The medium is the bias

Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...
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We don’t carry cultural biases around in our heads so much as encounter them in our environments. Humans require the flexibility to be able to engage with different cultural biases in different contexts. A person who is acculturated to be biased in one particular way will either gravitate towards that way of working or be somewhat handicapped in contexts outside of their cultural comfort zone. Imagine a right handed person working with their left hand: they can do it but it isn’t comfortable. Unfortunately we mostly aren’t even aware that we are operating in culturally biased environments and our flexibility is unconscious rather than reflective. Cultural theory offers a heuristic approach to recognising, naming and making sense of these cultural biases so that we can operate on a more ambidextrous manner.

A case in point: email. Here’s an excerpt from Johnny Ryan’s book on social networking:

“E-mail stripped away the accumulated layers of formality that had been observed in correspondence of the ink age:

‘One could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much more like the telephone.’

Strict hierarchies were flattened, and the barriers between individuals at different levels of an organization’s hierarchy were minimized. Staff at ARPA now found that they could easily contact the Director, Stephen Lukasik, by e-mail. Similarly, Lawrence Roberts used e-mail to bypass principal investigators and communicate directly with contractors below them.

As e-mail spread throughout facilities connected to ARPANET, the rapid-fire e-mail exchanges between people at different levels of the academic hierarchy established new conventions of expression.”

The point is that in the 1970s the new medium of email effectively forced an Egalitarian cultural bias to be adopted inside an otherwise strongly Hierarchical organization. In the terms of Cultural Theory, email is a Weak Grid medium.

The upshot of this is that if your organization relies heavily on one cultural bias or another (and nearly all do) it may be important to consider carefully the quality of match between the cultural bias of the medium and the cultural bias of the organization. For example it would probably be a bad idea for the monarch to use email, since the medium implicitly undermines the cultural power of the institution. It isn’t just that the medium risks trivialising the sender, The medium actually implies particular social relationships which may or may not be conducive to the sender’s institutional arrangements.

Note that the English monarchy has intuitively understood this. If you want to contact the Queen in 2011 you have to write a letter.

The official website says:

“If you wish to write a formal letter, you can open with ‘Madam’ and close the letter with the form ‘I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant’. This traditional approach is by no means obligatory. You should feel free to write in whatever style you feel comfortable.”

…as long as it’s snail mail. This is just as well, since if you tried to tweet the Queen (which you can’t) the formal closing would take up over half of your 140 character allowance.

Conversely, those seeking to change cultural biases could do worse than to ‘bring the war to the enemy’ by seeking to force them to use culturally inappropriate media to convey their messages.

Unlike the Queen, Prince William has a Twitter account. When I looked it had 27,387 followers. This figure contrasts rather sharply with the number of followers the monarchy is supposed to have (many millions in several Commonwealth countries). In other words the very use of a Weak-Grid medium such as Twitter undermines the Strong-Grid hierarchical rationale of its user.

For those who do not operate in Hierarchical institutions these examples of blue-bloods using the Internets may serve to illustrate the horror with which many who defend a Hierarchical worldview look at contemporary social change. This horror can be hard to understand – isn’t it an over-reaction? Well, no. While most of us just see Twitter and Facebook. For the Hierarchical worldview these are further evidence of the end of civilization as we know it – and they are not wrong.


Johnny Ryan 2010 A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London: Reaktion and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

5 thoughts on “The medium is the bias

  1. This rings true in many ways but there are some puzzles:

    1. CT posits (and empirical work has gone some way to showing) that cultural worldviews shape perceptions of risk and related sorts of facts. So if the medium shapes the cultural bias, then wouldn’t we expect to see large-scale shifts in the direction of egalitarian risk perceptions in step with the advent of a medium like email that is thought to be egalitarian in the way described? I don’t think we see evidence of that.

    2. Although it’s true that conventions associated w/ email, twitter & other social media put a premium on economy & thus dispense w/ formality, there is evidence that diverse cultural ways of life in fact leave distinctive signatures on the structure of the web. Thus, there is evidence that there is more interconnectedness and order in the links between internet sites focused on hierarchical and anti-individualist (collectivist) causes than ones focused on more egalitarian and individualistic ones.

    So here is a counter-hypothesis: Conservation of culture. Cultural ways of life likely put some constraints on the ways that media evolve. But as media evolve via exogenous means or by asymmetrical cultural impetuses, cultural ways will find ways to interact with them that “fit” their distinctive outlooks & commitments. Accordingly, there will be distinctive cultural signatures in the interactions with social media that cue users where to go & that help keep them who they are once they arrive.

    It would be interesting to test the “cultural conservation” & “medium is the bias” hypotheses. We might find more support for one than the other. Or we might find mixed results (more likely, I’m guessing), in which case we’d have to figure out that what means.

    1. Yes there are some puzzles! I suppose implicit in my post was the sense that new, more egalitarian modes of communication render more hierarchical institutions (a little, a lot?) less viable. The Queen’s communication structures appear out of joint with the times, which contributes to a legitimation crisis. This has the potential to be a large scale shift, the impact of which we have not yet recognised. So the institution reinvents its communication channels to recapture legitimacy. This I think is what the younger royals are attempting with twitter etc. But my suggestion is it’s not going to work as easily as they might think – there needs to be a more thorough understanding of where these media are taking them. I agree, there may well be deeper structures in electronic communications which facilitate hierarchical control. When I said email is a Weak Grid medium, I really meant it offers Weak Grid affordances (Gibson 1977, 1979) which may be accepted or resisted. My comment about the end of civilization as we know it was an attempt to empathise with non-egalitarians who look with horror at the informality of email, twitter etc and see it as a sad end to politeness, decency and proper etiquette. To them there have indeed been ‘large-scale shifts in the direction of egalitarian risk perceptions’ – which they are doing their best to overcome. But I take your point, if I understand it correctly. There may be a perception that the world of email is more egalitarian than previously, but this is not detected in empirical observations of changes in worldview at a population level. To be honest it’s one of the things that concerns me about the Durkheimian roots of Cultural Theory. Are we looking at a society that constantly balances itself, a ‘social equilibrium‘?

  2. My guess is that each Quandrant would have its own distinctive way of using e-mail, just as they do with other contemporary media. E-mail is used in an Egalitarian way in small-group environments but in the Competitive/Individualistic quadrant the effects of screening and scale are more apparent (people just don’t reply, for example). I am sure that some ethnography on e-mail use in China, for example, may well reveal a distictive use more appropriate to a Hierarchical bias. Meanwhile those “rubbis men” in D simply have no-one to e-mail anyway!

    1. That makes sense to me. For example, those supposedly egalitarian engineers who pioneered email surely couldn’t have imagined the deluge of spam we were going to be subjected to as a result of their design. And spam must be ‘economically rational’ to its authors, I suppose.

  3. Yes, the economies of scale implied by spam helps to push all its recipients down-grid. Another example of economies of scale would be the right of certain high-level staff in corporations to send All Staff emails relating to company business; something a more lowly person wouldn’t be permitted to do (nor to have access to the full email address lists.) In the other direction, I may be able to email the CEO but there is no guarantee that I will get an answer, except perhaps from his PA.

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