“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” — Marshall McLuhan, 1964

The bookmarkification — I’m by all means open to a better term than that — of human memory is well under way, isn’t it? We’re now remembering things differently to how we used to, because we know, as long as our internet connection is working, we can return and access something we need. The act of remembering and the act of retrieving has become the same. All we need now is a word for that vague sense of remembering seeing something, somewhere, on the internet, but being unable to re-locate it, or find it in your bookmarks or in your history. Googlenesia, perhaps.

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You see, it’s in your head, right now, this internet thing, rewiring it, changing the way your eyes and ears interact with your brain, making you consume, store, process information differently. And if it’s not rewiring your head, it’s changing your society, changing your social relations, changing your job. It’s changing the economy, and changing politics, redistributing power.

That’s what media do and have always done — print, the telegraph, radio, TV: they rewire humans inside their heads and in how they relate to each other, except the internet is doing it on a far bigger scale and more quickly than any previous medium. All those absurd stories about how the internet is Destroying The Fragile Minds Of Our Young People in the Sunday papers every week, the ones that always start “a new study from …”, miss the point totally. They don’t see the world wide web for the trees; we are being rewired on a population-wide basis. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

Sometimes, the reshaping processes aren’t hard to spot, and in 2012, some were on brilliant display. After years of slowly accumulating pressure, the collapse of the newspaper business model became more visible than ever, with News Limited and Fairfax sending hundreds of staff out the door. And different mastheads doubled down on existing strategies or pursued new ones to sink their fingernails into the crumbling cliff-face. The Australian became ever more shrilly partisan in an effort to retain its core, but dying, readership of old middle-class conservatives. The Daily Telegraph embraced ever more tightly the deepest prejudices of its western Sydney readership. The Australian Financial Review gave up being a newspaper about business and became one by and for business.

In each case, to criticise the mastheads for shoddy journalism or biased copy is in a way to miss the point: these are entities facing death, and desperate to cling on to whatever they can to stay alive. Besides which, the same model had been embraced successfully in radio by 2GB in Sydney; to see John Laws flirting with Leigh Sales while quaffing a glass of Valvoline (ping Tracey Spicer, tweet of the year) was to be reminded that at some point we swapped Laws, a shock jock but one capable of being an informed interlocutor with a reformist leader like Paul Keating, for Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, miserable, ignorant men with only their hate to keep them going.

This pandering to your audience isn’t automatically a successful strategy; it was tried in Melbourne at MTR, and failed, and it’s not clear that it’s going to save the 18th century business model of newspapers. Then again, the alternative strategy of mobile device newspapers — remember when iPad apps were going to save journalism? — barely limped into this year: The Daily was quietly buried next to Rupert’s other digital debacles a few weeks ago.

But the net result has been an accelerating deterioration in the quality of public debate in Australia. In political journalism, there was an extended focus on personal scandals through the year, if necessary by inventing them, as appeared to be the case with the Peter Slipper and AWU matters, and remorseless campaigning on designated issues calculated to appeal most to the prejudices of readers, such as IR reform and “productivity” at the Fin, or asylum seekers at the Telegraph, in the face of facts.

“Gillard not merely displayed her now-trademark resilience, but progressively reacquainted herself with the woman who’d been deputy prime minister …”

The consequence isn’t merely to enrage progressives, although that must be one of the few remaining joys in life for some News Ltd editors, but to actually change how participants in the political process behave. In the face of materially less rigour in the scrutiny applied to it by the mainstream media, the Coalition appears convinced it can say pretty much anything regardless of factual basis or consistency. Thus, adding young people to the electoral rolls is, Christopher Pyne says, a “rort”; Joe Hockey condemns the government for putting too much pressure on the Reserve Bank to stimulate the economy, then in the same breath complains that the government spends too much; Tony Abbott is happy to publicly admit he opines on important issues without having bothered to read key documents; the most senior politicians of the Coalition hurl the most serious possible accusation at the Prime Minister, that she is a criminal, and refuse to back it up.

Don’t think this won’t have long-term consequences for the Coalition; ask Labor what happens when you give up trying to publicly argue the merits of policies, when you no longer feel the constant urge to put your case, how your explanatory skills atrophy, how your capacity to prosecute the case for policy is degraded, how you go from being a party like that of Hawke and Keating to that of Rudd. A similar fate awaits the Coalition, which has already gone from the party of John Hewson and Peter Reith to that of Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.

For a more egregious version of the same phenomenon, consider the Republicans, who even outside the Theatre of the Absurd bubble of the Tea Party, are disconnected from the reality not merely of vaguely contested issues like climate change, but basic science, including how women’s bodies function and, finally, electoral reality, with Mitt Romney convinced he was certain to win an election that, in the end, his opponent won convincingly.

That’s the problem with not being held to account for what you say: the consequence is you end up deluding yourself as much as, and more, than anyone else. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

Labor’s story through the year has been one of a slow recovery from the related delusion, which shares at its core the view that reality is just one narrative, and not one to be allowed the interfere with the more important art of politicking, that political leadership is about messages and messaging, that politics is the maintenance of power by the careful reflection back to the electorate of the electorate itself, through diligent use of polling and focus groups, even the use of such research against a leader of the party, should that be necessary.

Unlike in the movies, the recovery hasn’t been a one-off epiphany or Damascene moment, but a stop-start process in which Labor haltingly re-learned the virtue of having a big-picture agenda and of speaking with an authentic voice, while frequently succumbing to the old sin of talking arrant nonsense (Julian Assange being a particular issue that produced a flow of drivel from the normally eloquent Bob Carr). Julia Gillard not merely displayed her now-trademark resilience, but progressively reacquainted herself with the woman who’d been deputy prime minister; Wayne Swan revealed his inner Boss, and displayed a hitherto-unrevealed knack for blunt communication in his character assessments of Kevin Rudd, Clive Palmer and other enemies of the Party.Whatever Gillard Labor is, it’s now more Labor-like than Rudd Labor. That Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar are now no longer part of the federal Labor set-up is no coincidence in this regard, but other blights remain to be excised from the party, particularly in NSW, a state that will almost certainly cost Labor its slim chance of re-election next year.

