A GUIDE TO SURVIVAL IN THE 21st CENTURY
FROM A MEDIA STUDENT AND DISCIPLE OF MARSHALL MCLUHAN
Man’s consciousness is as powerful as a microscope. It can grasp
and analyse experience in a way no other animal can achieve. But
microscopic vision is narrow vision. We need to develop another
kind of consciousness that is the equivalent of the telescope.
We are all media students. As practitioners of speech, we use a basic medium that teaches new words and tactics almost every day. The mass media, whatever their form, offer a classroom of infinite scope. Every medium teaches – in working the dirt we learn about the shovel, in turning the page we learn about the author, in pushing the button we learn about ourselves.
The medium is the message. This pithy statement has many interpretations. I’ve come to the conclusion that it means exactly what it says, and so in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor, which dictates there’s no excuse for not seeking the simplest explanation, I opt for synonymy. Here is my rendition of what Marshall McLuhan tells us:
Before we had electricity, a message was only as fast as the messenger, whether Inca runner or steam train. With the instant transfer of data, however, this is no longer so. Concepts of distance and duration are not what they used to be. Perceptions of space and time, those twin beacons of conventional understanding, have changed dramatically over the last century, and this coincides with a major shift in the human communication process.
Before electricity, the faculties of mind and body were communicated entirely in the physical universe. They were extended. Today, with but the extension of a finger, the physical parameters dissolve. Message and messenger become one, whether concert in the livingroom or overseas conversation, and with this immediacy, this absence of medium, we enter a new juncture in our evolution. We “implode”.
I submit that such a drastic mutation in the field of experience and perception requires some way of dealing with it. We need a philosophy for the Electronic Age.
The professors of wisdom in our colleges and universities are just beginning to address the relevant issues. What, for example, is the nature of the television experience? Are we visiting exotic situations or staring at blue light for hours? Which is the reality? I suspect for most people the distinction is altogether too unclear.
Questions like this need more than classical answers. They need a reorganization of thought, and if our schools of philosophy fail to realize this they will go the way of the monastery, whose educational function was subsumed by the printing press. Philosophers make whine as their noble calling drifts to the ad men.
There’s no easy cure for this predicament, but I’m convinced a prescription lies dormant in McLuhan’s writings. As the Sage of the Age, there must have been method in his disarming madness. Sure enough, as one examines his work a conceptual pattern does emerge and with it, several recurring themes that highlight an often confusing network of ideas. I propose to match these themes with traditional philosophical concepts to show that McLuhan’s dynamic approach to media studies is not only academically sound, but that it reveals a great deal about the history of philosophy itself.
What follows, then, might be seen as a profile of the latest in a legacy of great thinkers. It might even be seen as a poke at their profession.
But it’s really a primer for the new electric consciousness.
Pluralism is a bias against any single philosophy. It grew out of Dualism, the idea that no idea is possible without an opposing one, and Monism, that only one idea will do. Pluralism argues that both monistic decisions, which are preordained, and dualistic ones, which are either-or, ultimately resort to a single criterion for their making and that this is not quite how the mind works. Judgments tend to overlap, they can have multiple premises, and more complex thought involves a wide array of criteria for every decision. Ask the orchestra conductor.
Pluralism strives for total-field perception by embracing all philosophies. And while it exposes the divisive nature of dualistic thought, the Monists are in trouble. It may be comforting to adopt an all-consuming ideal in some religion or other doctrine, but as Arthur Clarke reminds us, any technology sufficiently advanced becomes indistinguishable from magic. In this age of miracles, ideals have become arbitrary and interchangeable. Ask the politician. Or even the priest.
There’s a reason for this. With McLuhan’s insight it’s easy to see that since the Reformation, organized religion has become as fragmented and specialized as the civilization that grew around it: sects, cults, ‘clubs’ – all offshoots of previously held beliefs, all valid for individual believers, all therefore equally valid. The halls of academia are no different. Modern philosophy has become as fragmented and specialized as the sciences and technologies it fostered centuries ago. Fueled by the church’s anthropocentricism, Descartes taught us that with enough doubt we could turn to our own devices for knowledge. I think, therefore I am. Doubt was effectively systematize and, reinforced by mathematics, became for many the measure of all truth. More energetic skeptics fashioned truths of their own for social arenas. The clash of consequences has left us with discourse in too many isms and ologies to mention.
