Sunday, October 03, 2010
Yet, since almost the very beginning I’ve been bothered by McLuhan. I was looking for answers and McLuhan kept posing me riddles. Alternately dazzlingly clear and maddeningly cryptic, so much of what he had to say left many people feeling uncomfortable and skeptical; others, wildly enthusiastic and hopeful. For me – and many others who were moved to dedicate their lives to understanding media – McLuhan’s words were intriguing and enticing, inviting questions and urging deeper consideration. They made my head hurt, but they showed me for the first time that questions are, after all, far more important than answers.
I have, I believe, come to terms with McLuhan in the intervening thirty-eight years. Or I have almost come to terms with him. I’m at the very least minimally comfortable with his method; the “probe,” oracular aphorisms, heuristic in nature, not particularly suited to empiric measurement, a kind of “intellectual Rorschach test” that everyone can read something into and get something out of.
What I am not comfortable with is a single phrase: “A moral point of view is a poor substitute for understanding in technical matters.” So I decided to sit and talk with him about it.
What follows is a (totally imaginary) conversation I had recently with the “the oracle of the electric age.” Many of McLuhan’s responses are direct quotes from his works, many more are close paraphrases altered only for the sake of the literary integrity (such as there may or may not be) of this essay. I have, by necessity, invented some of McLuhan’s responses to my questions posed here, but only then on the basis of what I honestly believe might have been his actual response. Needless to say, this essay very possibly says more about me and my understanding of McLuhan than it does about McLuhan himself. But I’d be willing to argue that point:
Peter K. Fallon: “A moral point of view is a poor substitute for understanding in technical matters.” Why? It seems to me that understanding technical matters absent a moral point of view is not “understanding” at all.
Marshall McLuhan: Well, first of all let me just mention that I don’t always agree with everything I say. The point is not to say something and stand by it; the point is to push the limits of human perceptions and assumptions and see what we can find beyond them. If you don’t like that idea, let’s try something else.
PKF: Well, it seems to me that you’re abdicating moral responsibility for questioning the role of media in social change. It seems to me that you’re presenting as a given certain, almost pre-determined, consequences of technology and positing that this vague concept of “understanding” is all human beings can do in the face of rapid and radical technological change.
MM: Does that bother you?
PKF: Yes, it bothers me. It bothers me something awful. I have spent years defending you – from many who I don’t believe really understand what you’re saying – against the charges of “technological determinism,” yet in far too many cases you sound as though you’re saying that the best we can hope for is to understand the changes that technology brings us, not manage them.
MM: What does it matter if some call me a “technological determinist” or a “guru” or, for that matter, a “Charlatan”? There is absolutely no determinism in my work, because I urge a willingness to contemplate what is happening. I need no defense, Peter, from such charges. My job, as I see it, is to alert people to the changes going on around them. That in itself is a moral imperative, and no abdication of responsibility. Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior. I’ve just tried to bring more understanding into the picture. The electronic age has presented us with a dilemma: we are awash in electronic and digital information, and the swirl of this maelstrom of information tosses us about like corks on a stormy sea. But if we keep our cool during our “descent into the maelstrom,” and study the process as it happens, like Poe’s sailor we can save ourselves.
PKF: Yes. That’s another thing. It’s always bothered me that the “old sailor” – who was, of course, not old at all but aged prematurely by his ordeal – did not or could not save his brothers. One brother is flung outright from the boat, another goes mad at the sight of the enormous whirlpool and dies in its vortex. But the “old sailor” “keeps his cool” as you say and studies the patterns of the maelstrom. He notices – in a way that presages Einstein and relativity – that in the midst of the maelstrom’s power, with its force propelling the boat in circles within its cone, he appears to be sitting still, and the opposite side of the whirlpool remains stationary in relation to him.
MM: Moving along within the maelstrom, at its speed, in its direction, there is a certain curious peace, and the sailor has time to study its patterns and make inferences about its behavior.
PKF: Yes, and he saves himself with the knowledge he gains within the chaos. But his brothers die.
