Mobile McLuhan

Piece by Peter Benson in Philosophy Now (posted on Facebook by ex-MoQer David Morey) – Marshall McLuhan on the Mobile Phone.

Unsurprising to find McLuhan on the money when it comes to the social effects of our communications age but, for me, a couple of interesting points on value and memetics.

Print is the technology of individualism” (The Gutenberg Galaxy pp.157-8) whereas with [mobile technology and the net], the tendency is once more towards interconnected thinking in a community of minds, and so perhaps less ‘free ideation’.

Less free, notice. It’s the usual Darwinian call for evolutionary balance between fidelity and fecundity. If it is too easy to copy patterns of information in hi-fidelity it is harder for mutations to be introduced in ways that create new value. Too hard is obvious, but too easy is not good. Less is more. Life’s just complicated enough. McLuhan continues:

It is important to recognize the subtlety of McLuhan’s views. He is not saying that modern technology distorts an original human nature, which must be protected from such distortions. Instead, from the moment humans began to create tools, our nature was shaped by the tools we used. The silent reading of texts proliferated after Gutenberg’s invention. This activity is not ‘natural’, in the sense of resulting through evolution from the necessities of survival; but it can be regarded as having value, conferred on it by our judgement as individuals and as a society. [His emphasis]

It is entirely possible that a future society could reverse this judgement; but in the interim we need to give consideration to the potential change in our values due to actual changes in our dominant communications media. [My emphasis]

Did we ever need a little conservatism to moderate mediation in the mix. The art of editing.

3 thoughts on “Mobile McLuhan”

  1. Pingback: Psybertron Asks
  2. I find the claim that “print is the technology of individualism” plausible, but I’m not so sure about the idea that the internet and iPhones tend “more towards interconnected thinking in a community of minds.” I’m a huge fan of the so-called Toronto School of McLuhan, Innis, Havelock and a hanger-on like Ong, but I’m not convinced that “interconnected” is the right word. The trouble is that the possible “loss of freedom” to thinking that the new technology seems to lend itself to isn’t the same as the oral situation to which the creation of the alphabet was a “gain of freedom.”

    Actually, the word that bugs me more is probably “community.” For the struggle in political philosophy since the Enlightenment has been between Rousseauian nostalgists of the ancient polis and Mandevillian metropolitan progressivists. The impact of a wide range of cultural and technological factors on the struggle must be taken into account, but what has motivated nostalgists like MacIntyre and Charles Taylor has been a sense that we are losing the social glue that holds us together. Optimists about the Digital Revolution talk about increased “connection,” but I tend to side with the pessimists, that this connection is already run through the wringer of an anti-intellectual individualism (that is not, I would emphasize, to be conflated with the anti-intellectualism of American neoconservativism).

    What we get, I think, is less free, but more like a bunch of insular monads thinking they are unique but unwittingly all doing the same thing. I.e., not an interconnected community. Whereas in what Havelock calls “primary oral cultures” there’s a greater uniformity in belief because of the constraints of memory on cultural reproduction, we might be headed past the burst of diversity caused by literacy into what we might call a “post-secondary oral culture”: literacy made possible democratic individualism by making the reflective life possible, but the internet is making the unreflective life plausible (rather than recede as liberal progressivists had hoped).

  3. “What we get, I think, is less free, but more like a bunch of insular monads thinking they are unique but unwittingly all doing the same thing.”

    Exactly Matt. I think that’s what I said. (All copying, insufficient mutation.)

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