Saturday, August 18, 2012

What would McLuhan say to the idea that Google is making us stupid?

The next medium, whatever it is - it may be the extension of consciousness - will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
Marshall McLuhan 1967 - quoted in Douglas Coupland's "Marshal McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work"

I may very well no nothing of McLuhan's work - but he is one of my heroes of the mind. I can barely read a page of any one of his books without some brilliant thought provoking comment that remains a projectable salient foresight into the future (near and far).

My daughter has a cognitive disability. Over the years I have encouraged her love of Anime to write her own stories. We call them Romances of Doom - as they are mash-ups of all sorts of anime, movie and cartoon settings and characters. We also love zombies and horror movies. Her stories have characters who die, but then reappear in the next story. They are also eccentric assemblages of time sequences. It is easy to attribute the eccentricity to her disability. 

However, I have also been reading McLuhan's "The Mechanical Bride". He points out the weirdness of juxtaposed articles in newspapers (e.g. using a front page of a 1948 paper) and advertisements in magazines. One of his observations related to this is how the newspaper juxtapositions fragment any sense of coherent unity to the newspaper as an artefact. The newspaper assembled  stories from all over the world onto one page that could be viewed at a glance - in a sense it unified the fragmented world in a collage.

It was seen in Front Page that the real tendency of disconnected news items assembled from all over the world, and place side by side, was to evoke the image of a world society... For the tight little nineteenth-century mind, nourished on 'scientific' doctrines about each nation as an independent organism utterly distinct in heredity and environment from any other, it was natural to transform the news of the workd into a daily romantic novel filled with cloak and dagger episodes and fascinating intrigues hatched in various chancelleries. The news of each day was unified by a underlying plot or dramatize by concentration on great personalities ...

McLuhan p.7

The whole idea of Google making us stupid because we know longer had the stuff to read whole books from start to finish misses the point the fragmentation of our attention began with the popular editorially assembled newspaper. Even television in the last couple of decades has shattered the sense of narrative sequencing. 

Before cable and the syndication of television programs we had to watch the linear roll-out of new episodes in serialized stories. Even when episodes where not intended to present a story unfolding in weekly episodes, for example Seinfeld, over time we got to know the characters.

But with syndication we can watch episodes not weekly but several times a day and without any concern for chronological presentation. Newspapers, magazines, television have been assembling disconnected items assembled from all over and place side by side, for years. One could argue that this has in fact made us stupid - except for the Flynn Effect  which would seem to indicate that we are in fact getting smarter with each decade. 

What this means is that the fragmentation of our attention through shallow assemblages of disconnected information may have made our minds more sensitive to the complex nature of the world. And that the unity of our experience may have less to do with what is presented to us and how it is presented and much more to do with our increasing capacity to find pattern in masses of disparate information.

When you give people too much information, they instantly resort to pattern recognition to structure the experience. The work of the artist ti to find patterns. McLuhan Perhaps it is less about 'finding' patterns than it is about creating patterns.

Since the birth of mass media we have been presented with 'information overload', overload in terms of quantity and disconnectedness of information. We resort to this with the need to project patterns - our own patterns of unifying narratives. It's not so much that we only seek opinions of people who share our views in the bubbles of our 'echo-chambers' - it is that we create our own echo-chamber that we project as pattern onto the world of 'too many dots'. We see the spiders or butterflies in the ink-blots of information as we way-find our paths through the digital environment.

There have been too many dots for years and years - what there is now though - are many more opportunities to engage in conversations wide an increasingly wider variety of people - chances to engage in poly-vocal synchronies. 

In many ways mainstream media had been presenting content and images in a context that is much more like a dream reality - sequences of disconnected themes, items, characters, narratives, desires, fears, etc. In this we were intended to be a passive audience. The digital environment involves us as more committed participant creators and co-creators. Therefore it is this call to action - to participate in conversational co-creation that makes us smarter and offers a medium of dynamic active unification of a larger more social experience - and that means a new type of social consciousness.


  1. John: we both grok big McL and spin when reading. Others grow more puzzled with exposure hoping to find out what the kiss meant long after the kisser has departed. It was the curse of Patrick Watson sho said that no one can understand more than 10% of what Mm says. So we decided understanding 1% 0f 10% was good enough for us. A bad meme.

    The Story Wars argues that we began fragmenting as soon as we began shopping. This is accurate. Do not stand betwen me and what I want or you are toast. E.P Wilson argues that while this is true of individuals its is when we work together that our better angels are expressed.

    All these statements strike me as correct and cogent. Thinnking that someone or something is going to make life coherent is unethical.

    We must keep pressing on whether we want to or not.

    Happy meditation!

    1. I like the thought that 'thinking that someone or something is going to make life coherent is unethical' this is essentially the Buddha's message, some surely can give you a map and navigation instructions - but each individual must take responsibility and make a commitment to make the trip.