Hans de Zwart on Chapters 8, 9 and 10 for #UMRG

Glen Cochrane wrote me the following when he sent his summary of chapters 8 till 10:

Summarizing McLuhan isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s like biking in the sand.

I couldn’t agree more! I have therefore decided to just use these chapters to frame two questions.

Privacy in the Electric Age

I volunteer as a guest speaker for the Dutch digital rights activists Bits of Freedom and speak often about privacy and the Internet (for example here. McLuhan had some interesting things to say about this topic:

The spoken word does not afford the extension and amplification of the visual power needed for habits of individualism and privacy.

He seems to say that it was the written word that afforded us privacy and gives an interesting example:

One native, the only literate member of his group, told of acting as reader for the others when they received letters. He said he felt impelled to put his fingers to his ears while reading aloud, so as not to violate the privacy of their letters. This is interesting testimony to the values of privacy fostered by the visual stress of phonetic writing. Such separation of the senses, and of the individual from the group can scarcely occur without the influence of phonetic writing.

In the electric age this is over because no form of secrecy is possible anymore. “At electric speed everything becomes X-ray”:

“Everybody has become porous”:

We know that the web has a radical set of affordances that make communication on it different from earlier communications. danah boyd writes about the networked publics that they have:

  • Persistence: online material is automatically recored and archived
  • Searchability: online search is becoming increasingly powerful
  • Replicability: online material is copyable
  • Scalability: vast potential visibility of online material due to huge audiences

I would love to hear from the members of the reading group what their thoughts are about privacy in this current age (in the comments maybe?)! Was McLuhan right when he wrote:

The literate man or society develops the tremendous power of acting in any manner with considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterate man or society would experience. [..] Phonetic culture endows men with the means of repressing their feelings and emotions when engaged in action. To act without reacting, without involvement, is the peculiar advantage of Western literate man.


It can be argued then, that the phonetic alphabet, alone, is the technology that has been the means of creating “civilized man” –the separate individuals equal before a written code of law. [..] Only the phonetic alphabet makes such a sharp division in experience, giving to its user an eye for an ear, and freeing him fom the tribal dance of resonating word magic and the web of kinship.

Are we losing our individualism nowadays? Becoming less repressed? Will the way we communicate change the fundamental fabric of our societies?

Centralization or decentralization

It is a persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed.

McLuhan saw transportation as communication.

It is quite predictable, [..], that any new means of moving information will alter any power structure whatever. [..] Speedup creates what some economists refer to as a center-margin structure.

The Internet can be seen as an incredible way to speedup and accelerate our own neural system. Traditionally the net is viewed as a decentralized thing with low (or no governance). John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is a great example of that. Factually we know that this is not true. See for example Tim Wu’s Who Controls the Internet or this visualization (source) which I certainly would not call decentralized:

A visualization of the web

McLuhan saw it clearly in Understanding Media:

Paradoxically, the effect of the wheel and of paper in organizing new power structures was not to decentralize but to centralize. A speedup in communications always enables a central authority to extend its operations to more distant margins.

The question I’d like to ask my fellow readers is the following: are we mistaken when we think that the net will help democratize our society? Should we aim to slow down our interactions if we want to give people more say and agency?

7 thoughts on “Hans de Zwart on Chapters 8, 9 and 10 for #UMRG

  1. Pingback: Discussing #UMRG Chapters 8, 9, and 10 | Understanding Media


    Individualism is a somewhat overrated and relatively recent misconception.

    What do we really mean when we hold it up as something to cling to tenaciously and feel concerned about losing? At a personal, gut level, isn’t it the freedom to think or do what I want, as a fractal concept; ie, to think or do what I want in this instant, or tomorrow, or this Summer, or with the rest of my life? We know that this kind of individual freedom can’t be absolute at any of those levels of resolution. The free expression of our individuality is constrained by physical laws, personal capabilities, and social factors. So then does individualism really mean the sense of freedom to make and express my personal choice within pre-set and heavily limiting parameters?

    The idea of parameters of expression is precisely where I think individualism occurs — either well within or at or beyond the edge. Behaviorally, what individualism often comes down to is one’s sense of being able to test or flirt with the parameters in some specific way. Dress in a noticeably different style than others at home or at work or just out in the world. Listen to and enjoy a different kind of music. Make our own caeer decisions ? Have different beliefs. When we worry about losing our individualism, isn’t this what we’re worried about — the loss of freedom to define ourselves as we wish, even if that means being non-normative in some ways? And at a deeper level, the loss of freedom to figure out for ourselves what those ways are?

