The Question of Zuckerberg’s Guilt: Instrumental vs. Environmental Views of Media
In explanations of media effects, two approaches can be singled out.
1) The instrumental approach assumes that a medium works as a tool used by a user for a purpose.
2) The environmental approach focuses on the capacity of a medium to become an environmental force that reshapes both habitat and inhabitants.
The instrumental approach has prevailed in explanations of media effects due to the long-standing tradition of communication studies with its famous Lasswell’s model “Who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect?” (Lasswell 1948). Human agency (often elevated to institutional agency) is central to the instrumental approach. That is why this approach is agent-centered, not media-centered. Media are seen as the instrument of someone’s will aimed to impact someone else’s will.
With the idea of media as “the extension of man”, Marshall McLuhan laid out a prospective path for the environmental approach to the exploration of media effects. In media ecology, media are not seen as mere instruments of communication and/or affecting but regarded rather as an environmental interface that modifies both the user and the environment regardless of what is communicated by whom to whom with what intent (hence “the medium is the message”).
The emergence of an environmental force from the use of an instrument can be described by John Culkin’s famous paraphrase of McLuhan’s idea, ‘We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.’ This is also relevant to McLuhan’s idea of “spaces” (acoustic space, visual space) shaped by the medium that dominates in a certain culture/era. What seemed to be just the instrumental use of a medium in a communication act (or a series of acts) becomes an environmental force when the user is not an individual but an entire culture. The instrumental explanations expose the figure(s) but neglect the ground.
The instrumental approach might help to explore mediated human behavior, but it does not go deep enough to explore the media conditions that induced this behavior. As Marshall McLuhan quite graphically highlighted in his Playboy interview, ‘... and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot’ (McLuhan 1969).
Media can be seen, indeed, as tools used for certain effects. Within this view, humans control media. But this view is not able to explain the effect that media have on humans. Media as tools produce effects for people and do it in a more or less controllable way. Media as an environment have effects on people, and this works in uncontrollable and often unrecognizable ways. When a tool is used widely enough, it activates its specific environmental features that are no longer controllable by humans. Having lost instrumental control over a medium, humans have to endure and, if they are lucky, adjust to the environment created by this medium.
When applied to certain practical cases, instrumental explanations of media effects might not be wrong. But it is important to remember that, because of carrying Lasswell’s legacy, they are limited by rationalizing and emphasizing human agency.
Besides academic interest, the question about the instrumental and environmental views of media has a rigid practical and legal application. This application elevates (or reduces) academic analysis of media to the question of guilt and/or responsibility regarding media effects. If the car is seen as a tool, the producer or user is responsible for the possible harmful consequences of its use. If the car is seen as an environmental factor that reshapes cities, suburbs, trade, jobs, sexual life, created malls, killed inns, etc., then no one is responsible for all or any of this.
The choice between instrumental and environmental view of media creates a legal dilemma when applying to the Internet. A user can be seen responsible when he or she calls for violence and uses social media as an amplifier. But who is responsible for an environment which favors polarization and in which any call can be amplified (though the amplification is not guaranteed)? In the other words, Mark Zuckerberg, as a tool’s producer, is guilty within the instrumental approach and not guilty within the environmental approach. Which stance should be taken during hearings in the US Congress or any other legislature or court regarding the role of social media in political development?
The instrumental approach to media, when taken too broadly and without understanding of its limits, leads to conspiracy theories and inadequate social and political assessments. The more advanced and sophisticated environmental approach allows for adequate understanding of media evolution and its effects but distorts the traditional legal notions of guilt and responsibility for actions, as there is no jurisdictional human or institutional agency when the environmental forces in play. (Or is there?)
After charting the distinction between the instrumental and environmental views of media, the paper establishes a framework to search for answers to the question about legal guilt and social responsibility “for” the media environment. The search is offered to be conducted in the areas of politics, law, academia, activism and education, with media literacy for users, producers, regulators and legislators being put front and center.