I had heard of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media as a freshman in high school in 1968, but didn’t read it until four years later when I got to college. It was only the second book I had read about the power of media to shape societies (oddly enough for an eighteen-year-old, my baptism into the field of media studies was provided by Harold Innis’s The Bias of Communication, but I had to read that one several times before I really, truly even began to comprehend it), and it so captured my attention and fired my curiosity that I was compelled to spend the rest of my life studying the interactions of technology and culture. So I was thrilled and proud when my first book, Printing, Literacy and Education in Eighteenth Century Ireland: Why the Irish Speak English, won the Media Ecology Association’s Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology in 2007.
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...