The Fear Index

Revisiting this from June, 2020, with a few revisions.

More than 50 years ago, Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan observed that we shape the tools to communicate and those tools in turn shape us. With computers a nascent technology at the time of his thesis, McLuhan had the foresight to see that binary code would alter our relationship with time and space, and by extension, reality. And it is here that we get the concept of the global village, a community where time and space no longer exist. No longer does one need to visit the world in order to see it. In effect, our reality has become dis-placed.

Without the context of a situation unfolding in a distant world, or even a distant neighborhood, we can only grasp the notion of a situation according to the reality defined by our own particular environment. Without context, the code – the language we use, the symbol systems we have at hand to re-present (i.e. present again) a situation – is incomplete because it is only a small part of the message. In a distanced media environment such as Twitter, my networked identity does not correspond to reality because my networked identity is a conceptualized social metaphor. In the social media space, we can’t know what’s possible in a distant world because we are dis-placed from it.

And it is here that the discussion turns to the fear index driving commodities amid the coronavirus scare. Crude oil prices were relatively consistent in the latter years of the 1970s, just as the Middle East was on the cusp of upheaval from the Iran-Iraq war and later the Islamic Revolution. One of the strongest historical tailwinds for the price of oil, the surprise 1981 Israeli airstrike on Iraqi nuclear facilities, helped crude oil prices double from the late 1970s levels. Those levels would hold, relatively speaking, until the mid-1980s, when a glut emerged to spoil the rally. A doubling in crude oil prices is certainly not beyond reason today. We have seen the price of oil swing from $100 per barrel, to sub-$30 – to negative territory even. That volatility, to some degree is indicative of a changing media landscape.

Harold Innis, one of McLuhan’s contemporaries, observed that empires rise and fall along media trajectories. How poignant is that when considering recent US trajectory? The advent of writing on paper, Innis reasoned, was revolutionary because it gave the message mobility. Stone to paper had an impact on our notion of time in a way. Now, with real-time events come real-time reactions. Volatility is therefore amplified by the difficulty of predicting conditions of possibility in the surreal landscape painted online. Double-digit swings in the price of crude were once an anomaly. Not anymore.

Now consider this; A negative emotion shifts one’s focus away from preceding events to the topic that’s assigned the negative value. That suggests that negativity begets negativity. Would it be a stretch then to consider that a headline warning of triple-digit crude oil prices would resonate more than the one anticipating a retraction? And would that headline warning resonate as much if it were only in print?

Short-term trends are more popular now in a media environment where time is no longer an issue. The speed at which information travels in the social media age amplifies volatility, as evidenced by the intraday market movements to murmurs from the obligatory sources close to OPEC thinking. Again, would those big intraday movements happen in the newspaper age? Probably not.

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