MM: Well, yes. But, Peter, it’s only a story. No one actually died in its telling by Edgar Poe.
PKF: But it’s a story that describes your views on understanding media, that you have stated serves as a metaphor for your approach to studying media and their effects. And so we’re back to my original difficulty: the idea of understanding anything absent a moral point of view. Why didn’t he try to save his brothers?
MM: Because he would have died, it’s as simple as that. Why is what you call “a moral point of view” so important to you, Peter? Is a “moral point of view,” by its nature, any better or worse than an immoral point of view, or an amoral point of view, or a secular point of view, or a humanist point of view? Point of view, whatever its orientation, is imaginary. It is part and parcel of the typographic mindset, the cordoning off of the individual from the group, the artificial separation of one from the other. We don’t live in that world anymore, but in a world of electric simultaneity that brings people together in a tribal village that is a rich and creative mix, where there is actually more room for creative diversity than within the homogenized mass urban society of Western man. In such a world a point of view – any point of view – reveals itself to be a dangerous luxury, an intellectual self-indulgence, especially when substituted for insight and understanding.
PKF: A world of chaos and – to use Harry Frankfurt’s term – bullshit, if you ask me. A world with no point of view and no real knowledge. “Understanding media” today means the opposite of what you probably intended – or perhaps not…? “Understanding media” means knowing how to work them, knowing how to use them. Literacy has given way to “media literacy” and “information literacy” and “visual literacy” and point of view has given way to pointlessness and objectivity has given way to a truly egoistic subjectivity…I see no “rich and creative mix” – although people tell me I’m constantly surrounded by it – any more than I see understanding. And I don’t see understanding any more than I see a moral point of view. We’re left with nothing except a sort of psychic “I got mine, fuck you” environment that empowers us (if that is at all the appropriate word) to focus on ourselves to the detriment of the rest of the world. It seems to me that in a world like this, a point of view – if it is a positive point of view – is a Godsend. But what is worse, any point of view – even an entirely stupid one – strikes many who have none of their own, and are entirely unable to identify one, as a Godsend.
MM: Peter, you may be over-reacting. This age we live in of infinite connections and the liberation of consciousness from the body – the age of “discarnate man” – is barely half a century old. Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair such as those you appear to feel invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition. Your assumptions about alphabetic man, if you’ll allow me to say to you critically, may have outlived their uselessness. It was alphabetic man himself who was disposed to desacralize his mode of being, not we. In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness, a seamless web of experience. This is not the individualist, trivial (in all senses of the word) consciousness of alphabetic man, but a consciousness that begins in the senses, is rooted in perception, and is derailed by concepts or ideas.
PKF: I know you’re referring now, however obliquely, to your Christian faith, and specifically to your adopted faith of Catholicism.
MM: As you say.
PKF: And here again I have a hard time coming to terms with your ideas, which to my ears sound so sanguine. I know that your work was profoundly influenced by that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
MM: I am not in the slightest influenced by Fr. Teilhard’s works, even though we may share areas of common interest.
PKF: As you say. But Teilhard famously anticipated many of your ideas and even your tone. And I am a great admirer of Teilhard’s work, as I am of yours…
MM: (~~feigns satisfaction with an irrelevant opinion~~)
PKF: …and I hope – no, I pray – that Teilhard is correct about many of his ideas, but I fear he is wrong. Because in the final analysis I do in fact see a determinism in your work, but it is not a technological determinism. It is a determinism of faith and salvation. Teilhard’s “noosphere” is merely an anticipation of your “global central nervous system.” And Teilhard’s conception of the “Omega point” – the parousia – sounds very much like your idea that “Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man.” You appear to have adopted an eschatological approach to your pursuit of understanding media – very, very similar to Teilhard’s – that you don’t ever explicitly identify.
MM: Is that so?
PKF: Well, I certainly believe it is so. It seems to me that you’ve put your faith entirely in acceptance of Christ – medium and message – without ever considering the human agency involved in salvation. As a Catholic, and in the knowledge of your devout Catholicism, I’m confounded by what sounds to me like the Protestant principle of sola gratia – salvation by God’s grace alone – ignoring the quintessential Catholic principle of salvation by grace and good works. Your “evangelism” – it seems to me – is more of the Lutheran or Reformation variety than of a fully- (and rightly-) formed Catholic one.
