Fighting the last (intellectual) war

Originally posted 10/21/16 at The Burning Platform

Long ago, when I was younger and very impressed with my own intellect (a conceit that life has since beaten out of me), I made an effort to dive into philosophy, both historic and contemporary. One of the people whose work I studied was Marshall McLuhan, who most people know through his epic appearance in Annie Hall as an expert on himself.

I felt that I had grasped a lot of what he proposed, but in reality I didn’t really “get” it in a way that mattered – I could parrot it back but not in any practical way. Age has allowed me to better process his thinking and find connections in reality. And as a result I realize that most of us are pissing in the wind when it comes to arguing our points of view.

We spend so much time – myself included – working to lay out intellectual arguments for the things we believe, with sophisticated words and unassailable logic. And we all, within our little virtual circle, agree with each other, and wonder why our eminent correctness is not getting wider play.

Marshall McLuhan can tell you why.

McLuhan was an English professor in name only: He was actually the preeminent guru on the effects of media. Most people who study media look at the details – how do you communicate better via radio or TV, for example. McLuhan instead looked at the effects of media and how they changed the people who used them. In metaphorical terms, it’s the difference between studying how you make trains run faster, versus how do the lives of people in an isolated village change when you start to provide train service.

And what he tells us is that the creation of the alphabet, and of written language, was one of the most important developments in history – it allowed us to evolve from being superstitious tribal beings into people who could think in terms of the individual, independent of the tribe, and construct rational lines of thinking. In The Medium is the Massage, he writes:

Until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror. Speech is a social chart of this bog.

The goose quill put an end to talk. It abolished mystery; it gave architecture and towns; it brought roads and armies, bureaucracy. It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of civilization began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind. The hand that filled the parchment page built a city.

The effects of the written word brought forth an unprecedented rate of innovation that has given us the world of advanced technology and sophisticated systems of modern living that we enjoy today. But McLuhan saw, even back in the 1960s, that the advent of television and electronic communication would inevitably change who we are. And interestingly, his writing (in which he refers to television and radio as “electronic circuitry”) applies exactly to the impact of the internet as well.

He writes:

Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. “Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village … a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.

We have had to shift our stress of attention from action to reaction. We must now know in advance the consequences of any policy or action, since the results are experienced without delay. Because of electronic speed, we can no longer wait and see. George Washington once remarked, “We haven’t heard from Benj. Franklin in Paris this year. We should write him a letter.”

At the high speeds of electronic communication, purely visual means of apprehending the world are no longer possible: They are just too slow to be relevant or effective.

In short, we are becoming (have become?) a postliterate society, one that is abandoning the logic and sequential thinking of a print-based society. Some examples:

  • Our education system is the ultimate model of a print-literacy based information distribution system: Information segmented into standalone categories (math is separate from English which is separate from social studies which is separate from science) and knowledge is doled out in a sequential model to individual passive student “vessels.” Is it any wonder that there is a huge challenge engaging multimedia-driven, all-at-once tribal students?
  • Our political system hasn’t been the same since television came onto the scene: Today we have politicians becoming celebrities (thanks C-SPAN!) and celebrities becoming politicians, and sound bites and vacuous slogans have replaced any real discussion or detailing of policy. Today, a stylized poster of a candidate with the word “Hope” under it is all you need to stake your position.
  • To a literate, sequential thinker, saving money and delayed gratification make sense. But in our immediate environment, we want it NOW – there is no later. It’s no coincidence that the rise in debt coincided with the rise in television.

In essence:

Print technology created the public. Electric technology created the mass. The public consists of separate individuals walking around with separate, fixed points of view. The new technology demands that we abandon the luxury of this posture, the fragmentary outlook.

We are in a new world – a “global village” to use another of McLuhan’s concepts. And, just as the military always prepares to fight the last war, we are using yesterday’s tools to deal with today’s environment.

Those of us who relish, and use, logical arguments are going to lose debates with the new tribalists. We may be right, but that doesn’t matter anymore. They won’t debate, they’ll just disengage and do what they want to do, which will be exactly what their peer group or mass media encouraged them to do. And I shudder to think what that means for our country, and world, going forward.

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