Thursday, March 29, 2018

Marshall McLuhan | Living at the Speed of Light

“Marshall McLuhan's last published article: ‘Predictions for the 80s’ (MacLean's Magazine [Canada’s ‘TIME’/National Magazine], Jan.7, 1980)”
Bob Dobbs

by Marshall McLuhan
written in 1979

The Eighties will see:

A society of contented non-achievers
The end of Chinese culture
The end of identity: survival by violence
The new multi-sub-cultural mosaic
Literacy for an elite only
Education in the age of amnesia
Cubism in sports

In 1968 Edmund Leach, the British anthropologist, published a little book called Runaway World, in which he described the dislocation of British communities and families through the impact of the railway train.

“In the past, kinsfolk and neighbours gave the individual continuous moral support throughout his life.” These people bought railway tickets for far parts of the world and were never seen again.

Prior to the railway many people spent their whole lives near to their birthplace, “always surrounded by kinsfolk, not just brothers and sisters, but uncles and aunts, cousins, nephew and nieces, grand parents.” By contrast with the railway age, the jet age permits the uncles and aunts—and kids—to be at meetings around the world and to return home the same weekend. This example of runaway technology concerns mere hardware. Our own world experiences an environment of instantaneous information, an invasion of the software which is simultaneous for all parts of the world. If the social and psychic impact of the railway technology was to create a new service environment and to isolate nuclear families, one of the effects of instant electric information has been to isolate the individual.

In the Eighties there is a general awareness that the technology game is out of control, and that perhaps man was not intended to live at the speed of light. At the speed of light the sheer overload of data and information tends to result in ‘pattern recognition’ a new form of awareness that discredits previous forms and values: collective amnesia. Actually, Western technology has been out of control since the invention of the alphabet at least 2500 years ago. That is to say the Greeks, having invented and instituted the social use of the phonetic alphabet, remained unaware of its psychic and social consequences. Such side effects of the phonetic alphabet as the rise of Euclidean space and geometry, and Socratic logic and dialectic, brought into play an intense individualism and competitive goalseeking by private citizens. The ensuing rampage was recorded in Greek tragedy and the conquests of Alexander the Great.

By phonetic literacy the Greeks eroded their traditional communities and substituted the private citizen and the written legal code which was the framework of civilization, and which today is being subjected to social amnesia. As if by prophetic irony, the Chinese have now mounted a mandatory program of phonetic literacy which they hope will enable them to mimic or to surpass Western achievements. In fact, this program ensures complete destruction of several thousand years of culture and traditions far richer than the tribal heritage destroyed by the Greeks when they introduced the civilizing force of the alphabet into their culture. The small oral society of the Greeks went bananas when they released the uninhibited power of the rational and competitive individual in a kind of atomic fission. The Chinese, by contrast, now represent one of the largest population groups and one of the richest world cultures. The irresponsible application of our alphabet to their culture dooms them to an even greater explosion via individual aggression and enterprise than anything the Western World has ever experienced. Although it took several centuries to eliminate the order of Greek oral culture (the world of Homer), this could occur in China under electronic conditions in a single generation. The Eighties will see the first act of this scenario.

The Eighties in the West will witness a dramatic increase in the conservative backlash against runaway technology and change. Excessive speed of change isolates already fragmented individuals and the accelerated process of adaptation takes too much vitality out of communities. By sheer attrition the social group is reduced to the conditions of an anaemic individual without the energy to adapt to the demands of survival.

In 1957 when Sputnik went around our planet putting it inside a new information environment, there sprang up an immediate new, holistic awareness, that was called Ecology. With it came the needs for ‘programming’ environments and for the study of effects of existing technologies. At the same time the new instant information environment intensified the loneliness and desperation of the individual through the impersonal proximity of everybody to everybody. Proximity is not community. As Ecology takes over in all fields of human activity in the Eighties, every kind of change poses a pollution threat. (Cf etymology of pollution.) Everybody will come to feel that his job, his family, his pension and his very identity are threatened by every kind of change. At the speed of light everything affects every thing. There are no neutral areas. Even at the relatively sedate speed of fifty thousand miles an hour, the Pioneer spacecraft can be demolished by a speck of dust. Living at the speed of light, we ourselves feel equally vulnerable and insecure.

Violence and Identity

When people feel a threat to their identity, when they sense a danger to their self-image, they become very anxious and even violent. Indeed, violence itself is part of the typical quest for identity, whether private or corporate, whether personal or political. Our Wars and Westerns dramatize this plight or quest. In the old gun-slinging days of hardware technology on the frontier everybody was a nobody and had to prove himself by toughness and true grit. The frontiers of the Eighties are much more inward, numerous and elusive than in the old hardware days. It might even be hypothesized that at the speed of light man has neither goals, objectives, nor private identity. He is an item in the data bank—software only, easily forgotten.

