Coined by Marshall McLuhan, this rather cryptic phrase refers to the following idea: When a new technology is introduced to our lives, the most important thing to pay attention to is how that technology alters our patterns of communication, thought, and work. An example: The content of television is much less important than the changes it brought on to how we consume information. A sub-example: It doesn’t really matter whether a television show is educational, or titillating, or “dirty”. What truly matters is the fact that television shows, commercials, and so on presents visual and aural information in a fragmented way, with sudden stops and changes in what we are seeing, the story being told, and so on. According to McLuhan, television represented a sudden change to our linear mode of thinking which he claimed was brought on by print centuries earlier.
Building on these ideas in his brilliant book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman claims that all this fragmentation has compromised our ability to sustain attention for extended periods of time. Hence, the chopped up, mutilated prime-time political debates (as opposed to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or The Great Debates of 1858) which lasted hours and went on for days).
There is no reason to think that both outlooks are completely correct. Fragmentation is surely a part of today’s psyche. However, it’s important to point out the anomalies. The rise in popularity of podcasts, meditation, and human re-connection is undeniable. Some of this, maybe quite a lot, is due to the technology that has brought on the very fragmentation we’re trying to solve: the Internet. While astounding in its potential to unite, its potential to divide will always remain if we all stay in the tribal mindset (something else McLuhan warned us about). Be kind, be caring, adopt healthy routines, interact in person, survive without harming others; presumably the traits that allowed humanity to survive the ice age and grow beyond the paltry number of about 30,000.