a part of the establishment instead of the watchers of it. The tension broke when the purpose to inform became overwhelmed by the desire to persuade.

    Once the primary gatekeepers became propagandists of a cause, it created a natural free market opportunity for other sources to inform. We hear the old guard lament from time to time the dismantling of their influence, but no real desire to understand why. They seem perfectly resigned to indignantly continue their pathway to irrelevance.

    1. That is a good way to put it. We would be better off if we had a full on state run media. At least state run media are honest and don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are.

    2. “when the purpose to inform became overwhelmed by the desire to persuade.”

      Very well said

  15. Nothing screams 2020 futurism more than talking about Marshall McLuhan, Barack Obama, and 10 year old apps

  16. Is the author too young to remember the gates first came down in 1998 when Drudge broke a story about a little blue dress? Or Dan Rather’s early retirement for fake but accurate reporting?
    Gatekeeping hasn’t died, we have new masters now and a new cartel has risen up to deny access to wrong thinkers. These are more corrosive and coercive than the last bunch. Who was that right wing troll woman who not only got banned by Facebook and Twitter but by Paypal and Uber and Lyft to boot?
    Or the woman banned by twitter for tweeting men in dresses aren’t women?

  17. We do need new and impartial gatekeepers, but Congress should lay out the groundwork with laws that bring our nation into the 21st century, the true Information Age. Our government should have no secrets from its own people other than where clearly defined security concerns arise. We should have laws that determine how any form of captured information can be used, and we should make it illegal for anyone in the media, including social media, to purposely misinform someone or misrepresent facts. This would include the news, the rich, the famous, and the politicians. That last move might help put an end to cyberbullying.

    1. What grade are you in?

  18. We lost our gatekeepers. Unfortunately we also lost our curators. Every bit of junk and fake news is now believed by the masses. Eventually we’ll learn to distinguish between crap and non-crap, but in the meantime the commons are filling up with bullshit.

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