Thursday, August 11, 2011

Technology and Political Change

By H. M. McLuhan , 1952. 
“I know about the reasons for the revolution in Mexico," wrote Karel Capek, "but I know nothing at all about the reasons for my next-door neighbour's quarrels. This condition of the man of today is called world citizenship, and it arises from reading the papers." This is to say, among other things, that no matter how much technology reduces the intellectual and social isolation of people, their metaphysical isolation is little affected. But the speed with which we are today abridging the intellectual isolation of people is unquestioned.

Bergson argued that if some cosmic jokester were to speed up the entire universe we could detect the event by the impoverishment of mind that would ensue. If only on a planetary scale, we are now in a position to observe the effects of such accelerated operations socially and intellectually, because modern communications have become geared to the speed of light, and transportation is not too far behind.

It is perhaps useful to consider that any form of communication written, spoken, or gestured has its own aesthetic mode, and that this mode is part of what is said. Any kind of communication has a great effect on what you decide to say if only because it selects the audience to whom you can say it. The unassisted human voice which can reach at most a few dozen yards, imposes various conditions on a speaker. However, with the invention of the alphabet the voice was translated
to a visual medium with the consequent loss of most of its qualities and
effects. But its range in time and space was thus given enormous extension. At the same time that the distance from the sender of the recipient of a message was extended, the number of those able to decipher the message was decreased. Writing, in other words, was a political revolution. It changed the nature of social communication and control.

Intellectually, the visualization of the word may have made possible the rise of dialectics and logic as they are found in Plato's dialogues. And the Platonic quarrel with the Sophists, from this point of view, may represent the clash of the older oral with the new written mode of communication. For the written form of communication permits the arrest of a mental process for private analysis and contemplation, whereas the oral form is naturally concerned with the public impact on an audience. The Platonic dialogue may well represent a poise between the aesthetic claims and tendencies of these two forms of expression, between dialectic and rhetoric.

The conflicting claims of dialectic and rhetoric or private and public communication account for a good deal of subsequent intellectual and social history. The Roman world divided the dispute in accordance with the position of Seneca and of Cicero, and the mediaeval world opposed the methods of study and teaching of the Fathers and the Schoolmen. But the invention of printing or letter-press upset the mediaeval equilibrium in this matter. For the mechanization or writing reduced the effect of the spoken word even more than had the invention of writing. And the cheap and rapid multiplication of books not only extended the audience for books, but it changed the methods of study and teaching from a social to a private mode. There arose a cult of privacy. Western culture and religion became centered in the home and the book.

Politically speaking, this social change was felt in the new intensity of commercial exploitation of the vernaculars. Printing fostered nationalism when the printers sought to extend their markets as widely as possible. For any one vernacular market of newly-taught readers was larger than the whole European community of Latin-reading and speaking scholars.

One obvious effect of writing and printing is to bind together long tracts of time by making past writers simultaneously available. Associated with this effect is the republicanism of letters. Anybody, no matter what his origin or condition, has access on equal terms to the written messages of "the mighty dead," so that we can readily link, as most have done, the rise of democratic attitudes to the mechanization of writing.

As the mechanization of writing advanced in speed and cheapness, and the daily newspaper became possible, a whole series of unpredictable social and political consequences appeared. The press became a source of advertising revenue, for one thing. And larger circulation called for a larger range and variety of news. This led to the development of news-gathering agencies and techniques of great scale. And while the newspaper took on the format of a popular daily book, collectively written and produced, it reversed the character of the first printed books.

At first the book had abridged time, making the reader of any period the social equal and contemporary of Homer, Horace, or Petrarch. However, the new book of the people, the newspaper, created a one-day world utterly indifferent to the past, but embracing the whole planet. The newspaper is not a time-binder but a space-binder. Juxtaposed simultaneously in its columns are events from the next block with events from China and Peru. And naturally the technologically determined format of the press has had revolutionary political consequences. It has changed everybody's way of thinking, seeing, feeling. Perhaps the most significant single fact about the newspaper is its date-line.

Aesthetically speaking, a week-old newspaper is of no interest at all, even though intellectually speaking it has exactly the same components as today's paper. Aesthetically the newspaper creates an impact of immediacy and of super-realism. Metaphysically its mode is existential. Its impact is that of the very process of actualization. The entire world becomes, in this way, a laboratory in which everybody can watch the stages of an experiment. Everybody becomes a spectator of the biggest show on earth - namely the entire human family in its most gossipy intimacy. One curious aspect of the press is its willingness to be as surrealist as possible in its handling of geography and space, while sticking rigidly to the convention of a date-line. As soon as the same treatment is accorded time as space, we are in the world of Joyce's ULYSSES where it is 800 B.C. and 1904 A.D. at the same time. And it is certain from even a casual glance at modern science fiction that the popular mind is decades ahead of the academic mind in being already prepared to drop the date-line on newspapers, and to range as freely in time as in space as a means of intellectual discovery.