    McLuhan and many others point out that this view of individualism is a modern development. Humans do not inherently feel that way. The thought of what he as an individual wants to do in this instant, or tomorrow or for the rest of his life never occurred to Fred Flintstone. Or to anyone except maybe for a few exceptional people until about four or five thousand years ago. And even then we are merely looking at the barest beginning of a long process of change.

    Of course we are all separate instances of homo sapiens, but the issue is — how do we see ourselves? Or did we even see ourself as a self? That separate-self view of things, McLuhan says, is an artifact of technology, in this case, the technology of the written word. The written word extended us as a species is such deeply transformative ways that it produced the means of social control needed to go beyond small bands or settled villages to urban forms of organization in which everyone doesn’t know everyone else. This is what McLuhan means by new media altering social organization.

    Another phrase he frequently uses at the time is “altering sense ratios,” by which I think he refers to which of our senses is the primary architect of our own internal 3D map of the world. The written word put vision in the driver’s seat, which is why, as McLuhan often points out, we say “I see” to express understanding, or say someone is “bright” when they understand a lot.

    Vision as a sense is not enveloping as sound and smell are. It emphasizes boundaries and separateness from a “point of view.” To McLuhan, our sense of separate self-ness is a phenomenon that emerged recently and gradually in human history due to the written word.

    Realistically, that emergent phenomenon did not happen full-blown all at once. It’s a process that is still evolving in our species both internally (neuroplasticity) and externally (new new-media). This evolving nature means it is not a matter of on/off change in which one minute we’re tribal people with zero sense of individual self-ness entitled to some freedom within parameters … and then the next minute we’re all card-carrying members of the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of happiness crowd. It’s a matter of emphasis. Each tribal person is an individual instance but this is not emphasized in social organization. Modern people also have collective aspects of their individual identities, but the individual part, for some of us, is felt to be the foundation, the primary reality.

    Another important insight from McLuhan is that the social and sense ratio changes some media technologies bring about lead to situations that cannot be sustained through the capabilities that brought them into being in the first place. Then, either new extensions emerge to save the day, or the social organization collapses.

    Which brings us to the question of losing our individualism. I hope we do. Or I should say, I hope (and expect) that newer extensions of ourselves, extensions of our entire central nervous system and brain will alter sense ratios and social organization in such a way that our very sense of self and our so-called unique and separate individual consciousness will change. The feeling of losing something is anticipatory. As it actually happens, which it is right now even as we are having our Reading Group, it is experienced just as the way things are.

    What we notice instead, while the change is happening, may be not a loss of individualism but an adjustment of the parameters within which individualism can be expressed. If you expressed your individualism for years by dressing at work in a certain non-normative way and then next week the company imposes a strict dress code — this is not a loss of your individualism, it’s a loss of the territory in which you can express it. The fact that you would undoubtedly feel a loss demonstrates that a sense of individualism definitely is not gone.

    Individualism, I would argue, is not diminishing — it is on the upswing. Huge numbers of individual human instances are participating in the modern, still written-word-dominated world and shifting their emphasis, in just a generation, from a group to a personal perspective. That consequence of literacy has a whole social world of further consequences that may run into problems with yet another constraining factor — physical laws.


    The experience of perceiving unity more than difference when seeing Planet Earth from space has been termed The Overview Effect. Based on what Astronauts say and others who have simulated it, a model has been developed that, to me, is a glimpse into the kind of “losing individualism” that I believe is in process and is necessary in order to avoid extinction of the species. When astronauts return, they have not been reprogrammed into tribal robots with no individualism. They are still themselves, but with a heightened sense of unity underlying all the apparent separateness and difference. Individualism is repositioned and has a different emphasis.

    The phrase “transformation of consciousness” is usually taken to mean something like, “a big change in values or perspective.” But when I say now that rebalancing unity and separateness is a “transformation of consciousness” I mean more than values and perspective, although I mean those too. I mean that what the thing we call “consciousness” is and how it works is itself dramatically changing.

    McLuhan cites Henri Bergson as stating in “Creative Evolution” that “even consciousness is an extension of man.” In neurophysiology, consciousness is being defined as specific neural circuitry linking functions in dedicated regions, all of which — the regions and the circuits — evolved to become what we experience as our inner self. In anthropology, respectable theories see this extension, consciousness, as emerging in historical times. In “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” Julian Jaynes links consciousness to the written word and characterizes its emergence as an adaptive response to times of environmental change and social breakdown in the second century BC.

    I believe that future neuro-anthropologists will see that early in the third century of what we call the present era, the human experience of consciousness started to become less totally inner and separate and more connected and integrated. I think technologies that afford direct mind sharing will be both a manifestation and an enabler of that shift.