When we are on the phone or on the air, do we not send or receive instant images of ourselves and others? Are not these images minus any physical embodiment? We have been transformed into abstract information which is electric software. When experiencing this state are we not, in effect, minus any private identity? May such a state not put us in danger of losing all relation to natural law or human responsibility or moral obligation? Such trends as ‘No-fault divorce’ and ‘No-fault auto insurance’ are strong indications of this discarnate or disembodied condition.

In the Eighties we may find it difficult to discover any community or moral norms on which to base legal arrangements and decisions. The Family Courts have already encountered the absence of these norms and have switched their operation to mere equity or ‘bottom-line’ business relation. In the absence of accepted or established values in the electric world of the Eighties, family and human life in general will move to a quantitative or ‘bottom-line’ approach. Continued attrition of private identity will in turn spawn a huge entertainment industry of nostalgic themes and situations—the pattern already indicated in Star Wars, Roots and Jaws.

In the Eighties, as we transfer our whole being to the data bank, privacy will become a ghost or echo of its former self, and what remains of community will disappear. In the global village we are like the occupants of an elevator—having proximity minus community. If loss of identity enhances violence (from child-beating and abortion to terrorism), the violence automatically requires stepping-up security espionage, which in turn further threatens identity, thereby leading to more violence.

Abrasive Encounters ala Third World

At the speed of light, we replay the ancient and abstract music of our primitive forefathers, seeking our ancient tribal state for the want of any better form of identity image. (The young today are haunted by the even more primitive voices of the whales.) It has been discussed before how we have moved into a situation of multiple separatisms and regionalisms which encourage members of ethnic minorities to assert with pride, sometimes even arrogance, a cultural personality their fathers were secretly ashamed of and deliberately tried to suppress in the attempt to ‘pass’ or merge.

A major aspect of the environment of instant information is the decentralization of management and organization. The same centrifugal pressure of a simultaneous or acoustic world is found in the new demand for human scale in the way in which Schumacher's Small is Beautiful explained. This same impulse, behind the Parti Quebecois, is grounded in the environment of electric information. One might argue that the same separatist drive occurred in the American Civil War when the South wanted out of the Union. Historians like Kenneth Stampp have been baffled in their attempts to discover any adequate motivitation for this civilized violence. The same irrationality confronts those who try to learn the reasons for the civil war in Ireland. The coming of the electric telegraph a full generation before the American Civil War had reawakened the oral awareness and sensitivity of the South. The hidden ground of electric information was provided by the coming of the electric age.

Separatism is not merely a political phenomenon. It extends to every level of our experience when subjected to the electric speed which provides a simultaneous acoustic world. Separatism is found at all levels, not only in the political or corporate forms, but also in shaping the patterns of family, community and the individual psyche, whether as uni sex, reincarnation or schizophrenia.

In the Eighties, with the reappearance of tribal or group identity and mores and the disappearance of private identity, objectivity and detachment, Canada (along with the people of North America) will become a society of non-achievers, intent on being, rather than on becoming.

The effect of global electric information on the nonliterate third world is strikingly different from the effect of the same service environment on the residually literate West. Our alphabetic culture will become inevitably atrophied while submerged in the antithetic and inimical electric environment of resonating information. Western objectivity and detachment become irrelevant in such conditions. When UNESCO provided free radios for the ‘backward’ areas of mankind, the effect within two decades was to push those societies into a retrograde metamorphosis, as happened in Iran. The separatist reawakening of ancient rituals and language is familiar, not only in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but also throughout Europe, e.g., among the Basques and the Corsicans. Paradoxically, while the East is going West in pursuit of hardware technology, it is simultaneously being drawn by revulsion and nostalgia to delve deeper into its own ancient past.

Harold Innis has explained the conditions under which a transition occurs from temple bureaucracy to military bureaucracy by change in the mode of writing. He showed that writing on stone or clay gave impetus to social control by temple bureacracy with its orientation in time, whereas writing on papyrus (a portable medium ) favoured the rise of military bureacracy based on road and spaceoriented courier systems. We are now witnessing the reverse of this dynamic pressure under electric power, which tends to displace military bureacracy and to re-establish temple rule. The Eighties will see a great swing from the military toward the temple bureacracy, from the outer conquest of space to the inner conquest of spirit. Holy Wars will occur: an extreme example of hardware shifting to software, and spiritual values.

It used to be said that poverty is the one thing money can't buy. That is not true any more. Inflation is money having an identity crisis. Money experiences the same crisis as our moral and legal systems—that is, the disappearance of standards and norms. At the speed of light, a dollar has infinite mass and no identity. As money becomes translated into information and credit image, we will see in the Eighties a resurgence of barter, and its natural complement, gold ingots. But, more importantly, when information moves at electric speed, the worlds of trends and rumours become the real world. All currencies, as electric information, are equally abstract and baseless: all spending becomes deficit spending, and the only practical form of taxation is inflation (taxation without representation). As taxation becomes more confiscatory, the return to barter becomes inevitable.