Like an old oak whose time has come, the branches of wisdom in all their plenty seem thinner in substance. They have grown at the expense of the big picture, and it is only by dwelling on more than one that we get a notion of what the tree is all about. This is Pluralism, the belief that no single belief is adequate in explaining the human condition, which is what philosophers do. So since any theory is but an aspect of the whole, all theories become, in theory, arbitrary and interchangeable. The trick is to look from among instead of between (or not at all) .
This multifaceted approach to knowledge is the key to understanding McLuhan’s work and his ‘mosaic’ style. His prose doesn’t unfurl in a sequential way. It develops, like a film emulsion. As various lines of thought form a plane of reason, readers must complete the picture with lines of their own and in this way meanings emerge. This is unlike the single point of view, where one line of thought scans a continuum. Even with many scans the entire thing is never seen. In the mosaic, details are added to an already full frame.
Reading McLuhan is highly involving. Reading our electronic environment is no different. It too requires an interdisciplinary approach, for just as the walls that physically separate us become less important, so the boundaries of our belief systems begin to fade. When this happens, it pays to look for similarities instead of differences.
The earliest known philosophy is Sophism, identified in ancient Greece by Socrates when he needed somebody for an argument. His technique, dialectic, was probably discovered when he noticed how statements changed when extended in a new technology called the alphabet. The Sophists, of course, were the teachers of the day – the establishment, whose duty it was to maintain oral tradition through myth, drama and poetry. They also taught rhetoric, the art of putting words together. Socrates managed the same thing with entire sentences, confounding the opposition, and he died for his trouble. But the new medium proved unstoppable. Socrates became its martyr, Plato its mentor, Aristotle its master.
As for the Sophists, they were helpless, for they depended on their ears for communication, not the eye that print required. This is a big difference. Sight is directed whereas sound comes to you – it is total field and plural, as with the other senses. Sight, by contrast, is focused and selective. The Sophists’ garden of rhetoric was no match for the scissors of dialectic. Socrates argued from the seeds of logic and rationale while all they had was their feelings. The conflict between head and heart has been around ever since.
It wasn’t until the printing press changed the meaning of the word ‘audience’ that the garden was allowed to bloom again. But since the art of rhetoric is incompatible with visual media, there were few Shakespeares. There still are.
Enter Marshall McLuhan with his ‘probes’ – his readaptation of the rhetorical question. They need no reply as they’re based on shared presupposition. The only questions they do ask are in terms of paragraph, and this is deliberate. McLuhan, like the Bard, recognized the needs of his audience. If his probes and mosaics are annoying for some, the problem lies in their point of view. Those who understand that the presuppositions are more important than the presentation (as in poetry) are enlightened accordingly. They’ve learned that truth needn’t depend on explicitly linked arguments, and they’ve done this by ignoring the order of things so as to achieve a more patterned kind of sense.
This is exactly what we do in our electronic environment. Now that speech travels at the speed of light as well as sound, distance becomes meaningless and the eyes give way to acoustic space, where information no longer needs a point of view because it comes to you. This naturally activates the other senses and we suddenly find ourselves with the ancient Greeks, who had gods for everything. It was the only way to account for the multiplicities of life along with their all-at-onceness.
The oral tradition is upon us, and though it’s no excuse for illiteracy, we must adapt. Not only is it in our nature to do so, but by “trading an eye for an ear”, a text for a phonecall, we reach the heart.
When Descartes came up with his systematic doubt, he was using another system developed by Aristotle long before him. Aristotle, armed with his Square of Opposition and the dialectic process around it, managed for the first time to describe things consistently in terms of what they were not. People in those days were used to explaining their world with the addition of information, with another example, hardly a subtractive elimination of the options. This is deduction, where one extracts information from what is already known in an exclusive chain of reason, which in itself leads not to new knowledge, only precision. For knowledge we turn to induction. One takes what is available and works with specific details toward a related whole, thus engendering a fuller though less exact understanding than before. Sherlock Holmes may have had it backwards.
Another popular misconception is that the more precise the data, the bigger and better the outcome. This is the kind of thinking that gave us the atomic bomb. Deduction is a device – it is our way of adapting to the organization of language and, like its macro-model, it is naturally selective. Induction, however, is innate. It is how we learn, communicate and grow – by putting relationships in a larger scheme of things.
