Lawrence O’Connor on Chapters 32 and 33 for #UMRG

Lawrence O’Connor wrote to me: “[My summary] was to have loads of illustration and music, I wanted it to be as poetic as my experience of the text but underestimated the task so it is speech only.”

His wonderful audio summary (using his actor’s voice) is available here:

Lawrence also provided two links as reference: Behind the Banner and Why I Hate School But Love Education.

He would like us to think about the following questions:

  • In what ways do you experience being free/not free from ‘fragmentary specialism’ to enjoy being a ‘nomadic gatherer of knowledge’?
  • What are your experiences of the ‘literary’ and ‘artist’ roles?
  • What are your experiences of engagement in the War of the Icons? Can there be a neutral position?
  • What are your experiences of your ‘armour being abandoned’ to create more weapons?

Will Monroe on Chapters 30 and 31 for #UMRG

Will Monroe wrote to me “I’m glad I was able to work with these chapters; they were among the most interesting that I’ve read so far.” Below his summary on chapters 30 and 31.


Chapter 30 – Radio: The Tribal Drum

“How does one understand Marshall McLuhan? The answer is a quintessentially McLuhanesque paradox: To understand McLuhan, you must read McLuhan, but to read McLuhan, you must first understand McLuhan”
On Reading McLuhan (p. 1)

Raised on Radio (Journey album

I’ve found reading Understanding Media to be something that has surprised and puzzled me but my ability to organize what I’ve read is proving to be quite difficult. Chapter 30 is no exception. Rather than event attempt a summary, I’m going to offer a few quotes from the chapter and provide my own reflections on it. Everyone has offered wonderful summaries so far, so I apologize for this lack. But, I would recommend both Mark Federman’s On Reading McLuhan and Terrence Gordon’s McLuhan for Beginners as excellent guides for someone who is struggling to learn how to read McLuhan, as I have.

“Since literacy had fostered an extreme of indvidualism, and radio had done just the oppositie in reviving the ancient experience of kinship webs of deep tribal involvement, the literate West tried to find some sort of compromise in a larger sense of collective responsibility” (p. 403)

“Radio is provided with its cloak of invisibility, like any other medium. It comes to us ostensibly with person-to-person directness that is private and intimate, while in more urgent fact, it is really a subliminal echo changer of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords. All technological extensions of ourselves must be numb and subliminal, else we could not endure the leverage exerted upon us by such extension.” (p. 404)

The above quote is McLuhan re-presenting one his main themes in Understanding Media, first presented in Chapter Four: the application of Hans Selye’s theory of disease, originally intended to describe physical trauma. McLuhan uses this theory to describe the psychic trauma created by the shock of new media. Although I struggle to understand how radio effected the early 20th century cultures of the United States, England, and continental Europe, I finally feel that I have a grasp of McLuhan’s use of this theory, and what he means by “trauma”, “shock”, and “numbness” that he so often uses in the book. At this point in my reading, I appreciated Federman’s description of what it’s like to read McLuhan:

”His arguments and examples are easily caught, mainly because they are reiterated throughout all his works — if you miss it the first, second, third or seventh times through, you’re sure to catch it the tenth or fifteenth or twentieth time you see it.”

“…commercial interest who think to render media universally acceptable, invariably settle for ‘entertainments’ as a strategy of neutrality…[this] ensures maximal pervasisveness for any medium whatever…[this also] ensures maximum speed and force of impact for any medium…Just as we now try to control atom bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defense is the print medium. The educational establishment, founded on print, does not yet admit any other responsibilities” (p. 408)

This quote is fascinating. I think I can easily grasp what McLuhan is saying about how entertainment insures that a medium is adopted rapidly and deeply. And I think his prediction of a need for “media fallout” is prescient. What intrigues me though is his admonishment of educational institutions that are based upon print and are thus unprepared to address the effects of newer media and his assertions in Chapter 31 about the best way to be “inoculated” against media effects:

”’What possible immunity can there be from the subliminal operation of a new medium like television?’…To resist TV [or other new media], therefore, one must acquire the antidote of a related media like print.” (p. 436)

Again, On Reading McLuhan offers some helpful advice for the reader who might be tempted to question her grasp of McLuhan, “his body of work is remarkably consistent, except when it’s not. His evidence is clearly presented, except when it’s obscure.”

