Philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” calls our attention to the behaviour-changing effects of the medium (television, newspaper, internet, etc.) rather than the content it carries.
He gave the example of a light bulb being a medium. It obviously does not transmit content in the way that magazines carry articles, yet it creates spaces at night cause us to act differently than if we were all trapped in darkness.
McLuhan’s view is ever more relevant in a world where the internet is becoming omnipresent. While Communications Minister Senator Conroy believes a free Internet will turn our children into violent gangsters and porn enthusiasts, strategically installed internet access is proving to be a game-changing solution to some old social problems.
A few months ago we wrote about an Adelaide initiative to install portable Wi-fi in public transport. By providing commuters with wireless internet access for their smart phones and laptops, the project aimed to encourage more people to travel “productively” and leave their cars at home.
While the Adelaide Podmo pilot program has since ended, The New York Times recently reported on another initiative in Vail District, Arizona, where school officials installed a mobile internet router in its school bus. The result was pure magic.
The students — formerly a punching, teasing, writhing mass of puerile captives — were transformed into angelic passengers; their eyes fixed on screens and fingers touching and typing on their laptop keyboards. The only sound to be heard was that of the bus engine.
According to the Times article, “Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared.” The students call it the “Internet Bus”, and they absolutely love it.
Of course, not everyone is using the Internet for homework as the school officials would hope. There’s plenty of shooting zombies and GarageBand jamming. But at least it makes everyone happy — the students, their teachers, and even the bus driver.
While most schools spend thousands of dollars and detention hours to discipline their students, an Internet Bus costs only a US$200 router and US$60 per month internet service contract.
Whether this cheap solution is an appropriate remedy for behavioural issues is another debate altogether. It’s a bit like plonking a serially mischievous child in front of the television in order to regain sanity. Schools are one of the last remaining bastions of face-to-face social interaction, and move introduce more cyber virtualisation is sure to dismay a few parents and educators.
Clearly, the behaviour-changing power of the medium is alive and well, and this may indeed provide inspiration for solving other social problems.
Tian Yang is the founding member and current president of Student Entrepreneurs | Agents of Change, an organisation dedicated to creating and cultivating entrepreneurship communities in Australian universities. (@tian_yang)