October 28, 2007

Rediscovering McLuhan: Some Sunday Musings

I recently had a rediscovery of Marshall McLuhan through a new documentary film called McLuhan’s Wake by Kevin McMahon and a 2003 anthology of lectures and interviews of McLuhan called Understanding Me edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines. Both of these present a lot of McLuhan speaking, which is very interesting because as his son Eric points out, he did not like to write books. His favorite mode was speaking. He was a professor and he loved to give lectures. By the time he put his ideas into written language, they had often been condensed to aphorisms, almost slogans, which were easily picked up and remembered, but cryptic and often not understood.

The book Understanding Me gathers lectures from 1959 to 1979. You see the development of the ideas from five years before the publication of his blockbuster Understanding Media and you see him explaining to people he is confronting face to face. His explanations are much gentler, conversational, less blunt and formulated than his writing.

While everyone remembers the slogan “the medium is the message,” many are mystified as to what it really means. But in these lectures he explains it much less cryptically: that each new tool, technology or medium creates a new environment, and the environment changes the way people live and how they apprehend the world.

Revisiting McLuhan in this congenial format is fascinating, in part because it’s the easiest way to understand McLuhan, but also because what he said is more astounding than ever. What he had to say in 1964 was mystifying gibberish to most people, but in 2007 it’s a very clear description of what has happened.

It’s not that every single prediction he made has come true precisely. As he said in his 1974 lecture at the University of South Florida “Living at the Speed of Light,” “I should add that anything I say is the way it seems at the moment.” But although particulars may be on or off the mark, it is amazing how prescient he was based on his fundamental understanding of the principles he discovered and described. For example, on a 1966 interview on Canadian TV, he described what comes amazingly close to what has happened with the development of the Internet. “Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed,” he said, “you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems, and say you’re working on a history of Egyptian arithmetic. You know a bit of Sanskrit, you’re qualified in German, and you’re a good mathematician, and they say it will be right over. And they at once Xerox, with the help of computers from libraries of the world, all the latest material just for you personally, not as something to be put out on a bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service. This is where we’re heading under electronic information conditions. Products increasingly are becoming services.”

Now instead of speaking into the phone, we type into our computer and it speaks into the phone for us, and various software like Google’s search engine comb the libraries of the world and the result comes back on our screen. The package is electronic, and when “they say it will be right over” it arrives electronically. This was a 1966 television broadcast. It was about as close as you could come to describing the Internet in language anyone would understand at the time. He didn’t describe every detail correctly, but he got the overall movement of technological evolution, which few had the slightest idea of in 1966.

There are many fascinating details in these documents in the book and the DVD package. I’ll just mention a few that strike me apropos of today’s circumstances.

There are a couple of lectures included as sound recordings on the DVD to McLuhan’s Wake. One is labeled Dec. 1966, but it had to have been 1968 because it mentions the films If and Yellow Submarine, which both came out in 1968. It’s interesting what he says about NASA. This was previous to the moonshot when NASA was still throwing up a lot of rockets that came crashing down again. McLuhan is discussing his main thesis that the phonetic alphabet created civilization and the visual, rational, Euclidian world of literary man, and how electronic technology is reversing that transformation and putting human beings back into an acoustic world in which everything comes all at once, no longer in orderly, rational, linear sequences.

“It is very difficult for Western man to take things except in a visual, connected, rational mode,” McLuhan says in his 1974 lecture “Living at the Speed of Light.” “Newton was all visual,” he says. “Everything was classified, connected, continuous.” Not so with quantum physics.

Back to 1966, McLuhan said:

We live in an electronic age, which is nonvisual and nonvisualizable, and the chemical bond as taught to us by Linus Pauling, Heisenberg and others is interval, resonance. The quantum mechanics boys have been telling us for 50 years that the bond of being, the thing that holds the world together is sound, resonance. There are no connections in matter, nothing that can be called a connection, only resonance. Now one of the things the quantum mechanical people and the NASA people do not know is that resonance is a peculiar kind of space. I’m simply mentioning as a simple fact that the NASA people are 18th Century types, pre-Jules Verne, pre-H.G. Wells. They live in a kind of nursery world like in Yellow Submarine. NASA is a very old fashioned bunch, semi-literate, never been through the real course. Anyway, the stuff they put out is cheap science fiction. It’s hardware. And it’s thanks to their ignorance of literacy in its full sense and ignorance of auditory space. Now the peculiarity of auditory space – and I’m simply challenging anyone of them to come forward, any scientist at all. I’ve met them on their own ground many times on this point. Auditory space is a very peculiar thing and we live in echoland now, in a simultaneous, instantaneous, all-at-once world, that is echoland, and that is auditory space. And space has a very peculiar property. It is a perfect sphere whose center is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere. It is totally nonvisual and nonvizualizable. Our DNA boys and our NASA boys still try to visualize space, meaning they have no relation whatever to the science they talk about.

In those days, McLuhan was telling us NASA was nowhere, that they didn’t understand their science, they were still trying to visualize space in an age when quantum mechanics has brought us to a level of understanding where space is no longer visualizable. What they were putting out was conceptually pre-Jules Verne, he said. A couple of years later, of course, was the great triumph of the moon landing, at least that’s what Nixon told us, and we know he wouldn’t lie. And besides, we saw it on TV. McLuhan would not have been able to get away with discounting NASA so scornfully after that. According to the November 2007 issue of Wired magazine, a third of the respondents to a 1970 poll thought something was fishy about the moon landing, but today 94 percent accept the official version.