Even Aristotle had to arrange his thoughts before he could deduce anything from them. Seeing them on parchment must have helped. He figured that induction was an unreliable route to the truth because it could only be 99% accurate. His alternative, by contrast, seemed infallible and men have admired it for ages, mainly because it works so well in space and time. No surprise then, that it’s taken until last century’s negation of these for a map of the inductive process to emerge.
Phenomenology is a hybrid of Existentialism (I am, therefore I think) and Gestalt theory (what you see is what you get) that goes for truth by common sense. It recognizes that since individuals decide their own reality they might appreciate a means other than systematic doubt for dealing with it. Following the tenets of Pluralism, it rejects ain’ts and oughts in favor of the here and now and meaning in context. How? You suspend judgment to get at an ‘intentional structure’ for yourself with whatever’s perceived through memory, history, and an awareness that intentions are seldom entirely fulfilled. Put another way, simply condense things into a matrix of essential features and project it to a larger sphere of operation. Because thoughts are so plastic, the cocoon stays intact as details change and upon re-entry, as it were, its contents can illuminate the given situation in new ways.
Sounds like a probe to me. McLuhan is all induction – the stuff of art and discovery – and in a world of concord by confrontation he can rightly say “I want observation, not agreement.” He noticed human life had one overwhelming aspect: that unless shared, it was meaningless. Meaning is conveyed by language, but also by sex, conflict, technology – all generate meaning for the individuals involved by some extension of consciousness through a physical medium. In other words, if something makes sense it has meaning. Of course whatever made sense has meaning too, so by applying his media theory to larger patterns of intercourse in history McLuhan provides a new constellation of insight into present trends.
For our purposes consider games, which he calls “extensions of the social order and body politic”. We get specific rules, limited options, sequential play, eliminative results – deduction all the way. Now consider video games. Rules are undefined, options customized, play is instantaneous, results are accumulative – this is total field, a widening of experience rather than a narrowing. There’s no time to deduce a thing when customary visual orientation collapses like this; players must use their eyes like ears else they miss a crucial blast. They have to take in as much of what is going on as possible and there is speculation that these machines, these replicas of acoustic space, are more than entertainment, and that the whiz kids who conquer them represent a new breed of brain that with the power of deduction might achieve things yet unimaginable.
In truth we’ve learned to accept both forms of thought as somehow balancing each other out, and are inclined to see them as equal forces in communication. With formal discourse this is fine. But video games have a more tactile language, as do music, sex and ordinary conversation. It means that with the return to a personalized reality from the uniformity and segmentation of the last few millennia, each of us now becomes a little induction magnet in the total field of our electronic environment.
This is what the age of information is all about. It demands in us the addition, not subtraction, of the data at hand. With a potential that virtually surrounds us, it offers new forms of knowledge. Let’s hope we can use some before its proof blows us up.
Existentialism is widely seen as an intellectual reaction to the Determinist movement, but I suspect it has more to do with the advent of the telegraph.
Determinism grew out of Rationalism, the belief that mathematics and its linguistic partner, logic, were the answer to everything. Logic works with cause and effect – if, then; since, therefore; why, because – and is strictly deductive. Information is extracted from what is already known in a chain of reason that has to be seen to be believed. Another invention of Aristotle’s, logic stretches deduction to the limit as long as it has a visual medium in which to operate. When extended vocally it leads to perplexity and yawns as details lose relevance. But in print it becomes a mighty weapon, since every detail is traceable to a source. Once transcribed this way, every event has a cause. Once this idea is transferred to the world at large the same is observable, and this is where the Determinists took off by reasoning that if the laws of cause and effect accounted for so much in nature, they could just as well account for human behavior. Free will was therefore a myth.
The Existentialists said bull. Free will is all we have. Free will is free choice, and we are destined to choose. Even by not choosing we have made a choice. It is the fear of choicelessness, of nothingness, that hurls us toward our existence. And so on.
But there’s another way of looking at this. Once messages were rendered immediate by the telegraph, it occurred to many that this left precious little to find a cause in. The wireless proved even more elusive, and with the transmission of speech it was clear that we are determined by nothing but our own ingenuity and initiative.