Question: As someone who works in an educational institution with the application of technology in learning environments, I’m keenly interested in understanding the shortcomings of an educational culture “founded on print”. But McLuhan seems to be suggesting that a medium like print is also the “antidote” to the effects of new media. My question for my fellow readers would be, what could McLuhan mean when he discusses “shortcomings”? How would they differ now with the array of new media that have emerged in the last 50 years? Also, in light of those shortcomings, what programs of “inoculation” would be reasonable? Is it even appropriate to think of organized “programs” of response?

Chapter 31 – TV: The Timid Giant

Now that I’ve already jumped into Chapter 31, I’ll continue with some quotes from this, the longest chapter in Understanding Media.

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poes story Descent into the Maelstrom by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed reading McLuhan so much is how refreshing I’ve found his advocacy of perception over judgment. Elsewhere in the book, McLuhan describes the narrator in Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström as a model for this perception. In Chapter 31, he reinforces this point:

”For good or ill, the TV image has exerted a unifying synesthetic force on the sense-life of these intensely literate populations, such as they have lacked for centuries. It is wise to withhold all value judgments when studying these media matters, since their effects are not capable of being isolated.” (p. 420)

By now in my reading, I’m more comfortable with McLuhan’s notions of hot and cool media. Yet I’m still unsure about his characterization of a TV as a cool medium that demands audience participation. By contrast, film is a hot medium. This seems to be based on his assertion that, ”The TV image is visually low in data” (p. 418). But how this leaves much more for the viewer to do and how it demands more audience involvement is still unclear to me. It’s possible that his point is lost on me as a contemporary reader whose experience with films and TV has been blurred by years of watching “films” outside of theaters and the impact of high-definition televisions.

McLuhan also describes TV as a tactual or tactile medium in several places:

“One of the most vivid examples of the tactile quality of the TV image occurs in medical experience. In closed circuit instruction in surgery, medical students from the first reported a strange effect—that they seemed not to be watching an operation, but performing it. They felt they were holding the scalpel.” (p. 436)

”The TV image…is an extension of the sense of touch. Where it encounters a literate culture, it necessarily thickens the sense-mix…it blurs many cherished attitudes and procedures. It dims the efficacy of basic pedagogic techniques, and the relevance of the curriculum.” (p. 443)

Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

This chapter merits much more attention than I’ve been able to provide but it is fascinating and the more I encounter McLuhan’s observations on education and the effects of media on child development, the more I appreciate the applicability of his ideas to my work as an instructional designer and teacher.

Question: My final question begins with McLuhan asserts that TV has created a need for roles rather than jobs in younger people:

”The TV child expects involvement and doesn’t want a specialist job in the future. He does want a role and a deep commitment to his society. Unbridled and misunderstood, this richly human need can manifest itself in the distorted forms portrayed in West Side Story.” (p. 443)

If McLuhan’s assertion holds for TV what could we say about the expectations of involvement for the “internet child”?

Dennie Heye on Chapters 26 to 29 for #UMRG

Dennie Heye has written the following about chapter 26 to 29.


To be honest, it took me a while to get into McLuhan’s writing. It reminded me of the theoretical books and articles I read during my university studies – but with the difference that McLuhan makes you think at least once every chapter and his thinking is still valid after decades.

Below my mindmap based on the chapters typewriter, telephone, phonograph and movies for others to peruse. It’s an interactive (expandable) PDF of the mindmap, hopefully this works for all.

Click to download/open PDF

Click to download/open PDF

I have outlined the questions that I would like to offer for discussion below. Unfortunately I will not be present during next week’s call to take part in the discussion:

1. McLuhan states that the telephone has decentralized every operation and bypasses hierarchical arrangements in business. This made me think how e-mail instant messaging and now social media has continued this trend. to this day. But still many (older?) organisations are still run via hierarchical “command and control” structures, although everyone knows that these structures are not how things get done, communicated or decided. Why do organisations still put so much effort and “respect” in hierarchical (management) structures, when the current set of technology tools could lead to more transparent communication, better informed decision making and more fluid operations?