Home Rule by Computer Feedback

In the Eighties politics will become increasingly unrecognizable, as bureaucracy and civil service share the function of governing by means of charismatic images. Even today, parties and policies have become residual and homogenized. Their conflicting points of view have no basis or positions at the speed of light. With the disappearance of private identity, representative government, which has been based on majority rule and nose-counting procedures, will yield to the pollstergeists—the culture-mind readers. In the Eighties, representative government will cease. Instead, the public will take over. Just as the Nielsen ratings have given us not what the public wants but the public itself, so detached and distant representative government will be replaced by direct experience of the public via home-computer feedback. Self-government will become increasingly difficult as the self disappears into the data bank, and referendum takes over.

The problem of the charismatic image as an instrument of rule is the need to find people who look like everybody you associate with good times (eg. Walter Cronkite, the family banker; Johnny Carson, high school festivity; Jack Kennedy, all-American boy, etc.)

When voting can be done by home-computer, it will become a new form of belligerent “Home Rule.” Such ‘ideal democracy,’ as one constituted by a plebiscite on all issues, would capsize our government. There could be worse fates—such as rule by multi-national corporations. Once a homecomputer is available as the means of shopping and voting, there will be in the Eighties a return to ‘cottage-economy’: home-computer TV and telephone links will permit business, big and small, to be done at home. Leaving home to go to work became a feature of the industrial system with the rise of factories. Prior to factories, the craftsmen and the men of the soil, alike, did their work at home. In the Eighties, with the decentralizing of big business and big cities, high-rise office and apartment buildings will become obsolete (although they could have many residual uses such as day-care centres or playgrounds for the aged.) Similarly, the old hardware unions will be obsolesced by the new decentralized cottage-economy patterns. The cottage-economies may retrieve the old guild patterns instead.

Another aspect of decentralism is the big-committee phenomenon fostered by the Xerox service of ‘position papers.’ These committees do not make decisions; they describe conditions and make suggestions. They do not represent: they are. Big business and unions, alike, will undergo radical transformations by their juxtaposition to cottage-economies. The organization chart is obsolesced at electric speed, and the execs are still falling out of the branches.* Under electric conditions and home-computer use, the bureaucratic hierarchy is dissolved as effectually as is the need for high-rise. Along with the elimination of the organization chart, there go all other bureaucratic job structures. The unions, being extreme forms of bureaucratic organization, are naturally reduced to oral person-to-person structure under the conditions of cottage-economy and computer services.

*cf Take Today: The Executive as Dropout Marshall McLuhan & Barrington Nevitt, 1972.

Education in the Age of Amnesia

In the Eighties, both curriculum and job shortages are phased out by a shift to learning a living. In the eighteenth century, it was recognized that education was what remained when you'd forgotten everything you had been taught. And: "He was a great man, Sir. He thrashed my grandfather." At present there is little relationship between what you study and what job you get, although it has been noticed that the new forms of work (role-playing) no longer include what used to called a job. In the electric information environment the curriculum of subjects and credits and exams is obsolesced by the knowledge industries. The city has already become a classroom, or Little Red Schoolhouse. Compulsory education (equality without 1iberty) will disappear in the Eighties, replaced by continuing education: education will become liberal, by default. The old idea of every man's right to an education will flip into literacy as an elite privilege only—a return to a much earlier phase of culture. New attitudes to literacy are evident in, for example, the increasing pressure in our secondary schools and colleges not to fail students, or in the phenomenon of the bright-but-illiterate youngster who has made it to or even through grade twelve. Few professors in any department will demand or expect that essays or reports reflect literacy in any serious sense—that is, that goes beyond mere decipherment of can labels, instruction books or newspaper headlines, or soporific bestsellers. In the Eighties, however, these latter will be the basic criteria of literacy, while unreadable linguistict prose will become the mark and nourishment of the elite.

In the Eighties there will be a great reduction in the ‘generation gap.’ In the seventies it widened from 25 years to 2500 years, from literacy to postliteracy, as parents who had grown up in a literate world faced postliterate children. In the amnesia of the Eighties, as the parents also lose their literacy and their forbidding and formidable identity profile, the young will feel free to come home again. It is easy to forget that compulsory education began only in 1852 in Massachusetts, reaching Ontario in 1871. It did not become universal in North America until after the First World War, as a big move in the energy crisis of that time. Now, the steady pressure of post-industrial electric information is towards the aural/oral. From status to contract reverses from contract to status, once more.