Understanding media alone will not bring about a better world (the Kingdom of God?), but ought to be the foundation of good works that may bring it about: constructing an environment of truly free-flowing and uninhibited information, to be sure, but also reaffirming and supporting the structures of thought that allow us to identify error and falsehood, and empowering us to label bullshit as bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt suggests. The global village, with its “rich and creative mix” full of “creative diversity” can be the perfect venue to put bullshit on an equal footing with truth. I see nothing in this situation that is either constructive or Catholic.
MM: That is your point of view.
PKF: (~~sigh~~) Yes, it is. I’ll stand by it.
MM: In my defense, I’ll say only this: The revealed and divinely constituted fact of religion has nothing to do with human opinion or human adherence. In Jesus Christ, there is no separation or distance between the medium and the message; it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same. To know Christ – to truly know him – is to accept Him. And there is no greater moral action – no greater “good work” – than understanding media.
At any rate, that's how I imagine the conversation going...
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Imagining the discussion that followed when I began to argue in favor of social networking, I believe it would go something like this:
Peter: Facebook keeps me in contact with people I don't see on a daily basis.
Neil: What, have you forgotten how to write? Peter, I remember you telling me in 1986 about how you wrote letters every week to your cousins in Ireland, about how you were a dedicated -- and habitual -- letter writer. What happened to you?
PKF: Writing all those letters took a lot of time and a lot of energy. With Facebook all I have to do is send someone a private message and they get it instantly.
NP: Does it take any less time or energy to sit and think and write a beautifully-crafted letter -- or "message" -- on Facebook than it did when you were writing and sending letters through the mail?
PKF: Well, actually, I don't really tend to write as much on Facebook as I used to in a letter. It's usually just a couple of lines.
NP: Why is that, Peter?
PKF: Well, for one thing I tend to "bump into" (in a disembodied sort of way) one or another of my cousins rather frequently online, and we exchange pleasantries almost on a daily basis. Not as much time passes between our moments of contact, and I don't feel as though I have to provide a comprehensive chronicle of recent events. Besides, that's what my "wall" is for.
NP: Uh-huh. And do you share everything on your wall? Do you share the same sorts of details of your life on your very public profile page that you once did, in letters, with your cousins?
NP: And so would you say that your interactions with your cousins have changed?
PKF: Yeah, I suppose so. They're far more frequent, but not nearly as deep. But isn't that my fault? You're not suggesting that Facebook has done this to me.
NP: No, Peter, but this is also my point: You have done this. But you have done this with Facebook. Facebook giveth, and Facebook taketh away. You have adopted Facebook as a convenience but told yourself that it is (as you consider all new technologies to be) a necessity. This was a choice involving no coercion or compromise of your intelligence or agency. You have accepted, unquestioningly, your culture's assumptions that, in all matters, but especially those of information, more is better than less and faster is better than slower. And you have accepted this knowing full well (as I taught you) that speed, quantity, and convenience are values in their own right and must compete with other values which you might (because you once did) hold in higher esteem. So you did this, Peter, and you continue to do this, beyond all logic. What's wrong with you?
PKF: I don't think you understand the enormity of the change our culture is going through at this moment, Neil...
NP: (~~wry grin~~)
PKF:...I mean, this digital thing is not all bad. It gives us "small people" -- as BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg calls us -- the power to communicate widely with a potentially global audience. In this sense, it is every bit as revolutionary as Gutenberg's printing press. There has been an enormous proliferation of voices in the last ten years resulting in new ideas and new perspectives that otherwise might never have surfaced in a culture of top-down networks and mass communication.
NP: Sure, Peter, I can see that. But to what end?
PKF: Huh? Isn't the opening up of channels of communication to enfranchise the information-disenfranchised an end in itself?
NP: I'm not so sure. Do you ever read Jacques Ellul?
