Saturday, 10 March 2012

Happy Birthday, Marshall McLuhan

originally published at, 21.07.2011

Marshall McLuhan is a hundred years old today (July 21). Happy birthday, dude.

Or he would be, if he were alive; they say he died in 1980. Don’t you believe it; if the ghost in the machine has any meaning at all, this guy is still alive virtually – his soul surfing endlessly in all the myriad byways of the World Wide Web, whose advent and consciousness-transforming qualities he prophesied back in the sixties when everything was cool and whatever wasn’t cool was hot.

In the global village, the medium is the message. And, man, that medium is digital code – from DNA and ATCG to HTML and HTTP; reality broken down to switching on and off, combining and recombining, dreams and reality, deconstructing structuralism, a virtual reality becoming real virtuality in a brave new world in which everything is networked with everything else and I can learn in real time (limited only by the speed of optical fibres, server overloads and available 3G band-width) of the bowel-movement of a totally-wired social-network fanatic in Indonesia via Twitter on my smartphone (maybe even watch the whole event on YouTube if he’s been obsessive enough to upload it). Or ordinary people in oppressed countries in North Africa can organise revolutions.

That’s progress. Of course, we tend to automatically assume that progress means better. McLuhan never said that; he emphasised that technological developments are not moral categories but that the changes they bring to the world/society/culture have fundamental effects on the way we perceive things – on the whole shape of our individual and collective consciousnesses. New ways of seeing things, new ways of defining and understanding ourselves give rise to new moral questions and formulations, or new ways of asking old questions. It happened in the wake of the invention of the printing press and it’s happening again right now – on an exploded, time-accelerated, cracked-up, raised to the power of x scale.

There are times when McLuhan’s prophetic visions are eerily accurate. In 1962 (when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was seven years old), he wrote

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 32)

An excellent description of why this post-9/11, finance-market driven, networked world of Fox News, Mad Men, Facebook, Global Warming, Tea Party, Lady Gaga chaotic complexity often seems to be basically composed of tribes of lemmings. Big Brother is already inside – but we can watch him on TV too, voting candidates in or out in modern versions of the Roman amphtheatre.

McLuhan inspired people like Tom Wolfe and Andy Warhol and gave Timothy Leary the phrase, “tune in, turn on and drop out.” He was also a convert to intellectual Catholicism and, they say, an admirer of the thinking of the Jesuit scientific mystic philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin.

In that case, there’s only one more question I want to ask: Is Google+ just another stage in the development of the noosphere or is it the beginning of the digital rapture, the Omega Point?

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