But to this end, it was fitting that the political year ended with Swan chomping reluctantly but firmly on a shit sandwich (a culinary description coined round Sussex St way) and abandoning the Rudd-era commitment to return to surplus this year. That was a commitment that had its roots deep in Rudd’s preference for stunts, media management and announceables over steady adherence to a larger vision effectively explained. Still, better to live in the real post-GFC world of a bullet-proof currency and transitional economy than to live in a fantasy where the election of a Coalition government will magically reset the economy to 2006.

Beyond the politicians, the rest of us were being reshaped too. The first serious media impacts of what some of us like to call interconnectedness were being felt. Alan Jones called social media campaigns against him “cyberterrorism” which was not entirely off the mark, for social media campaigns like #destroythejoint or more temporary ones like the waves of rage against the 2DayFm royal prank are indeed about power and its use. Traditionally dominant analog media increasingly find themselves trapped in the same rituals of apology over and over again as the people formerly known by that engagingly passive term “audience” use social media to undermine their business model. That’s accomplished not so much by directly challenging media outlets as by challenging advertisers, who invariably figure discretion is the better part of valour.

The media has been told for a long time that the internet will bugger their advertising revenue. But no one told them it would happen courtesy of social media campaigns as well.

This had a particularly amusing outcome of upsetting powerful old white men, the sort of people not merely used to running things, but doing so in an unchallenged, and definitely unmocked, fashion. No matter where you looked this year, there was some privileged old white guy angrily denouncing things. Gerry Harvey or Solomon Lew or Ray Hadley or Alan Jones (Old White Guy primus inter pares), or the entire Republican Party (brilliantly condensed into Clint Eastwood railing at an invisible person, an act so laden with symbolism it deconstructed itself in real time), or the old men of The Australian, from Chris Mitchell down, powerful elderly males infuriated that the world no longer gives them automatic deference, let alone allows them to run things unchallenged. The result: the rage of the prostatetariat.

A similar dynamic played out when Gillard, not without some careful preparation, finally drove home Labor’s own steady campaign of delegitimisation against Abbott. If Abbott has been aiming to delegitimise and destabilise Gillard since the 2010 election, Labor has been assiduously working to do the same to him with a constant focus on his “problem with women”. Foolishly leading with his chin on Peter Slipper’s obscene text messages, Abbott offered Gillard an opportunity she seized with both hands, to deliver a cut-through moment of political invective.

“Your society, your country, your own head are changing, however much those whose power was based on how things used to be, object.”

To watch many in the press gallery visibly struggle to understand what ensued was to see the social media/MSM divide and gender politics collide in real time as an issue long suppressed and trivialised in Australian political discourse broke out and demanded attention.

One is tempted to see a similar sense of affronted entitlement in the efforts of the national security establishment to slip through the biggest institutional land grab since 9/11, the 44 item-strong wishlist of national security proposals advanced, if that’s the right word, by the Attorney-General’s Department, to extend surveillance and intelligence-gathering powers at our expense. Again demonstrating that explanatory skills unused end up atrophied, national security officials, long used to getting their way without having to justify themselves, visibly struggled with the task of actually explaining their demand for new powers, having been placed in that difficult and unexpected position by Nicola Roxon.

AGD and its associated agencies offered the same logic as we’d encounter from the bureaucrats of the International Telecommunications Union late in the year, that regulatory régimes that applied to telecommunications need to automatically be extended to the internet to preserve world peace, stable government, the sanctity of childhood, brutal dictatorial régimes, etc.

That the internet is not a phone and we don’t use it like a phone is perhaps obvious to most people, who spend far more of their working, social, financial, civic and personal lives in online space than anyone ever did on the phone; that, of course, is the exact reason the security establishment is so eager to lay claim to this ocean of personal information, and not just our own; as Attorney-General’s officials admitted, they’ve been coordinating this attempt to impose “order” on the internet with their Anglophone counterparts internationally. When non-Anglophone countries, being of course untrustworthy foreign types, employed the same logic at the ITU, the likes of Australia, the US, the UK and Canada were (rightly) quick to dismiss the extension of telecoms regulation to the internet.

Regulating the internet is fine, it seems, but only on our terms, thanks.

One of the better results from this ongoing assault on online rights is to shine a light on the need for encryption as a basic tool of internet usage for anyone who isn’t relaxed about governments having untrammelled access to their data , with the cryptoparty movement, spawned by Melbourne’s own Asher Wolf, spreading the word — suitably encrypted — internationally.

There’ll be a delayed reaction to this at some point when the national security establishment and its media cheerleaders work out that all they’ve done is push activists and those who value their privacy beyond their reach. “We’ll demand the encryption keys,” said AGD head Roger Wilkins when asked about this development that rendered many of his favoured national security proposals redundant, blithely unaware that often there are no keys, and often times no logs either.

So, the internet wars are well underway; the encryption wars will go mainstream before too long; doubtless cybersecurity contractors have already made their pitches to governments. ‘Tis the way of the online world: analog gatekeepers will continue their bitter fight against the shock of the digital, failing to understand how much the physics of information have changed.

Don’t, therefore, hope for a better 2013, if your idea of “better” is “more like the past”, you’re bound to be disappoint. Your society, your country, your own head are changing, however much those whose power was based on how things used to be, object. We’ve shaped our tools and our tools are shaping us, and will continue to do so.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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