PKF: (~~petulantly~~) Yes...
NP: And perhaps a bit of Thoreau?
NP: Well, then you ought to know that our whole approach, as a species, to the relationship between means and ends has changed. Our technologies, Thoreau said, are nothing more than im--
PKF:...improved means to an unimproved end, yes...I know...
NP: Ahem...Yes...and Ellul reminds us that the values of a technological society present us with a certain...imperative...with which we seem only too happy to conform, namely: to do, to act, to respond, to achieve, to produce, without much regard for what it is, exactly, we are doing, acting on, responding to, achieving, or producing. Technology, as I taught you (and you should have learned by now), answers the human question "how." Ethics answers the human question "why" and it is this question that seems more and more to go missing in our culture. Is giving a voice to those who have none a good in and of itself? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Our culture certainly tells us it is. The values of postmodern, highly technologically-developed "democracies" certainly support this point of view.
But isn't it at all instructive to ask, in the first place, whether those who heretofore have had no voice have anything, finally, to say?
PKF: But isn't this how knowledge increases and spreads, Neil? By opening up channels of information to allow more diverse points of view?
NP: This is how INFORMATION spreads, Peter, not necessarily knowledge. Knowledge is another story. To paraphrase Henri Poincare, knowledge is made up of facts, as a house is made of bricks. But knowledge is no more merely a pile of facts than a house is merely a pile of bricks. There is an epistemology at work here, Peter, and a curriculum. And there is a method. Critical thought, based on propositional language, is foundational to the construction of bodies of knowledge. The ability to discern -- and reject -- useless, irrelevant, and trivial information does not necessarily come easily to the human being. It takes years of hard work and practice to develop the literate mind and the rigors of critical thought. And without these all we have are piles of facts -- and in the digital world, truly prodigious piles of facts. Nicholas Carr asked the wrong question, and in doing so created a strawman argument that proponents of the digital epistemologies have gleefully attacked and destroyed: will Google make us stupid? He misses the point: human beings evolved stupid. We're stupid to begin with. Literacy and critical, propositional thought is the therapeutic intervention we invented to cure our stupidity. Digital technologies, to the extent that they provide us with a shortcut to "information" (again, without regard to the quality of the information) that bypasses these thought processes, don't make us stupid, but counteract the therapies that we ourselves invented to ameliorate our stupidity. Epistemology, curriculum, and method cannot be separated without consequence.
So what digital technologies have done, perhaps, in empowering the information-disenfranchised (as you call them) is not to have spread knowledge, but to have spread stupidity.
PKF: But many of my friends and colleagues insist that these digital technologies support propositional thought, that people are reading more as a result of the internet, and kindle, and iPads, and all the other various venues and applications. Can you deny that?
NP: I can neither confirm nor deny that, and I'll confess to you that I hope -- and pray -- that it is true. But I'll also confess to you that I have my doubts and remain skeptical about such suggestions based on my observations of human behavior, especially where technology is involved.
NP: Peter, are you aware of what the two most widely used applications of the internet are?
PKF: Ummm...yes, as a matter of fact.
NP: Well? What are you waiting for?
PKF: E-mail and pornography.
NP: Yes. Virtually 100% of internet users have one or more active e-mail accounts. Nearly 70% of internet users download and view pornography. Now, don't think I'm a prude, Peter (many people believe I am, you know), I'm not condemning people for engaging in an expressive form that is as old as the species. It just serves as an illustration of my point. Given a medium (one that is, in a sense, the accretion of all previous media) that allows for engagement with both propositionally-structured information and presentationally-structured information, people will choose titillation, excitement, and amusement everytime. Reading is difficult work and unnatural; sensory experience is not. I'm reminded of Christine Nystrom's article -- you remember Christine, don't you?
PKF: Of course I do. She was my dissertation chair.
