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Marshall McLuhan on the Mobile Phone

Peter Benson sees a prophet’s message come to fulfilment through net and cell.

“Is it not absurd for men to live involuntarily altered in their inmost lives by some mere technological extension of our inner senses?”
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, (1962), p.183

Marshall McLuhan never owned a mobile phone. He died in 1980, before such gadgets became widely available. Yet the theories he developed about the effect of communications media on the human psyche can be applied to recent technologies which he could have known nothing about. In fact, in the age of the Internet and the mobile phone, many people are beginning to read McLuhan with renewed interest.

At the time of his death, McLuhan’s reputation was probably at its lowest ebb. The media research centre he founded at Toronto University had been closed down. The period of his popular fame – when he had appeared on TV, given numerous public lectures, and even made a cameo appearance (as himself) in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall – all this was in the past. Within the academic world there was wide-spread doubt about his theories. Today, however, interest is reviving. His 1964 book Understanding Media has been reprinted by Routledge Classics every year since 2001 (three times in 2008). People are reading McLuhan, and it is not too difficult to understand why.

Theories in the social sciences are intrinsically difficult to verify. They generally lack the kind of repeatable experiments which provide a firm grounding for the natural sciences. Plausible descriptions of past social changes often prove strikingly inapplicable to future developments. It is remarkable and unusual, therefore, when a social theory seems to be confirmed by future events which its founder could not have anticipated.

McLuhan’s central theory is that human modes of thinking are altered by our predominant media of communication. He divided history into several successive eras, each characterized by its principle means of communication. Hence the era of the oral word was succeeded by the era of the written word, which was displaced in turn by that of the printed word. McLuhan claimed that, in his own time, a new era of electric media had been ushered in by the telegraph, radio and television.

The oral and written eras had lasted for huge stretches of time. The era of print stretched from Gutenberg’s invention of printing in 1440 to the dawn of the 20th century. And yet the electric era described by McLuhan has already been superseded, in less than 100 years, by a new age of electronic media – computers, mobile phones, the Internet. Perhaps it would be appropriate to describe McLuhan’s ‘electric era’ as a transitional phase towards this further situation.

The Electronic Age

In fact, if we consider what McLuhan had to say about television, we frequently find that his remarks would be more appropriate if applied to modern computer technology rather than to the domestic TV sets of the 1960s. It is often as if McLuhan were seeing visions of the future world, and was then arbitrarily fitting his prophesies to the newest objects around him. Whereas, he claimed, the printed word had been “the architect of nationalism” (Understanding Media, p.185), he believed that in the age of television we would “become tribal once more,” freed from the boundaries of the nation state (p.187) so that the whole world would become a global village (p.5). In terms of our increased awareness of what is happening around the globe, this might indeed be taken as one result of television. But television technology provides no means for us to have an effect on the situations we see. However, with the two-way communication provided by email and the internet, the once-passive TV viewer can now engage directly with distant events (in however small a way).

McLuhan’s characterization of television depended on his somewhat confusing distinction between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media (U.M. p.24ff). A ‘cool’ medium was one which requires participation from its recipient, in that it carries an incomplete message which needs to be filled-in to make full sense. Television was cool because its images were blurry and of low-definition in comparison to the ‘hot’ medium of cinema. The viewer’s brain had to learn to ‘read’ this electronic fuzz of light to discern the significance of the image. Needless to say, this distinction only makes any sense in relation to the poor quality TV sets of the 1960s. In our age of high-definition TV, McLuhan’s distinction seems irrelevant, and certainly not a necessary component of television. Even at the time of his writing, it seemed bizarre to see these limitations of the television screen as a positive invitation to ‘participation’. It is difficult, in fact, to find anything specifically participatory about television as a medium. This is why it’s generally thought to turn its audience into couch potatoes. On the other hand, the Internet is participatory, by definition – it serves as a medium of communication only when questions and comments are put to it. So it is only with our own electronic age that we truly enter McLuhan’s field of ‘cool’ interactive communications.

At this point a common misapprehension needs to be corrected. The hot/cool distinction was never intended to be evaluative, merely descriptive. Cool media are not better than hot media, they are simply different; and the psychology of their users, and the structure of the societies where they dominate, would be different. The most frequent misapprehension of McLuhan is that he was an enthusiast for the electric age which he sought to describe. Yet rather than being a cheerleader for the new tribalism of the TV generation, he was issuing a warning, and hoping to provide tools to moderate its potential worst excesses. A recent biography, Marshall McLuhan (2010), by the novelist Douglas Coupland, particularly emphasizes this fact. McLuhan, writes Coupland, “hated the modern world as he hated technology, but that never prevented him from being obsessively interested in the world it produced and fanatic about trying to understand it” (p.17). Coupland quotes McLuhan’s basic principle: “We shape our tools, and our tools shape us”(p.87). The only way to avoid being the dupe in this process was by understanding it, and thus being able to resist it. That is why McLuhan’s most important book is called Understanding Media. If we fail to understand the effects of the media we use, we will become the passive victims of a process we have begun but which has gone beyond our easy control.