Besides the fact that McLuhan was so resoundingly correct in his observations and premises that were so unique and left-field when he first presented them, there were many odd sidetracks from these old texts that struck me as applicable in strange ways to events today. In a 1966 lecture at the Kaufmann Art Gallery of the 92nd St. Y in New York City, he said, “Robert Oppenheimer is fond of saying, ‘There are kids playing right here on the sidewalk who could solve some of my toughest problems in physics; they have modes of perception that I lost forty years ago.’ Oppenheimer realizes in that remark that most scientific problems are really not concept problems but percept problems, that most scientists are blocked in their perceptions and prepossessions. When you’re dealing simultaneously with several million people, it’s obvious that somebody in that audience is going to have a perceptual perforation into the problem without any difficulty whatever. Eight scientists working on a problem for fifty years might not get through, but ten million people working on the problem for ten minutes might get through.”

I find this interesting in relation to the remarkable work independent grassroots research communities have done in many areas. You could name any number of examples. The MP3 was created in the public domain. It was the product of many independent innovations that were pieced together somewhat haphazardly by a process of natural evolution in the public domain. In a larger sense this is how cybernetic and Web technology is now evolving, a much accelerated and concentrated version of how science has always evolved within a community. But now the community is larger than ever and is connected electronically, so that we’re all potentially in one big virtual auditorium together dealing with any problem we choose to involve ourselves in.

This is how research has evolved in the JFK assassination, and now more recently with the 9/11 case. In both of these cases the government has performed some sort of investigation, put forth a thesis and closed the books, disposed of most of the evidence. But many within the population at large who were not satisfied with the government explanations of those events formed an amorphous community that has continued the investigations. And working together and separately have come up with some pretty remarkable findings.

Most scientific problems, McLuhan points out, are not concept problems, but percept problems, problems in perception. It’s like those figure-ground trick pictures with something hidden, but once you see it, you can’t go back to where it was invisible to you. In his 1974 lecture “Living at the Speed of Light”, McLuhan said,

I’ve often been puzzled by the fact that the greatest discoveries in the world, when you look back, are perfectly easy. They can be put in a textbook. But the same discovery when you were looking forward at a problem is impossible. Why is knowledge so easy backwards and so hard forwards? Well, it’s obvious that this is true because there isn’t anything that has been discovered that can’t be taught quite easily. Why is it so hard to discover? At first I thought, suppose the cancer experts came to the studio with their problem, set up a model of the experiments and their procedures in studying cancer, and said, ‘We have got to this point and we cannot get any further.’ They broadcast that to a million people at once. It is obvious that there’d be one person in a million who would see there was no problem at all. In any problem whatever, one in a million would see no problem. The real problem is how do you reach this guy who sees the absence of the problem?

Now let’s ask another question. Why is it that the man, one in a million, says there is no problem? This person is inevitably and naturally untaught, ignorant of all scientific procedures and all science. The scientist has great trouble looking forward past his problem because his knowledge gets in the way. It is only the very ignorant person who can get past that problem because he is not fogged over by knowledge. When you’re looking for new answers to new questions, it is knowledge itself that blocks progress. It is knowledge that creates real ignorance, just as wealth creates poverty. Every time a new discovery is made, enormous new areas of ignorance are opened up.

One of the greatest human discoveries, the automatic cybernetic governor of the steam engine, was made by an eight-year-old boy who had the job of pulling the steam cock. Every time the big wheel went around he pulled the steam cock to let steam out. He wanted to play marbles. He tied the string to the wheel, and made on of the greatest inventions of all history. Now the engineers who made the steam engine could not possibly have seen this simple gimmick. Only an ignorant kid who wanted to play marbles could see such things. Now the greatest discoveries in human history are of that kind.

It seems as if the world stands now on the brink, perhaps the brink of disaster, of climate change acceleration into runaway that will lay human civilization waste. Or perhaps disaster will come in the form of Dick Cheney getting his hands on a stray missile lost in Minot, and turn it to some sinister purpose. Or perhaps instead we are on the verge of a vast paradigm change, a tipping point when large numbers of people finally let go of a world view that is no longer working, that is indeed grinding us to certain disaster, and adopt a new world view that may enable humankind to survive a little longer.

The old view is the view of Nixon’s protégés, Cheney, Rumsfeld, the Bushes, Rove, Wolfowitz, Perle, the Neocon madman cabal that has seized control of the U.S. government and seeks to control the world. They see the world in terms of enemies and they are out to destroy the enemies and rise triumphantly to world domination. But there is an alternative view. It was evident in the counterculture of the ‘60s, and has been effectively suppressed by the corporate mercenary warbucks machine and its media brainwashing system. But it may yet rise out of this ongoing catastrophe.

A quote of Gregory Bateson comes to mind as a conclusion.

If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and the vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your chances of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or simply, of over population and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite. If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in. If we continue to operate on the premises that were fashionable in the precybernetic era, and which were especially underlined and strengthened during the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to validate the Darwinian unit of survival, we may have 20 or 30 years before the logical reductio ad absurdum of our old positions destroys us. Nobody knows how long we have, under the present system, before some disaster strikes us, more serious that the destruction of any group of nations. The most important task today is, perhaps, to learn to think in the new way.

-- David Cogswell

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