In 1946 Clark and Sloan, two economists at Columbia University, published a study of Classrooms in the Factories. Among their findings was the fact that the budget for education on company time exceeded by several times the community budget for formal education, whether on the primary, secondary or university level. Since then the ratio of such expenditure has multiplied many times. Clark and Sloan had not even considered the Army, Navy and Air Force as educational centres. (In third world countries the military usually takes over because they are the only literate group.) The hidden curriculum for our children, in the Eighties, will be training in how illiterates can make it in a formerly literate world, and how to lead without a goal.

In the Eighties, what used to be called ‘1iberal education,’ the training of the all-round man—Homer's Ulysses, the ‘man of many devices,’ or 007—James Bond—the resourceful and creative leader in any and every crisis, will be found only in the ranks of commandos and guerilla fighters. Presently ‘liberal education’ fits men to be only bureaucrats and functionaries. In the atomic world, access to the ‘button’ is not dependent upon human learning and letters, but only on bureaucratic authority.

Learning, in the environment of electric information, confronts us, paradoxically, with the traditional ideal of a liberal education. Cardinal Newman saw it as training for leaders, a program that dispensed with classes and credits and relied on what today is called the rap session, in which the conversation of all served as lectures for each. Problem-solving for leadership has to dispense with the expert (who knows: "We've tried it before—it doesn't work.") This is a return to the oral tradition. Commando training requires awareness of the overall situation, since he (like the guerilla) often has to make decisions, without consultation, that affect everybody. This is training for leadership and initiative which is beyond the range of the specialist. In an information environment, as hardware is tetherialized (doing more and more with less and less), leadership training—survival training—calls for inclusive awareness and survival initiative. A navigator doesn't have a specialist goal: he has to keep a total situation in mind. In the Eighties, this includes the roles of artist and satirist as a 'distant early warning system.' The arts give an infallible reading of the psychic and cultural climate. In the Eighties, the arts also will return to the oral tradition.

The artist will be recognized as the missing link in man's evolutionary equipment. The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe is a witty spoof on American art and critics. Instead of representing the external world, painters have come back to confronting their own dialogue as the subject of art. This was the condition of the cave painter, who painted not reindeer and buffaloes, but the magical and evocative word for these creatures. The artist, as specialist, fades from view. In the sciences, as field theory opens up, specialism will also diminish as serious activity, and be translated instead into a prestigious, narcissistic hangover, and substitute for private identity.

Currently, we are in the process of computerizing all phases of education: the effect is to render the old Western forms of education and classwork into a new fiscal art form. A bureaucracy cannot deal with education in any serious sense—that is, bureaucratic, computerized education, by placing ‘learning’ on a cost/benefit basis, makes the educational system on all levels a subdivision of manpower bureaucracy and systems development, and part of an overall quantified energy program. Bureaucracy feels especially at home with systems analysis and quantified forms of grading performance. The only specifiable ‘goal’ is a job. By the end of the Eighties, our education system will be fully clothed in the garment of computers. In such a system, there is no place for humane learning or ideals; the drive is toward robotism—that is, toward producing the functionary, the well-adjusted man. Subsequently, humane studies may become available only on the pattern of the Medieval wandering scholar—another form of guerilla.

A new dimension of the educational experience now takes the form of brief one- or two-day conferences as made possible by jet travel. Major discussions and briefings occur daily on an international basis in every part of the civilized world. Direct personal contact has already become a new form of tutorial education in business and political life alike. It is only during the past twenty years that jet travel has made it practical for key figures to move to any part of the world for brief personal encounters and group pow-wows. A lengthy absence or illness endangers the executive's job as much as a promotion, both of which will put him out of touch. Jet conferences have become a source of a new kind of prestige, as well as a new kind of ‘instant book’; the participants each contribute a paper relating to a central, unifying theme, and these are collected (sometimes even edited) and have bred a new literary style for the book—a kind of bureaucratic journalism, an enlargement of the 'bureaucratic phrase generator.'

Cubism in Sports

Our new forms of sports will include the audience in the action. It used to be that 'pastimes are past times.' Sports and games were a civilized nostalgia replay of an earlier mode of culture as ritualized art form, e.g. boxing (after Queensberry rules), fox hunting, swimming, etc. There was a clear distinction between sports and games and the real world outside. The umpire or referee was a highly trained, paid representative spectator. In the Eighties, as private identity dissolves further (and with it, detachment), the narcissistic involvement of everybody in everybody else's image increases, and spectatorship will end. Nothing representational will remain to sport, as happened to painting with cubism, as ‘spectators,’ players and ‘home audience’ merge.

Living at the speed of light, all pasts and all futures are simultaneously now: there is no past time for pastimes to replay or ritualize, no ‘outside’ (or ‘inside’) our own time or world. Games, sports and entertainment alike will all become a form of fantasy life of ‘now' and ‘me.’

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