The Mobile Phone

To illustrate this, let us consider some of the effects on our society of the use of the mobile phone. Walk down any street in a busy town, and you’ll see many people with a phone clutched to the side of their head, talking as rapidly as they are walking. It is now possible to engage in verbal communication with other people wherever they are. This major change in human behaviour has come about within a remarkably short time, but its implications need to be considered. Many people have willingly taken this option of continuous communication; and many more have been forced to accept it as a condition of their employment. To be continuously available for work-related discussion expands the condition of being an employee beyond the boundary of office hours, and beyond the office. Non-work time becomes increasingly colonized by one’s job, and the condition of subordinate employee becomes the permanent, all-encompassing condition of one’s existence. Even while making a meal at home, or travelling on the bus, one might be interrupted by a business call.

In the past, people sold a certain number of hours of their day to their employer. This was the social system Karl Marx analysed in Capital. But many analysts are becoming aware that this idea has less and less relevance to the field of modern employment, and that the mobile phone is one of the major factors that has changed the nature of work. For example, the Italian radical thinker Franco Berardi, in his book The Soul at Work (2009), notes that “The cellular phone is left on by the great majority of info-workers even when they are not working.” (p.89). As a consequence: “Cellular phones realize the dream of capital: that of absorbing every possible atom of time at the exact moment the productive cycle needs it. In this way, workers offer their entire day to capital and are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular… They prepare their nervous systems as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible.” (p.90)

These changes enabled by the mobile phone are merely social: they do not yet reach to the level of effect upon our psyche with which McLuhan’s theories are concerned. However, to the obligatory use of the phone in employment, we must add the extensive voluntary use of it in daily life. Among the people we pass in the street, many are chattering, not to work colleagues, but to friends, spouses, or lovers. They are willingly enacting a condition of permanent connectedness: a continuous co-habitation with others, following them through the byways of their days. The cellular phone in handbag or pocket unites them umbilically to their network of social contacts. This is a condition unprecedented in human history.

McLuhan was correct in discerning tendencies to try to re-establish aspects of village life in the modern world. Villages are notable for human proximity, nosiness, suspicion, and lack of privacy. This trend reverses the development, in the industrial age, of anonymous, isolated, secretive city dwelling. Separation from the pack has never been so rare for human beings as it is in the mobile/Internet age.

In McLuhan’s schema of human history, the trajectory up to and throughout the period of print is towards an increasing focus on the individual thinker. In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan notes that ‘free ideation’ [‘free thought’] is “permitted to literate societies and quite out of the question for oral, non-literate communities.” (p.20) He gives the reason for this in the words of the psychologist J.C. Carothers: “Only in societies which recognize that verbal thoughts are separable from action… can social constraints afford to ignore ideation.” In other words, free thought can only be widespread in a society which separates thought from action, such as a written culture. Our notion of ‘freedom of thought’ as a universal right is therefore dependent on the domination of writing over speech. So the very possibility of philosophy as a serious enquiry (as distinct from the mere repetition of the prevailing ideologies) is entirely dependent on this freedom, and therefore on writing. Hence, for McLuhan: “Far from wishing to belittle the Gutenberg mechanical culture, it seems to me that we must now work very hard to retain its achieved values” (p.135). “The highly literate and individualist liberal mind is tormented by the pressure to become collectively oriented… Yet the new electric technology pressures him towards the need for total human interdependence… Print is the technology of individualism” (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’.

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. 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.

In a recent essay, ‘One Hundred Fears of Solitude’ (Granta No. 111, 2010), the American author Hal Crowther has vividly evoked the changes that the mobile phone has introduced. “The value of silence, of solitude, has never before been disputed,” he writes: “Not long ago it was generally accepted that humanity’s most creative achievements, from art and poetry to major scientific discoveries, were the precious fruits of solitude. But in a single heartbeat on humanity’s timeline, this sacred, fecund privacy has become the unpardonable social sin.” When Crowther was a student, “‘Alone with his thoughts’, now a literary anachronism, was a commonplace reality,” he writes. “Without that freedom to disconnect, then and now, I for one would have gone raving mad.” He refers in particular to past silent and solitary walks as “a time to think without interruption.” Today, by contrast, we seem to be living inside a beehive, where “the buzz inside and outside your head has murdered silence and reflection. But just as frightening is the harsh warning, explicit or implicit, that if you won’t be wired into the hive you won’t get your share of the honey.”