This spectator mentality applied not only to the external world but to history includes the habit of seeing oneself as part of the scene, of participating in one's own audience participation, as it were; and it receives a final degree of extension in television where the participants in a show can easily see the broadcast in a studio monitor while engaged in acting the show. It is noteworthy that the spectator attitude is explicitly associated with one of the early newspapers. For the SPECTATOR of Steele and Addison was a commentary on the social and intellectual scene in the days before professional news-gathering had begun. Various inventions like the telescope, the microscope, the spectroscope, and the camera obscura coincided with the landscape interest in painting and poetry to foster a spectator attitude to the world. The very idea of "views" as a way of expressing moral and political attitudes arose at this time. Popular metaphors naturally provide an index to changing experience.

For the student of the arts and of politics it is instructive to observe how many of the techniques developed for example, in picturesque poetry, not only appear in the popular novel but in the press. In fact, most current ideas of the opposition between vulgar and sophisticated art, or between popular and esoteric culture, are based on a considerable ignorance of the ways in which communication takes place in society. More specifically, the general concepts of culture have been based on an interest in the moral and intellectual content of art forms, to the neglect of the form itself as a major component of the expression. As attention has widened to see any culture as a communication network, it has become apparent that there are no non-cultural areas in any society. There is no kind of object or activity that has not some rapport with the entire network.

The beloved detective story will serve as an example of a supposedly non-cultural type of expression. Built around the character of an omniscient and omni-competent sleuth whose lineage stretches backwards from Holmes to Da Vinci it manages to be popular poetry about the modern city. The sleuth is a master of every facet of the city. With the skill of an organist at a five-keyboard instrument, he can touch any note or level of metropolitan life. He is familiar with all the dives and clubs. He knows the whole range of drinks, foods, clothes, perfumes, as well as every intricacy of transportation routes and schedules. Anybody in the future who wished to acquaint himself with the full range and texture of the modern big town would not be able to find in reputable novels anything comparable to the poetic reportage of the detective story. The raw mechanical power that is imparted to the ordinary metropolitan citizen by his milieu is found in the gestures and idiom of the sleuth.

But much more remarkable, as cultural expression, is the form of the detective story. Written backwards, in order that the effect of the story may always be the exact reconstruction of a crime, the form is based on the same method as that employed in laboratory experiment and in modem historiography, archaeology, and mechanical production. But the detective story preceded these sciences in the discovery of this method. It is only one striking instance of popular expression which has its tap-root in the deepest intuitions of our culture.

If the mechanization of writing had some such typical effects as have been suggested, it is not too surprising that its extreme development should have coincided with a tendency to switch from words to pictures. This switch was already under way in the eighteenth century with its spectator outlook and passion for landscape in the arts. By the nineteenth century the demand for illustrations for letter-press became very strong, not only in the book and newspaper but also in the very form taken by the esoteric arts, as for instance Rimbaud's ILLUMINATIONS. Photography and cinema may be seen as the response to prolonged pressure of demand rather than as gratuitous inventions. Perhaps they can be viewed as ultimate or extreme mechanizations of writing. More probably, however, telegraphy has claims to be considered the extreme verge of the mechanization of writing beyond which one enters the Marconi world of the mechanization of speech.

Like any extreme these processes reversed the original effect, and tended to separate people from the printed word. So that in pictorial papers and magazines even words take on the character of landscape. Variety of types is employed to build up the page as a visual unit rather than as a mere linear transmission of printed words. The Chinese never had an alphabet, but their ideograms are pictorial translations of human gestures and relationships. As our press has become more pictorial our whole culture has become more sympathetic to Chinese art and expression. So that the very features of our culture which have intruded disruptively into the East have also brought us a basis for approaching their kinds of communication. Modern advertising is a world of ideograms.

There have been so many domestic and social revolutions associated with the consequences of the mechanization of writing that it is natural to wonder why so little attention has been given to the matter. Without any special awareness of just what revolutions we have been through we have hurried from the age of cinema into the era of television. Between cinema and television we managed to squeeze in radio, the mechanization of speech.

By way of obeisance to our own ingenuity, people have often felt obliged to marvel at radio and television by exclaiming: "Although it's happening over there, it's also happening right here." This kind of self-hypnosis is undertaken in a spirit of uneasy propitiation of the new god. But the real power of these deities is exerted when we aren't looking. The mechanization of speech meant that the most intimate whispers or the most ordinary tones of conversation could be sent everywhere instantly from anywhere. Beside the effects of this revolution in communication even those associated with the invention of writing and printing are trivial events. Radio meant the widest dispersal of the human voice and also the ultimate dispersal of attention. For listening is not hearing any more than looking is reading. And all the networks of human communication are becoming so jammed that very few messages are reaching their destination. Mental starvation in the midst of plenty is as much a feature of mass communication as of mass production.