The more our environment turns into artifact, then, the more we must turn to our own devices as the cause for the effects we perceive. This of course is the message in any medium of communication, any extension of ourselves. We are creatures of our own design, and human freedom is only determined by what humans impose on it.
The laws of cause and effect are laws of our own making – basically a tool for explaining and exploiting the environment, a device for the exercise of logic. The Determinists were like children with a new toy. They tried it out wherever they could and found no end to the fun. But they can’t be blamed here. Believers were responding to the order imposed on their perceptions by rampant technological and scientific growth. It was the only way to account for their own place in the scheme of things.
Electricity, by releasing humanity from the bondage of visual order, changed everything. Dormant senses sprang to life and the heart was awakened while the head lost track. This is why Existentialist prose is so abstract. I doubt they understood what was going on, but I’m sure they felt it somehow. And though their approach is often accused of melodrama, the impact of the Existentialists on modern thought has been profound, because their desperate insight left one inescapable conclusion: with choice comes accountability for action.
If parents wish their children not to smoke, they best check out their ashtrays. If our institutions and corporations are intimidating, look at the laws that give them their power. If our communities exemplify waste, let’s clean up our act, but don’t forget the script needs work too.
And if the scars on our planet mean anything, it’s that our species needs to reassess the fruit of its collective growth. Only now that we can plug into each other is such a thing possible, now that message and messenger are one.
The most remarkable thing about humans is our frontal lobe, the seat of intelligence, an area that somehow works apart from physical body function. Really? Suppose this extension of gray matter grew out of necessity when our distant ancestors codified acoustic space by giving auditory data an exclusive input. There is a mountain of evidence (but no fossil record) indicating that in our evolution as apes we had an aquatic phase, likely prolonged, and as media go, this one involves the fact that sound travels much farther and faster in it, and besides hair loss and buoyancy for bipedalism, things like visual and olfactory impairment, breath control, signal restructuring, dolphins…
Whatever the case, our particular foreheads are unique in the animal kingdom. Therein lies the network of phonetic language that gives us our fabulous interpretation of the world, and that makes us what we are: conscious agents of the life force itself, as revealed by her electrophysical extension, our central nervous system. Any ideas we have are thus generated by an essentially shared sensorium.
Well almost. The problem with consciousness is its tendency to become enamored with its own operation, for this creates the equivalent of a short circuit that, when acted upon, can have unpredictable and sometimes devastating results.
I’ve left the Idealists until now because this area of philosophy has guided all the others. Ever since Plato made men aware that nature had been transferred to world within, they’ve been inclined to live in it and then in a variety of ways, flex their recreations. Plato said that knowledge had to go beyond mere sense perception and include this inner realm, but since feelings could fool you and the mind contained changeless images (mostly mathematical) he reasoned that consciousness depended on these instead of on what made sense. Is it not strange that women, who are granted a more intuitive kind of intelligence, have until recently been denied the privilege of reading? Plato, who loved the sight of the spoken word, found that the ‘appearance’ of ideas could indeed produce ‘true forms’ of amazing clarity and continuity. So have subsequent dialecticians for over two thousand years.
Most of these thinkers misunderstood (or didn’t care) how ideals actually work. If I say the word “cat”, you will experience a fleeting glimpse of an image – your gestalt representation of the perfect cat. We perform this basic idealization for any observable phenomenon in order to induce a meaning for its communication, and there’s the catch.
Ideals are primarily visual. Dreams, for example, are full of subconscious ideals. Small wonder ideals work so well in visual media like geometry and the alphabet. Whether scientific, social or spiritual, they’ve been driving our historical record from the start, often for the better. But as projections of reality, they have one drawback. Time and again it’s been shown that ideals, like their intentions, are only good for 99% fulfillment. Yet somehow they clutter the field of reason, and practical consensus loses ground. Many a wildflower sprouts from the garden of rhetoric. The Existentialists, sick of it all, declared a vacuum.
And they are right, for now that the artificial environment we have extended has its own timeless current, we become like the jellyfish, which has no mind of its own, just a direct line to the outside world. Yet to deny it consciousness is misleading, for it reproduces, and it’s evolved. We got the first part. Now’s our chance to make good on the second, now that with our circuits reintegrating we behold the very organism of our global village.
B.A : Communications
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