2. In the chapter about the telephone, McLuhan writes: “”In any given structure, the rate of staff accumulation is not related to the work” and “The work to be done is actually the movement of information”. I have always worked in complex, global, large organizations and I am sometimes amazed how much staff is involved in moving information around. We handle, reprocess, (re)validate, re-work, discuss, re-route information all day – just look at the job titles nowadays: process owners, business analysts, information architect, compliancy officer etc. .I wonder how much of this work is part of a “ritual” (or perhaps even busy work?) or actually work that is crucial to make the organization realize it’s goals?

3. On the last page of the chapter about the phonograph, McLuhan puts a great set of short definitions:

Telephone: speech without walls
Phonograph: music hall without walls
Photograph: museum without walls
Electric light: space without walls
Move / radio / tv: classroom without walls

How would McLuhan have defined the Internet in the above list?

Rhonda Jessen on Chapters 23 to 25 for #UMRG

Rhonda Jessen has used Haiku Deck to create a visually stunning summary of chapters 23 to 25.


You can download a PDF version of the slides or watch them on Haikudeck by clicking the image below.

Ads, Games & Telegraph on Haiku Deck

Ads, Games & Telegraph on Haiku Deck

Rhonda would like us to talk about the following questions:

  • If both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized; then is the increasing specialization of games and technologies a result of increased stress or improved technological know-how?
  • McLuhan suggests that we sent our nervous systems outside our bodies with the telegraph, and extended our nervous systems with satellite broadcasting. Would he have argued that social media throws our consciousness into the universe or that it compresses it to mere narcissism?

Questions about Games and McLuhan for #UMRG

In anticipation of Kars Alfrink joining us this Monday I thought I would post some questions about games (for Kars and the others to ponder on) on the basis of his chapter on the topic.

McLuhan sees games as an extensions of social and group selves:

As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image.

This means we can learn a lot about a society through observing its games:

The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.

My question would be: What does the current world of gaming (e.g. the gamification hype or the move to virtual rather than physical world or any other trend) tell us about our current society?

McLuhan seems to think that games need specators:

Art and games need rules, conventions, and spectators. [..] Great teams often play practice games without any audience at all. This is not sport in our sense, because much of the quality of interplay, the very medium of interplay, as it were, is the feeling of the audience.

My question: Is this indeed the case? What is the difference between participation and observation? What does a spectator add?

Finally, McLuhan seems to say that games make us whole:

We think of humor as a mark of sanity for a good reason: in fun and play we recover the integral person, who in the workaday world or in professional life can use only a small sector of his being. [..] Art and games enable us to stand aside from the material pressures of routine and convention, observing and questioning.

They can even help us be more creative and break out of our regular patterns:

Men without art, and men without the popular arts of games, tend toward automatism. [..] John Kenneth Gailbraith argues that business must now study art, for the artist makes models of problems and situations that have not yet emerged in the larger matrix of society, giving the artistically perceptive businessman a decade of leeway in his planning.

My question is the following: Could games be used as a tool to help people be more innovative in the corporate world (meaning the world of business)? What would the impact be? In which ways is work a game already?

Looking forward to our discussion!

JR Dingwall on Chapter 20 for #UMRG

JR Dingwall has posted a summary of Understanding Media’s chapter 20 on his blog. I’ve copied the text and image below.


I have only had an opportunity to reflect on this chapter thus far, and will be unable to present my questions on Monday as I have a time conflict.

I find the comparison between photography and its subjects, and brothels intriguing and bothersome. It would seem that the interpretation of photography here is in advertising and the mass media. At the time of writing, the consumption of photography is by the group, but photography can still be produced in the same way the author states writing takes place – within the individual. It also seems that the artistic approach to photography has been overlooked.

  1. What aspects of photography have been overlooked here that divorce photography from being compared to a brothel? (The author does state that before placing value in something it should be examined.)
  2. How is photography understood in different disciplines and mediums? (I would like to hear about how photography is understood in your fields of study. How does it manifest itself, and how has it impacted your field from the transition of the ‘literary man’ to the ‘multimedia man’)

Lastly I have attached a small mind map of things that stuck out to me in this chapter. Perhaps as a follow up activity new topics or missing pieces in existing topics could be suggested.