The stereotypes of advertising have been developed as the nexus between mass consumption and mass production. Advertising has been the means of organizing the mass market. For advertisements are constructed scientifically as machines to stream-line and channel the multiplicity of human desires until they are effectively geared to production. A more effective mode of psychological collectivization could not be imagined than that imposed by the giant stereotypes of the desirable which are insinuated, without argument but with intimate urgency, by the symbolist techniques of visual and auditory appeal in advertisements. These stereotypes are not the product of chance but of careful investigation and experiment with the human recipients. For the present time the realities of political and social change are to be studied in this area. Among other things, these changes mean that events cannot be reported if they involve a degree of complexity in excess of the available stereotypes, so that in modern diplomacy the negotiators will naturally refuse to attempt a working agreement that cannot be followed by or reported to non-professionals. There must be some simple moral or national formula to hand for the diplomats to depend upon, such as will justify them to the half-listening, half-waking world hour by hour and day by day. In this way the new media have compelled history and actuality to feign a simplicity that just isn't there. Thus the magic and mythic power so characteristic of the mass media, having first hypnotized the recipients of their messages, have then, in effect, pronounced the real world to be an illegitimate and reprehensible territory. The same sort of paradox is inherent in the movie as a night-time therapy applied to the victims of dream routines of daily work.

It would be too much in the spirit of the current effect of the new media to brand these and allied developments as deplorable. For, if the new reality of our time is in the main a collective dream or nightmare brought about by the mechanization of speech (television takes the final step of mechanizing the expressiveness of the human figure and gesture) then we must learn the art of using all our wits in a dream world, as did James Joyce in FINNEGANS WAKE.

On looking closely at the newspaper once more, it becomes evident that as a popular art form it embraces the world spatially but under the sign of a single day. The newspaper as a late stage in the mechanization of writing is handicapped in taking the next step, which occurs easily in radio and television, namely to cover not only many spaces but many times, or history, simultaneously. But even the newspaper has long felt the pressure to take this step. In juxtaposing items from Russia, India, Iran and England, it is plain that there is also a diversity of historical times that are being artificially and arbitrarily elucidated under a single date line. Even in so intimate and influential a fact as dress design, modern archaeology has increased the range of style and idiom to include in a single season types of attire developed many thousands of years apart. The TIME AND WESTERN MAN of Mr. Wyndham Lewis is the classic study of the romantic stigmata of the enthusiastic time-traveller. But the further development of communication in space as in historical time, has tended to lessen the romantic appeal of distant times and customs in favour of a direct stylistic interest in their immediate value and relevance. The modern study of the past, as of distant places, has the effect of making them as much a part of the present as our own problems. So that for the modern mind history has become not a receding perspective but a present burden.

This cumulative effect of our techniques of production and of communication has been felt everywhere in the world as an impatience with "the dead hand of the past." As we become more familiar with the components of this revolutionary state of mind we shall discover in our social life as in our private life that there is no past that is dead. And that "the dead hand of the past" is an indispensable guide in the present.

In other words when communication devices have achieved the speed of light, there occurs a social and historical simultaneity as well as a local and temporal one. And since the various societies of our world comprise many ages, as well as many places, the immediate effect of modern communication in overlaying all of these is to create dislocation and distress. The first impulse of reason is to cry out for uniformity at any cost, to prevent further waste, confusion, and madness. A clean sweep, a new start, and the abolition of historical differences seem to be demanded for mere survival.

It would seem that even so superficial an examination of the impact of technology on culture and politics poses some useful matters for study. The great political discovery of the eighteenth century was social equality. The principal insight of this century to date is perhaps the anthropologist's awareness of cultural equality. Modern anthropologists, deeply influenced by our new skills in communication, have arrived at the conviction that all cultures are equal. That is to say, that seen as communication networks, all cultures past or present represent a uniquely valuable response to specific problems in interpersonal and inter-social communication. This position amounts to no more than saying that any known language possesses qualities of expressiveness not to be found in any other language. But as a matter of practical politics the awareness of cultural equality (a by-product of new techniques of communication) will certainly prove as benign a force as can be imagined, because it frees each society from the odium of inferiority or the arrogance of superiority. Each is free to learn from all the others while possessing itself in quiet.

And by way of abating some of the dread most people feel towards the power of mass communications at present it might be well to consider how with radio or the mechanization of human speech, the hustings and the forum have given way to the round table and face-to-face discussion in the presence of small audiences. Also, with television has come a weakening of the magic and myth of the movie "star." It appears that the intimacy and immediacy of the flexible television camera and screen are much less favourable to the star system than the movie camera and its giant screen on to which are poured such dreams as money can buy. - INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL, Vol.7, Summer, 1952, pp.189-95

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