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.


HD Download

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