The Medium is the Massage; the effect of technology on communication, forgiveness and politics – 15/12/2020

‘The major advances in civilisation are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur’.

A.N. Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, co-author of the Principia Mathematica (1913).

The Medium is the Massage (1967) opens with the above quote. It is no throwaway line. The book’s authors: Marshal McLuhan (words) and Quentin Fiore (graphics) had set out to convey just how disruptive they believed the coming digital revolution would be. Today, their work is astonishingly prophetic.

In just 160 pages and no more than 4,000 words, the book lays out McLuhan’s thesis for humanity’s relationship with technology. Which is, in short, that the medium for information, be it a book, cartoon, television or app, is just as, if not more important in determining the effect of that information on those who consume it than the information itself. The title of the book was intended to be The Medium is the Message, but a mistake at the typesetters changed it to ‘massage’. When confronted with the error, McLuhan apparently insisted on preserving it, believing it was effective in underlining his argument that mediums of communication ‘massaged’ the mind of the consumer.

In order to convey this core message that presentation impacts the consumer just as much as content, The Medium has its text printed in unique ways: intercut with striking imagery which occupies whole pages, in countless different font sizes, sometimes upside down, and once back to front (so that the text can only be read in a mirror). Masterminded by graphic designer Quentin Fiore, this technique sought to underline McLuhan’s belief that how we consume information is paramount. Thanks to Fiore, the experience of reading The Medium imparts McLuhan’s argument both intellectually (through the text) and literally (through the varied presentation of that text): The medium is the massage.

In fact, The Medium was so shockingly unorthodox in its print design that it was taken by some as a sign of the moral degeneration of the ‘60s. In a 1992 interview with writer J. Abbot Miller, Fiore related the claims of moralists at the time, who complained that the book “promoted illiteracy, encouraged drug use, [that] it corrupted the morals of the American youth, [and that] it was anti-intellectual.”[1]

Moralists aside, by suggesting that once created our electronic technologies exert influence back upon our own behaviour (and societies), McLuhan has helped to provide a modern take on the field of technological determinism (TD). Originally a Marxist strain of thought which considered the impact of the industrial revolution on society, TD has now expanded to consider the impact of the digital revolution. There can be no doubt that McLuhan was instrumental in bringing about that shift.

What is most striking about The Medium is the unnerving accuracy of the predictions it makes about the digital age we all live in now. Written while computer technology was only just emerging from infancy, the book foresees today’s web-based environment of hyper-connectivity. McLuhan was the first to coin the phrase ‘global village’; to describe the shrinking of spatial and temporal boundaries between previously disparate human communities brought about by the new connectivity:

‘Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of “time” and “space” and pours upon instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale.’

‘We have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting workforce for social change.’

‘Ours is a brand new world of allatonceness. “Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. Now we live in a global village…a simultaneous happening.’

From this foundational assessment, McLuhan was able to deduce a number of prescient corollaries in The Medium:  

  1. That the introduction of the new technology would usher in a new generational divide in computational competence, between those who had been inculcated in the new world from birth, and those who have to adapt to it: ‘Youth instinctively understands the present environment.’
  2. That the new age of hyper-connected communication would favour easy to consume memes/bites of information over long-form writing. A world wide web would mean final victory for the cynical remark over the considered essay: ‘A perceptive of incisive joke can be more meaningful than platitudes lying between two covers.’
  3. That the new technology would equip the governments of the world with surveillance capabilities Big Brother could only dream of: ‘Electrical information devices for universal womb-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know.’
  4. That superpower conflict would shift from the fighting of direct or proxy wars into cyberspace: ‘Real, total war has become information war. It is being fought by subtle electric informational media.’
  5. That the so-called ‘democratisation’ of truth would bring unintended consequences. Not least the fact that now, anyone, literally anyone, through countless online mediums, not least a blog like the one you are reading now, can eject their opinion into the ether without filter or oversight: ‘The family circle has widened. The whirlpool of information fathered by electric media (…) Character is no longer shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts [parents]. Now all the world’s a sage.’

However, for me McLuhan’s most fascinating insight comes on page 12 of The Medium when he briefly touches on the effect the new technologies may have on our human capacity to forgive. The extract in question is as follows:

‘The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions – the patterns of mechanistic technologies – are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early “mistakes”.’

This is a chilling thought. A significant part of our capacity to forgive does stem from a degree of forgetfulness. For P. G. Wodehouse’s accident prone Bertie Wooster, ‘Time’ is often called upon as ‘the great healer’. The hope is that fading memories will erase the worst of an offence, and so make rehabilitation with the individual/family/community/society more feasible. If McLuhan is right (and I think that it is already obvious he is), then the eternal memory of our computers has rendered this process impossible (or at least much harder than it was).