This image of a hive recurs in several recent writings about the internet and other aspects of contemporary interconnectivity. The hive-mind seems to make decisions and organize itself with the individual bees acting as mere neurons of a collective brain. If global warming does indeed wipe out the human race as decisively as the dinosaurs were destroyed by a meteorite 65 million years ago, who might be our successors? My money would be on the insects. The intelligence of the hive may be the future form for intelligent life on earth. But this is no justification for us to anticipate such a future by seeking to turn ourselves into poor imitations of insects. The distinctiveness of human thought lies in its diversity – a multiplicity of different minds is the optimal ecological condition for memes to develop, diversify and evolve. As much as we bemoan the loss of ecologically-rich physical environments, we should also fear the erosion of the intangible territories which are also under attack: in the interior spaces of the human mind.

The Death of the Soul

In her 1993 book New Maladies of the Soul, philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva wrote about how the psychological ailments she found in her patients differed from those uncovered by Freud a hundred years previously. In particular she noted: “Today’s men and women – who are stress-ridden and eager to achieve, to spend money, have fun, and die – dispense with the representation of their experience that we call psychic life… We have neither the time nor the space needed to create a soul for ourselves, and the mere hint of such activity seems frivolous and ill-advised.” (p.7) Where Freud had found people with complex entanglements in their psyches, Kristeva discovers people who barely have any interior life at all: their inner worlds are impoverished and nearly empty. In an interview at the time of her book’s publication, Kristeva elaborated on this theme:

“I believe that the new maladies I discuss are maladies of civilization. Western civilization has always revered the richness of inner life… What will happen to Western society if this psychic space finds neither the time nor the space to grow?… Those who live without a psychic space are quickly subject to exhaustion, relationship difficulties, and extreme frustration.” (Kristeva Interviews, p.86)

When Kristeva made her remarks in 1993, mobile phones had barely begun their spread to ubiquitousness, so the phones are not the initial cause of this impoverishment; but I believe they have helped to exacerbate it. With no inner resources, the need to constantly connect to others becomes an imperative addiction. Individual contemplation is replaced by a continuous exchange of opinions with others. The result is a homogenization, rather than a diversification, of thought.

In the same year as Kristeva’s book, the brilliant film-maker Guillermo del Toro (later to make such acclaimed films as Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) directed his first movie, Cronos. Cronos is a horror film and, like many horror films, it is a parable. It concerns a man who discovers a strange device hidden inside an ancient statue. He accidentally triggers its mechanism and, with a whirring of intricate gear wheels, the small machine painfully attaches itself to his hand so that he cannot remove it until an insect hidden inside has sunk addictive venom into his veins. He will now need to use the device repeatedly to stay alive, whilst also suffering a craving for human blood.

Watching this intriguing variant on the vampire myth, the fatal palm-sized device is reminiscent of a mobile phone – handy to slip into the pocket, difficult not to use, welding itself to our hands with temporary immovability. Even the insect inside the Cronos device seems to hint at the hive-mind awaiting us if we succumb to these cravings.

McLuhan believed that “The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics.” (U.M. p.70) His conclusion was that “when the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust.” (p.77) McLuhan believed we are not the mere passive effects of an uncontrollable history. In this sense McLuhan’s social theories are optimistic about our future. But he remained uncertain that wisdom would be heeded: “Is it not possible to emancipate ourselves from the subliminal operation of our own technologies? Is not the essence of education civil defence against media fall-out? Since the effort has never been made in any culture, the answer may seem to lie in doubt.” (G.G. p.246) And he warned that “continued in their present patterns of fragmented unrelation, our school curricula will insure a citizenry unable to understand the cybernated world in which they live.” (U.M. p.379) It was this view of education that led him to establish his centre for media studies at Toronto University. And indeed McLuhan’s writings were a crucial stimulus to the establishment of ‘Media Studies’ as a discipline in schools and universities around the world. Today, with the steady shrinking of university humanities departments, Media Studies finds itself under the same threat as Philosophy – designated as lacking in practical value and so not worth supporting. It seems that the hive-mind is absorbing even the universities into itself, denigrating critical intelligence in favour of uniformity of thought. The need to disconnect from the collective network grows greater as the channels of that network burrow ever deeper into our brains. Switch off your mobile phones, and think.

© Peter Benson 2011

Peter Benson currently works in a public library in London, whose future is under threat. He has a degree in Philosophy, a subject which is under threat in British universities. He cannot be reached by mobile phone.

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