Thank-you and take care.

Click to download as PDF

Click to download as PDF

Stephen Downes on Chapters 11, 12, 13 and 14 for #UMRG

Stephen Downes has written a summary of chapters 11-14 on the blog he uses for his longer writing: Half an Hour. If you have the remotest interest in learning and have not yet signed up for his free (as in freedom and beer) newsletter, then you are doing yourself a disservice.

I’ve reproduced his summary below. Please note that Stephen licenses his work under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.


Chapter 11

McLuhan writes, in Chapter 11 of Understanding Media, that “The mysterious need of crowds to grow and to reach out, equally characteristic of large accumulations of wealth, can be understood if money and numbers are, indeed, technologies that extend the power of touch and the grasp of the hand.”

Numbers, he writes, grip us and keep us in their thrall. The driver toward unlimited growth, the pleasure of being among the masses – these both illustrate an anti-intellectualism that has long been subject to the suspicions of the rational among us. The power of number can be contrasted with the light of reason that is the hallmark of the written word.

Numbers related to the sensual and tactile in the way that language and literacy relate to the visual. “Just as writing is an extension and separation of our most neutral and objective sense, the sense of sight, number is an extension and separation of our most intimate and interrelating activity, our sense of touch.”

Because numbers represent a form of pre-literacy and pre-civilization, it may seem off that someone like Oswald Spengler in ‘The Decline of the West’ express concern with ‘the new math’ as a retreat from numbers, and specifically, the rise of non-Euclidian geometries and the rise of functions in number theory. But, argues McLuhan, the primacy of literacy isn’t the the primacy of reason, it is the primacy of the visual sense.

But the primacy of the literal isn’t the the primacy of reason, it is the primacy of the visual sense. And the fragmentation of civilization results not from the rise of science and mathematics, but from the elevation of one sense over the others. The fragmentation occurs when we isolate properties that can be detected visually, but are beyond the reach of the other senses.

Indeed, the modern properties of numbers are not derived from primitive society at all. As Tobias Dantzig writes in ‘Number: The Language of Science’ “the parity or kinesthetic sense of these [primitive] people is stronger than their number sense.” They counted in terms of “One, two, heap.” The new math Spengler railed against resulted from the introduction of key ideas of language to numbers, specifically, “correspondence and succession.” The awareness of zero, and of infinity, in particular, have their origins in the application of ideas from language to numbers.

As an aside, interestingly, McLuhan writes, “Western man, were he determined to cling to the fragmented and individualist ways that he has derived from the printed word in particular, would be well advised to scrap all his electric technology” because fragmentation by visual stress occurs in isolation of moment or space beyond the power of touch, etc., and “by imposing unvisualizable relationships that are the result of instant speed, electric technology dethrones the visual sense and restores us to the dominion of synesthesia, and the close interinvolvement of the other senses.”

Chapter 12

“Clothing,” writes McLuhan, “as an extension of the skin, can be seen both as a heat-control mechanism and as a means of denning the self socially.” Changes in clothing reflect changes in society. For example, post-war Europe emphasized fashion and style at the same time American society seemed to be revolting against it. Europe, in turn, had its own revolution in the late 18th century as the courtly dress, once vastly different from the peasant style, was replaced (sometimes by necessity) by more common attire.

Clothing, when presented as an object of art or sculpture, represents a society that is visually oriented. But the new styles are reflecting a society that is incorporating all the senses once again. “In a word, the American woman for the first time presents herself as a person to be touched and handled, not just to be looked at.” It is now easy, says McLuhan, to see clothing as an extension of the skin.

Chapter 13

McLuhan writes, “Recently an imaginative school principal in a slum area provided each student in the school with a photograph of himself. The classrooms of the school were abundantly supplied with large mirrors. The result was an astounding increase in the learning rate. The slum child has ordinarily very little visual orientation. He does not see himself as becoming something. He does not envisage distant goals and objectives. He has deeply involved in his own world from day to day, and can establish no beachhead in the highly specialized sense life of visual man. The plight of the slum child, via the TV image, is increasingly extended to the entire population.”