    We see this already as the metaphor of the Internet is no longer the page (a print artifact) but the stream, which is how we experience our own consciousness. Facebook, which connects more human instances than anything else ever, allows us to tap into each other’s streams, read/write if invited. This format is a prototype of what the inner experience of consciousness will feel like when our technologies grant read/write access to the inner stream.

    Did I just feel someone squirm at this, feeling a loss of individualism and the biggest threat to privacy and opening to totalitarian mind control ever? Well, only about 200 generations ago that’s how it was except that it was accomplished in ways that didn’t scale up.

    As for losing individualism, I think the scenario I described only means losing something in the sense that we lose individualism when we act as part of a team. And many strong individuals will state unequivocally that the times they felt the most alive and the most themselves was when they actually were part of a team — in combat, in sports, or on a project. The most effective teams allow individuals to express their distinctive qualities in ways that support the greater group goal.

    As for totalitarian control, I think an interesting paradox is at play here. Some form of social control is necessary to support billions of people. When there is plenty to go around because the subjective understanding of plenty is ecologically sustainable, coercive forms of control are less necessary. But when it is widely believed that there is not enough to go around and that each instance of the species is primarily motivated to acquire as much as possible for itself, powerfully coercive controls are needed to avoid an on-going made chaotic scramble.

    The neuroplasticity that allowed specialized brain regions and circuits to develop and spread genetically and culturally over generations first into Speaking People and then Writing People will be extended and dramatically accelerated by new neurotechnologies. It is up to us to help guide how they are understood and used. They could lead in a dystopian direction in which something like The Matrix is the end result, or they could help our species become the best and most effective team ever,

    • Hi Tom, a few thoughts on mostly the first half of your comment. I enjoyed reading it and like how you bring into the discussion the idea of ‘parameters’. I tend to think of probably the same idea as ‘potentials’. We all become something within the potential of what we can possibly be – if we decide to exist, there’s no other way to do it except. ‘Being’ involves the relationship between actual and potential. And, I’m not sure if I would call this heavily limiting. Restrictions push our experiences, which in turn guide what we choose to value, experience and wish for. More limiting are the restrictions we don’t see. (Although, I may have missed what you’re referring to.)

      Something’s origin need not be it’s current purpose. So regardless of what Humanity used to be (if ‘human’ is even a proper term for 5000 or 10000 years ago), or started out as, this doesn’t dictate what it is or what it should be. There’s a difference between explaining what is and what should be. McLuhan and others say lots of things, and I tend to read him mostly as explaining what is… with pockets of “It doesn’t need to be this way” scattered in the background of his writing. To borrow from the paragraph above, this way is but one actualization from the parameter of potential that today emerged from.

      “What we notice instead, while the change is happening, may be not a loss of individualism but an adjustment of the parameters within which individualism can be expressed.” This is a nicely stated idea & I would tend to agree. It’s interesting to think about the opposite situation, especially in how it relates to Hans’ question about the internet: your work has a strict dress code and then one day you boss comes in and says “Dress however you want! Bathing suits, parkas, clown costumes, tuxedos, anything is a-ok with me.” I think you’d find that most people would dress fairly similar that next day. What we notice we can do isn’t as wide as the parameters of potential. What we notice is influenced by the medium.

      I do disagree with your example and statement about “not a loss of your individualism” Yes it is. It’s not a loss of an ability to express one’s individualism, but for anyone who did express it in that particular territory and now cannot, it is a loss of that part of their own individualism. Humans are adaptable, but when it comes to defining the self, my self, continuity is important. I think this is true for humanity as well: continuity is important. There’s also the domino effect to worry about in your example.

      As I said, I don’t have much comment about your second section on unity, except that maybe this all relates to a branch or a break in unity/evolution. Technology & media use can be a choice for those who notice this territory and/or care about such things. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Recording of the Week 3 #UMRG Meeting | Understanding Media

  4. Without writing a large piece on this I feel that the notion that the web will help democratize our society is rather ‘idealistic’.

    On the contrary, to quote the big man himself:
    The speed of communication has tends to strengthen central authorities, so that they can expand with greater ease.

    Also, slowing down our interactions. I’m not sure what you mean with that, let alone how it could be achieved.
    The ‘genie’ is out of the (Facebook) bottle and time will tell where that leads us.
    I personally subscribe to the model that we will ‘end-up’ in World State, a unified government which administers the entire planet, with a few isolated exceptions.
    This if we don’t blow ourselves up before.

  5. Pingback: McLuhan on Private Identity | Understanding Media

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