This is bad news for humanity. Fortunately, while he may have been the first to put these concerns to paper, McLuhan is not alone. In his 2019 book, The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray explores the same issue:

‘Part of forgiveness is the ability to forget. And yet the internet will never forget. Everything can always be summoned up afresh by new people.’[2]

Murray recognises that there are some events, like ‘being tried in a courtroom or going to prison’[3] that have long been permanent additions to a person’s record. But what is new about today is that the same permanence is applied to actions which are not criminal:

‘Living in world where non-crimes have the same effect [as real crimes] is especially deranging.’[4]

The practical impact of this has become clear. Today, students are warned that they should sanitize their social media feeds for future employers, to ensure that nothing which isn’t kosher, even if it originates from years gone by, is picked up in a background check. The past few years have been filled with high profile examples of celebrity ‘cancellation’; a messy and misused term no-doubt, but one which accurately captures modern technology’s tendency to concentrate our more vengeful characteristics in lieu of forgiving ones. Murray provides the examples of Quinn Norton and Toby Young, who were forced out of appointments at The New York Times and a government advisory board on higher education respectively after embarrassing comments from their past were brought to new light. And of course, what is considered acceptable and what isn’t, and who the arbitrators of acceptability are, changes almost daily. For those in the public sphere, to avoid nicking any one of today’s numerous ideological trip-wires and so avoiding social retribution (with the promise of eternal damnation that eternal digital memory provides) requires relentless vigilance and extreme care. It is hardly an environment conducive to dynamic debate or a diverse array of viewpoints.

To underscore his argument, Murray draws on one of the greatest political theorists of the 20th century: Hannah Arendt. He quotes from a lecture she gave in November 1964 entitled ‘Labour, Work, Action’ from a conference on ‘Christianity and Economic Man: Moral Decisions in an Affluent Society’. Arendt eloquently highlights the fundamental role our ‘faculty of forgiving’ plays in society:

‘Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act, would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victim of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.’[5]

If today’s hyper-connected, ultra-memorable technology poses a risk to our capacity to forgive, then that’s a fundamental problem which needs addressing. It is a problem, Murray points out, compounded by the ‘death of God’ and the 20th century’s collapse in regular adherence to the Christian faith. Here, Murray draws on another intellectual giant, Friedrich Nietzsche:

‘As one of the consequences of the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered.’[6]

Christianity has many serious flaws, but it does try to address the big issues (this is surely one of the reasons for its persistence). One of those big issues is how to get along with people who have wronged us. The New Testament offers the answer: To turn the other cheek. If we want the society of the future to be one where we are able to turn the other cheek to each other, then the simultaneous introduction of technology which discourages forgiveness, and loss of faith in one of the religions which espouses forgiveness above all, is not a good combination.

Crucially, we must be able to forgive not just individuals, but whole groups as well. In perhaps his most alarming prophecy, McLuhan explores the new technology’s capacity to encourage ‘mass guilt’:

‘The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual, but is rather, something shared by everybody, in some mysterious way.’

If one of the by-products of a hyper-connected age is that we are no longer able to treat each person as an individual, with their own merits and failings, then that is not good. Such a phenomenon can only encourage the use of generalisations and stereotypes. Taken to the extreme, the attribution of ‘mass guilt’ could clearly have disastrous consequences. If we intend to avoid the mistakes of the 20th century, and desist from scapegoating the most convenient ethnic/religious/political group for our problems, then this is one of McLuhan’s prophecies which must not come to pass.

Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, and it is true that today’s technological world makes countless wonderful things possible: You can order almost anything online and have it delivered to your door, call a taxi from your mobile and be on your way in minutes, and be within constant easy contact of friends and family. I can write this and have it read by people I have never met. But one of the flipsides of this technological coin may be that we find it harder to forgive each other. For a society to survive, its citizens must be able to get along. For citizens to get along, they must be able to forgive each other for whatever wrongs they commit. What McLuhan managed to point out in 1967, was that a hyper-connected world might not necessarily make this crucial process easier. Just how severe the impact of our new ways of communicating will be on our discourses, society and politics, we still have yet to see.

McLuhan once again, in The Medium is the Massage:

‘Its [technology’s] message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. The old civic, state and national groupings have become unworkable. Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than “a place for everything and everything in its place.” You can’t go home again.’

[1] Quentin Fiore, Who Made the Medium His Message, Dies at 99, K. Q. Seelye, May 1st 2019, The New York Times.

[2] The Madness of Crowds, D. Murray, Bloomsbury (2019) p176.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Labour, Work, Action’, in The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin, 2000, p.180-1.

[6] The Madness of Crowds, D. Murray, Bloomsbury (2019) p182.

Cover design for photo by YES.

Cover photograph by Peter Moore.

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