The intent of this chapter is to show not only that housing is, like clothing, an extension of our skin, but also, to depict housing as a means of communication. Included in this idea is an important definition of the concept: clothing and housing are media of communication “in the sense that they shape and rearrange the patterns of human association and community.”

We can see this by drawing out the distinctions between housing in pre-literate and literacte societies. Housing for preliterate societies was connected to the world, while “Literate man, civilized man, tends to restrict and enclose space and to separate functions, whereas tribal man had freely extended the form of his body to include the universe.” Pre-literate houses were round houses, or triangles, shapes that these are not visual spaces, not ‘enclosed’ because they follow dynamic lines of force, while a square moves ‘beyond’ such kinetic pressures. “The square room or house speaks the language of the sedentary specialist, while the round hut or igloo, like the conical wigwam, tells of the integral nomadic ways of food-gathering communities.”

The bulk of the chapter describes ways elements of housing can shape and rearrange patterns of living, how (for example) with glass, “the world is put in a frame” and industry and commerce can now proceed without regard to rain or wind, or (for example) they way we can paint with light, both inside houses, with light on walls, or beyond the enclosure, with Gyorgy Kepes’s “landscape by light through” rather than “light on.” McLuhan writes, “Painting with light is a kind of housing without walls.”

Chapter 14

McLuhan describes the progression of money from its origination as a commodity to its modern incarnation as a medium of information, a language of exchange. “Today, even natural resources have an informational aspect. They exist by virtue of the culture and skill of some community.”

The birth of money as commodity is well known, with McLuhan relating examples such as the use of whales’ teeth on Fiji or rats on Easter Island. Even in literate society, commodities may be used as money in extreme circumstances, with the trading of jewels and cigarettes, for example, common in occupied territories.

The function of money in this “commodity and community character” is of “extending the grasp of men from their nearest staples and commodities to more distant one.” In early usage, this function is very small, and the utility of money is not clear. McLuhan describes the confusion created by “the dramatic arrival of paper currency, or ‘representative money,’ as a substitute for commodity money.”

To use currency, he observes, requires a “letting go” of objects, letting go of the commodities that first serve as money, in order to extend trading to society as a whole. Elias Canetti , in ‘Crowds and Power’, draws the analogy of learning to swing on vines in the forest. “The primitive grasping, calculating, and timing of the greater arboreal apes he sees as a translation into financial terms of one of the oldest movement patterns.”

But money has always had value as more than just a medium of exchange, as early societies knew well. The tradition of the potlach, for example, or ceremonial exposure of rice to the rain in Borneo, demonstrates the social and cultural dimension of money. McLuhan writes, “Money, like writing, has the power to specialize and to rechannel human energies and to separate functions, just as it translates and reduces one kind of work to another.”

In the age of paper currency, money becomes less personal and more sterile. The modern use of money is tied intrinsically to literacy, and with literacy “money, as a social means of extending and amplifying work and skill in an easily accessible and portable form, lost much of its magical power” (as money becomes more like a language, and less like number, money becomes more literal and less sensual and tactile).

The phrase “money talks” resonates because money is a communications medium. We have seen already that money is a storehouse of communally achieved work, skill, and experience. But just as the clock separates time and space, money separates work from other aspects of human experience. “Time is money,” it is said, and money is the storehouse of time spent at work.

It is important, writes McLuhan, to understand the underpinnings of literacy that are required to make sense of money. “The West is little aware of the way in which the world of prices and numbering is supported by the pervasive visual culture of literacy.” Early societies would make no sense of the concept at all. “The fragmentation of the inner life by prices seemed as mysterious in the eighteenth century, as the minute fragmentation of space by means of calculus had seemed a century earlier.”

In primitive society, money has intrinsic value, and the whole concept of ‘work’ doesn’t exist. But in literate society, money is a means of storing and transferring ‘work’, where ‘work’ begins with the division of labour and the role of money is enormously increased after money begins to foster specialism and separation of social functions. Money both fosters and represents this transition from a cohesive and unified society to a literate, fragmented, separated one.

As money becomes less and less like currency, however, and more and more like information, it begins to regain some of its commodity value. “All media,” writes McLuhan, “or extension of man – are natural resources that exist by virtue of the shared knowledge and skill of a community.”

“Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of ‘culture,’ exactly as the primitive food-gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment. Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and ‘work-less world’, is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society.”

Tatiana Petrova on Chapters 11, 12, 13 and 14 for #UMRG

Tatiana Petrova provided me with the following (wonderful!) summary of chapters 11, 12, 13 and 14:


Themes that go through chapters

  • Definition of consciousness as interplay among our senses.
  • Recognition of the similar interplay between extensions of our senses.
  • Stated need for social, electrically ordered consciousness that can comprehend the complexity of dynamics of extensions and stay “in touch” with totality of them. Need to overcome alienation caused by mechanical technologies that extended beyond our reach of touch.
  • Statement that dominance of visual (fragmenting) mediums give way to instant, organic, electric integration.
  • Ambivalent longing for tribal culture.
Attempt to sum up Thoughts/questions
Interplay between the mediums / extensions.One medium takes a lead for a period of time dictating not only developments of other extensions but also dictating the structure of human inner life. (e.g. print & Renaissance painting → idea of infinity → infinitesimal calculus & drive for growth). “The effect of any kind of technology engenders a new equilibrium in us that brings quite new technologies to birth….”Senses have ability to translate into each other through “common sense” = Greek “consensus”. Similarly, extensions have the ability to translate into each other as well. McLuhan stresses an acute need for outer, communal, consensus that can consolidate, make comprehendible the dynamic interplay among extensions. He dreams of electrically ordered world-wide social integration – universality of conscious being for mankind.
“Our mechanical technologies for extending and separating the functions of our physical beings have brought us near to a state of disintegration by putting us out of touch with ourselves”.“What we have today, instead of a social consciousness electrically ordered, however, is a private subconsciousness or individual ‘point of view’ rigorously imposed by older mechanical technology. This is a perfectly natural result of ‘culture lag’ or conflict, in a world suspended between two technologies.
Consciousness
McLuhan defines consciousness as interplay among our senses. “…consciousness is itself a ratio or proportion among the sensuous components of experience, and is not something added to such sense experience.” This puzzled me, because I’m a believer, in systemic principle – no system can be explained thoroughly from within the system, it requires an external factor playing into it. Locked system becomes a swamp. I wouldn’t preach in favor of intervention of “cosmic visitors”, but I wouldn’t buy into the McLuhan’s closed definition either. What are your thoughts on this?
He offers the following logic of development of human consciousness:Natural, mystical unity (collective unconsciousness) →
Analytical fragmentation and alienation (consciousness as we know it) →
New “synesthesia” (consciousness 2.0)
He alludes to what that new form of shared consciousness can be. In chapter 11 he talks about “infinity of functional process” (Spengler) operated by computers that provides extension to our nervous system in electrical technologies.
In chapter 13 he writes: “An immediate simulation of consciousness would by-pass speech in a kind of massive extrasensory perception…”
Highlight is mine… these kind of words give me goose bumps & remind me of Felix Hoenikker in Vonnegut’s “Cat’s cradle”…
Does he talk about artificial intellect? Would the world, where staying in touch is “outsourced” to an artificial intellect, still be a world of human species? Think “Matrix” or “Lawnmower Man”. How do you feel about this kind of world and this kind of “evolution”?
“…The instant character of electric information movement does not enlarge, but involves, the family of man in the cohesive state of village living.” Does it? It does give access to information but does it necessarily spark the new sense of touch, the new consciousness that McLuhan calls for?
Step down of visual sense / extensions
“Both time (as measured visually and segmentally) and space (as uniform, pictorial, and enclosed) disappear in the electronic age of instant information. In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering. Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of “culture,” exactly as the primitive food-gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment.” What is the meaning of information gathering in non-specialised world?
Medium: Number
Extension of touch, ability to reach out and grab distant things.“The mysterious need of crowds to grow and to reach out, equally characteristic of large accumulations of wealth, can be understood if money and numbers are, indeed, technologies that extend the power of touch and the grasp of the hand.”Number has power to set up drive toward unlimited growth. Industrialization and mass production accelerated the role of the number. How about ancient need for security? Comfort of being wrapped in own kin. Not to be grabbed.
starwars bison
Touch as most intimate and interrelated activity, necessary to integral existence, key to consciousness. “… not just skin contact with things, but the very life of things in our minds”.Evolution of number:Number in ancient world is magically associated with physical things one can reach out to. It blends mystery and tactical manipulation. It is a symbol.
Science (“shadow of number”) tended to reduce things to numerical quantities. Number becomes a tool – compressed image, result of visual abstraction.
Ideas of homogeneity, correspondence, succession and infinity preempt and permeate classic mathematics (McLuhan here stresses the role of phonetic alphabet, printing, and Renaissance painting to demonstrate interrelations of senses and extensions).
“Grown-ups love figures… When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Binary system of electric age doesn’t need writing. Instant speed and scale of information processing makes visualization impossible. Linearity and point of view are not necessary in new mathematics and physics. What does number become in this world? Since we’re into this computing / electric technology for several decades now do we indeed witness departure of visual dominance?
Medium: Clothing & HousingBoth are extensions of our skin & organ functions in individual (clothing) and social (housing) space:

  • Heat control, or more broadly storage and channeling of energy
  • Interaction with the (social) environment.
    McLuhan particularly elaborates on how dress design and architecture carry a message (are a message) of self-expression adjusted to the common, dominant sense (dress for an eye vs. dress to “be handled”). Clothing & Housing”… shape and rearrange patterns of human association and community”.
  • Translation of fundamental understanding of reality into human space (e.g. tribal home as embodiment of the cosmic image, or church building as embodiment of understanding the divine). According to McLuhan this relation got broken with the rise of visual era as visual segregation and social specialization call for compartmented utilitarian space.

As with other technologies McLuhan declares the end of visual dominance for clothing & housing:

“After centuries of being fully clad and of being contained in uniform visual space, the electric age ushers us into a world in which we live and breathe and listen with the entire epidermis”. Modern engineering provides flexibility that comes close to natural, organic, and has potential to bring us closer to the tribal cosmic unity.

Throughout the chapter 13 McLuhan talks about electric light. It’s another good example of interplay between mediums and its two-way influence on our inner life.

Medium: Money

McLuhan defines money “as a social means of extending and amplifying work and skill in an easily accessible and portable form…” It has visual dimension – separates work from other social functions and, like writing, translates one type of product / work / skill into another. It also has tactical (numeric) dimension – the power to reach and grasp distant things, power to extend space. Money depends on communal participation and at the same time shape communities by facilitating exchange (social interdependence) and by altering social order (accumulation and distribution of surpluses).

Evolution of money:

commodity → paper → credit card

As we go from one form / phase to another:

  • speed and reach of transactions increase
  • role of social convention becomes more prominent
  • meaning shifts towards exchange of information, rather than staple or skill
  • therefore the whole concept becomes more and more abstract – “standard of value” (JM Keynes) less and less burdened with moral values (M McLuhan)

As with mathematics, printing prepares the ground for fixed-priced economy by “… psychological conditioning in the ways of uniformity and repeatability”.

“When men become uneasy about … social values achieved by uniformity and repetition, doing for mankind that which mankind wants, we can take it as a mark of the decline of mechanical technology.”

According to McLuhan, the electric age is destined to change the nature of work and the very concept of money:

  • “Where the whole man is involved there is no work. Work begins with the division of labor and the specialization of functions and tasks in sedentary, agricultural communities. In the computer age we are once more totally involved in our roles. In the electric age the ‘job of work’ yields to dedication and commitment, as in the tribe.”
I very much agree with and treasure the opening sentence here. But I really can’t picture (hahaha) the electric, tribal, non-specialized work. Are we there yet? Are we heading there? Anybody has an example? Is it about all people going creative and doing what they love, while outsourcing all the unloved jobs to developing world / robots / clones?
  • “Today, electric technology puts the very concept of money in jeopardy, as the new dynamics of human interdependence shift from fragmenting media such as printing to inclusive or mass media like the telegraph”.
Well, physical expression of money is in jeopardy (e.g. I rarely have cash in pocket nowadays). But I’m not so sure about the concept of money. Didn’t internet banking rescue the concept for electrical age (for good or for ill)?

My favorite quotation from these chapters: “For the specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy”.

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.

and

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?