NP: (~~annoyed~~) Oh, yes. That's right, she was. Well, anyhow, I'm reminded of something she once wrote called "literacy as deviance." Her point was that human beings invented writing and eventually print only because we were, at those points, insufficiently technologically advanced to invent television. All of human technological development, she suggested, is aimed at constructing tools that more and more accurately mimic human sensory experience. Hence, our infatuation with "virtual reality" (as though actual reality were not real enough), and her observation that alphabetic writing was merely a detour on this path.At any rate, whether you call it an iPad, or an e-book, or a schmindle, what you're really talking about is a computer hooked to the internet. Come to think of it, what kind of environment are we living in when you can make phone calls on a book? But I digress. As long as we're talking about computers with multiple applications, only one of those being to access text, we're very likely, I believe, to find that people will use them to look at pictures or movies, or listen to music just as frequently -- if not more -- as to read text.There are, of course, the other issues of what we're reading (to go back to our earlier discussion of information) and how we're reading (if you wanted to discuss Sven Birkerts's ideas of the deeply interior experience of "deep reading"), but I think you get my point. I am skeptical about the ability of digital technologies to support the epistemology, curriculum, and method of print culture. Extremely skeptical.
PKF: Listen, Neil, my friend Robert Berkman wanted me to ask you a question...
NP: How long have you known Bob Berkman?
PKF: Well, we've actually never met, but ---
NP: So why do you call him your friend? Look at how new technologies change our language!
PKF: Well, he's a Facebook friend...I know it's not the same thing, Neil, but, look, he's a nice guy, he's smart and asks good questions, suggests good answers -- and his profile picture always has a smile!
NP: Just get on with it, Peter. I don't have all day. I'm playing Bridge later with McLuhan, Innis, and Ong...
PKF: Well, Bob thought you might be more amenable to giving your approval to sites like Academia.edu...
NP: What's that? That's a new one to me...
PKF: It's a website for scholars. You have your own page -- a profile page that links to personal information, research interests and activities, etc. Other scholars can "follow" your work, and you can upload your research and get comments from other scholars.
NP: Why in the world would you want to do that?
PKF: Well, again Neil, it's this idea of opening up channels of communication, getting reactions from diverse perspectives, generating synergy...
NP: Synergy, schminergy, Peter. You're talking gobbledy-gook here...Peter, let me ask you a question.
PKF: By all means.
NP: You've written a book now, correct?
PKF: Ummm...actually, my second book just came out. It's called "The Meta --
NP: Yes, yes, whatever. My point is, did you write this book by yourself, or did you organize a committee to write it for you?
PKF: I wrote it myself, Neil, but there were a lot of things I was writing about that were, quite honestly, beyond the boundaries of my expertise and personal and academic experiences. I found it both useful and necessary to have the manuscript read, at various stages, by philosophers and theologians to make sure I was miving in the right direction.
NP: And did you find these philosophers and theologians on Academia.edu?
NP: Why not?
PKF: Well, I don't know most people on that website ---
NP: You don't know Bob Berkman but you call him your friend...
PKF: But that's Facebook, and that's different. What we're talking about now is--
NP: Facebook with another name. You didn't put your work up on Academia.edu for comments, and you wouldn't have accepted comments or criticisms that were offered on Academia.edu because you don't know who is leaving them. Oh, you may see their names there, but that doesn't mean you "know" them. Instead, you found your readers where?
PKF: Oh, these were people I knew personally and respected. These were people who others know and respect too.
NP: Another question, Peter, beyond the specific issue of specialized response. You didn't write chapters of this book and post them to get others' responses?
NP: If you had, would you have modified or changed your manuscript in any way?
NP: Why not?
PKF: Oh, simple: this was my book based on my ideas. I've had this experience before in conversations about this book, and about the perspective from which I wrote it. People can't touch my data, but they hate my conclusions. We get into arguments about "the meaning of it all," and, at the end of the day, people are just resistant to points of view that stray too far from their comfort zones. I thought about posting excerpts on Academia.edu, and in fact did post excerpts on Goodreads.com -- which is more interested in literary merit than scholarship -- but decided to avoid Academia.edu. I thought there's be too much pressure to conform to more mainstream points of view.
NP: You can tell Bob Berkman that I agree. My books, for better or worse, have all been mine.
