McLUHAN: People are beginning to understand the nature of their new technology, but not yet nearly enough of them—and not nearly well enough. Most people, as I indicated, still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. Because we are benumbed by any new technology—which in turn creates a totally new environment—we tend to make the old environment more visible; we do so by turning it into an art form and by attaching ourselves to the objects and atmosphere that characterized it, just as we’ve done with jazz, and as we’re now doing with the garbage of the mechanical environment via pop art. The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day. In the midst of the electronic age of software, of instant information movement, we still believe we’re living in the mechanical age of hardware. At the height of the mechanical age, man turned back to earlier centuries in search of “pastoral” values. The Renaissance and the Middle Ages were completely oriented toward Rome; Rome was oriented toward Greece, and the Greeks were oriented toward the pre-Homeric primitives. We reverse the old educational dictum of learning by proceeding from the familiar to the unfamiliar by going from the unfamiliar to the familiar, which is nothing more or less than the numbing mechanism that takes place whenever new media drastically extend our senses.
PLAYBOY: If this “numbing” effect performs a beneficial role by protecting man from the psychic pain caused by the extensions of his nervous system that you attribute to the media, why are you attempting to dispel it and alert man to the changes in his environment?
McLUHAN: In the past, the effects of media were experienced more gradually, allowing the individual and society to absorb and cushion their impact to some degree. Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves. Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us—and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present.
This is, give or take a day, my 11th anniversary of having some kind of blog or another. For the next few minutes we’ll once again re-examine the idea that it was either this or a metal detector and I made the wrong choice.
There’s about a 75% chance that I’ll be going to a convention this fall. The other 25% hangs in the balance as the whole sheebang might not come off and if it does I might not go. My general concern is that there’ll be any number of people there who will want, as they constantly say, “To pick your brain.” Over time I have found no good way to tell them that picking my brain is no different than looking around the bottom of your glove box. All you’re really going to find is a busted ballpoint pen, three peppermint Lifesavers, (still in the torn wrapper), and a lint covered penny. Beyond that there is the small problem that I really don’t have much to tell you about what I do every day and if you openly admit that you know even less about what I do than I do then you’re in very, very deep trouble.
And since I mentioned lice picking in the last post I shall spare you my other analogies that I could use at this point which wholly depend of certain aspects of primate behavior.
If the event happens I’m thinking about getting business cards made up which list my title as “Media Theorist.” Not that it’ll do much good as no one reads business cards, but at least I can point to the line with the title and say, I think you’ve mistaken me for some one else. At which point I can walk away from being Zombie Chow for yet another day.
Seriously, if i thought there was any money in it I would be a media theorist. But McLuhan got in the game early and really didn’t leave anything for the rest of us. The only thing I have going is the constant nagging thought that affinities do not make us tribes. Backing up a step – as you remember McLuhan said eventually electronic media would detribalize humanity. Douglas Coupland said that this was true as the Internet let people connect who had never connected before. Coupland says that the Net’s ability to bring together adult Lego builders and all the people who play with trains in the basement.
All well and good but I do not think that a tribe consists of a collection of people bound by their affinities. People can go about holding onto those affinities while not renouncing their citizenship or identifying themselves by their profession. (i.e. Hello, I’m DOCTOR Bob.) McLuhan said that radio was a very tribe-making medium and he used Hitler as one example. Hitler, per McLuhan, worked best on the audio medium because the audio medium aims for the gut. But that overlooks the point that Hitler’s message was that Germans needed to be better Germans as Germany had been insulted and only the Germans could do something about it. Make no mistake – uniting weirdoes of a kind is one of the best and most efficient things the Internet(s) can do, but Hitler’s kind of galvanizing message would be a non sequitur to a 37 year-old guy who builds prehistoric swamp dioramas out of Legos, but who still carries an Ohio drivers license and a US passport. After all while Gomez played with trains in the basement, he was still first and foremost an Addams.
And governments who would retribalize their own people in order to cut corners are on a fool’s errand.
But that is another topic for a different time.