Friday, September 7, 2012

Sex, Gender, Success and Technology - Reflections on Reading Marshall McLuhan


I recently finished reading Marchall McLuhan's first book "The Mechanical Bride" published in 1951. It really is a fantastic read. What McLuhan does in this book is produce a series of Ads from various popular newspaper and magazine publications - with each ad he has a small - one or two page essay that probes its meaning and through this we can see the beginning of his grasp of Medium as Message. 

What I want to explore here (offer as a probe into an exploratory space) is some reflection on a few of these essays - a reflection that ends up being an assemblage of snippets and my own musings.

On page 84, McLuhan presents a typical ad for a 1950 car, he calls this essay "Husband's Choice". You have to imagine a typical car ad (1950) highlighting a male oriented 'curvaceous' and powerful car.

"It is a common mistake to regard this brand of advertising as a mere ‘vulgar’ effort to hitch sales curves to sex curves. The mistake is made by not observing how girdles and related equipment are sold on an engineering and technological basis: ‘an all-way stretch and resilient control. Girdle and garters act in harmony to give you a slim hip and thigh line… It lives and breathes with you.’ The body as a living machine is now correlative with cars as vibrant and attractive organism."

I think this is a brilliant observation. We could reduce this blending of technology and organism to rabid consumer capitalism. But I think this type of reduction is a mistake. As Kevin Kelly in his latest book as suggested - technology is the 7th Kingdom of life (e.g. birds build nests, ants farm aphids to harvest mold, evolution itself depends heavily on the 'selection mechanism'). One can argue that shaping and being shaped by technology is the very heart of what has made us as human - that language, writing, culture are this type of shaped/shaping technology. 

And so this typical ad, is illustrative of a collective conscious/unconscious grappling with the mind/body, organism/machine faux-duality. That what is being amplified is the bringing to consciousness (the emergence) of a narrative beyond that pre-modern and modern split between human and nature. This emergence is itself both a product and a tool of manipulation by a market-driven political economy. 

However, the focus of McLuhan's thoughts. He goes on and refers to Margaret Meade (who he draws upon frequently throughout the book).

"… Meade is not considering the car as a ‘dream date’ offered to men, but as it is valued by women. She adds that this envy of the male organ, ...[is a] desire for an instrument of power... In both these respect it can be seen how the body gets linked with the desires, sexual and otherwise, for mechanical power. The cult of Superman and rocket sips has a phallic relationship which has frequently been pointed to by psychologists who have not succeeded in carrying the observation past this point of the symbolic reference.

...."But the car ads make it plain that there is a widespread acceptance of the car as a womb symbol and paradoxically enough, as a phallic power symbol. ... The attempt to represent speed and phallic power, so much in demand on the distaff side, is crossed up by the attempt to create a world of ‘floating power’ and womblike comfort and ease. Exactly the same contradiction is expressed in the ‘sweetheart of a figure,’ [Ad/archetype] which seems all bust and long boyish legs. The meaning of the twin desires for comfort and power’ could not be more directly stated in terms of sex and technology. The fact that these conflicting wishes are incorporated unconsciously in a wide range of popular objects testifies at once to their prevalence and to the character of the collective trance which prevents the recognition of the tensions.


When I read this - it was the first time that I understood why vehicles of all sorts (ships, cars, spaceships) are mostly referred to as 'she' - yet paradoxically embodying an identification with male power. Womb and Phallus - Jung's mysterium coniunctionis - the mystery of conjunction, the mystical marriage of Solar/Lunar, Male/Female, Spirit/Matter, Yang/Yin. 

But the problem is the the feminine/female (acknowledge in the reference of a she-name) is sublated within a conscious identification with cultural constructions/referents of male-type power. It is interesting that in Star Trek - the 'ship's computer - i.e. the ship has a female voice - but in Space Odyssey the ship's male voice is Hal - becomes hyper-rationally insane with the aim of destroying 'its creator'. This could easily be argued as a masculine love-hate of the womb/creator. A denial of Gaia in a worship of Logos. 

In an earlier essay in the book, called "Looking up to my son", McLuhan writes:

If it were possible to define success in a great number of ways, a success drive might not be destructive. If there were as many recognized kinds of success as there are temperaments, tastes, skills and degree of knowledge, a society dedicated to success might yet develop very great harmony amid variety and richness of experience and insight.

This is a theme that is highly important in a post-industrial, post-consumer world and for the emerging political economy of the digital environment.