(Anyway, that's how I imagine the conversation going...)
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius
of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron. ~Dwight D. Eisenhower
Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime. ~Ernest Hemingway
War is the price others pay for our sins. War is state-sanctioned insanity. War is the clearest, most vivid evidence we have of human imperfection. Imperfection? No, stupidity.
All wars, like all people, are equal -- that is to say that inherent in every war there is a common element, a thing that binds all wars together: evil. But all wars, like all people, do not necessarily possess to the same degree exactly the same elements, and we can make (and historically have made) arguments for the justifiability of war. These arguments have frequently been rationalizations rather than justifications for wars, and have just as frequently been delusions -- tragic examples of self-deception. These rationalizations form the basis of mass-mediated propaganda campaigns: the vilification of some "enemy," the vital interests at stake, the preservation of liberty.
I'm not saying that war is never necessary or that it is always concocted, conspiratorially, in some dark room by powerful, cynical, evil men. The (US) civil war, while not "necessary" (in the sense that we white, European colonial settlers might have rejected slavery long before we gained our independence from Britain) was certainly inevitable, a long-delayed ritual sacrifice to cleanse our souls of the blight of brutal, murderous, forced human servitude. The second world war -- or, at the very least, US involvement in that war -- became necessary not when we were attacked on December 7, 1941, but when we learned of the existence of factories of death, mechanized mass murder in death camps across Nazi-occupied Europe.
But so many wars in human history -- and most US wars since WWII -- have been unnecessary, unjustified, and rationalized not by need, but by strategic interest: expansion of territory (or market), control of resources, consolidation of power bases (let's not ever forget that Saddam Hussein was our valued ally until the moment he became our mortal enemy).
In fact, the very idea of "need" has been changed by our post-WWII history. What do we "need" anymore? What stories do we tell ourselves about our "needs"? What do we really, truly need? Well, in order to stay alive we need oxygen, water, food, shelter. On a somewhat higher level of abstraction we need company, conversation, love. We need some organizing principle of association through which we interact and carry out the economic and political activities implied in the lower order needs. These needs have been with us since the beginnings of human history, and in the past when we've gone to war (justly or unjustly), it's always been rationalized by a threat to one or more of them. "They are threatening our territory." "They have put unjust tariffs on our goods."
Today, it is "our freedom" or "our way of life" that we are told is being threatened when we are pushed toward war. Well, I certainly don't want to lose my freedom. No, indeed. Freedom is a fairly fundamental human need and a universal human right, and I certainly don't want to lose it. But where and how is our freedom threatened today? Say what you will about the US, we still have the biggest arsenal of conventional and nuclear weapons in the world and could, if we really "needed" to, raise a fairly enormous army. Where is the threat to my freedom in the face of that fact?
In fact, what Americans call "freedom" today is largely license: we give ourselves permission to do whatever we want, whenever we want as long as "nobody gets hurt" -- or, more likely, we remain blissfully unaware of the consequences. In this, our mass media are facilitators and enablers. We're awash in both visual and aural images of "the American way of life" on a daily basis on television, in magazines, in movies, on the radio; at the same time, our media do -- at best -- a mediocre job of reporting to us about our world, and a disgraceful job of reporting to us about ourselves.
And we're happy about it.
Who wants to really focus on the fact that American corporations are the biggest manufacturers and distributors of weapons of mass destruction to rogue states in the world? Who wants to hear about the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the developing world in warfare powered by American weapons? Who can stand seeing images of poverty and hunger and disease in the world when we Americans -- 5% of the worlds population who control nearly a third of its wealth -- are having such a good time?
Jersey Shore? American Idol? Real Housewives of Orange County? Yeah, baby. That's what I'm talking about.
War is hell. It is sometimes necessary. It is sometimes justified.
But if this is what we're going to war over, so that we can use resources for our amusement that others actually need (in the truest sense of the word) to stay alive, then war is merely a prelude to hell. War is the price others pay for our sins.
God bless America and God bless our military. God give us the wisdom to use it rightly.