While the industrial/consumer political economy measured success in terms of consumption goods, with the result that success measured by actualization or fulfilment intrinsically motivated pursuits (passion that involves the giving up of ourselves/sacrifice to a larger aim/pursuit) becomes overcrowded by an obsessive race to the narrow goal. Poverty, rather than richness of experience and expression is the result. And bitterness rather than quiet self-possession is the state of mind of those not qualified for the narrow goals set up by [mechanical] and executive pursuits. And even for  
the successful there is often the sense of paying too much for a success which, after all, does little to satisfy their deeper human qualities or which easily palls on the daily domestic audience. Not to have lived according to the dictates of one’s own reason but to have sought, even successfully, goals alien to oneself is no recipe for happiness.

The challenge of building a better society with more agile and adaptive political economy, involves developing an institutional framework that enables dynamic work processes for more discrete types of work by wider varieties of expertise and knowledge and stewarding requisite conditions for epistemic communities to align efforts to achieve desired effects and generate a greater wealth of people.

This proposition can be condensed into a McLuhan-esque axiom:
If Social Media is the Medium
Then Social Computing is the Message.
This entail that modes of production must become programmable
This means that organizations cannot be architected as ‘manufacturing machines’ but must be architected to be Programmable and Constrained Complex Adaptive Systems.

The digital environment and its economics represent a post-scarcity paradigm. This is so because it is based on the human wealth of knowledge and the increasing returns arising from the sharing of knowledge. The exception is that time, attention, motivation and talent are the most important scarce resource. The constraint of the wealth of people is the quality of attention that people are enabled to give to their endeavours. The challenge and opportunity in the digital environment revolves around the question of how local resources can serve global outcomes and how global resources serve local outcomes.

For McLuhan, a Medium was anything that extended the mind, body or senses. Thus a Medium could be a new technology, process, idea or original creative work. As a new Medium is created, its message becomes clear in the resultant changes in the nature, pace and scope of human interactions and activities. The nature of these changes of scale, pace, or pattern that a medium causes in us, in society or culture, are distinct from the content of the Medium. Thus it is not the information conveyed through the Medium but rather it is the Medium’s ability to effect change that is the key factor that enables us to realize and understand a Medium.

For example,…by contemplating the Message, that is, the resultant change in scale, pace or pattern caused by television, we can begin to understand the true nature of the Medium. In this instance, we can see that television has the capacity to effect significant behavioural change in powerful and influential monolithic entities by extending vision, hearing and the ability to share ever more powerful and influential ideas. (quoting McLuhan in ‘Understanding Media’, in Federman & de Kerckhove, 2003, p.27)

Social computing then is the capacity for a large network or ‘swarm’ of people to explore in parallel a problem space and produce a range of effective solutions, and/or produce a good or service. Examples include Wikipedia, the many Open-source initiatives, and the increasing use of crowdsourcing, and crowd-funding approaches as new modes of production.

What is meant by programmable modes of production – is the rapid and agile generation, assemblage and harnessing of knowledge networks, as and when needed, in a way that doesn’t require an organization to re-configure, retool, or re-architect its management/leadership structures and processes. A programmable mode of production is reliant on responsible autonomy (based on trusted personnel, agent-forum accountability, and context/competence-based leadership) and networked individualism – as a social operating system (Lee & Wellman, 2012). For example, a computer (as a programmable machine) doesn’t require a hardware/process reconfiguration in order to run innumerable applications. Unlike the industrial enterprise which must reconfigure it’s organization charts, reporting relationships and physical accommodation to enact organizational change.


OK, so how does sex gender, technology and success all come together? 

Perhaps we must start shift the Figure back to the safety and security that technology has always sought to create - a productive flourishing womb, a protected space for creation and let the Ground become the instrumental power. 

This is a challenge to both men and women (of all types of gender) because it is not a dominance of feminine (Gaia/Anima/Womb/World) over the masculine (Logos/Animus/Phallus/isolated-atomistic-being) but rather a different relationship. For example, such a shift would be evident when the salient 'selling-point' of the car is now its protective, creative, foundation - for an ultimate flourishing/actualization of personal and intrinsic motivation. Perhaps in some ways this is already perceivable in the framing of our personal technologies. 

In this new digital environment - definitions of success have to shift toward actualizing of intrinsically motivated pursuits - where it is the freedom to pursue that is rewarding, rather than the extrinsic rewards our pursuits can provide for us.

A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World
"In being aware of the bodily experience, we must thereby be aware of aspects of the whole spatio-temporal world as mirrored within the bodily life. …my theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time."

In the digital environment we are no longer simply located in a single space-time, body/frame - rather we inhabit a multiverse of selves, spaces and networks.