* * *
The Digital Revolution and Media Ecology
(Reflections on Marshall McLuhan’s Influence
in Digital Fine Arts and Multimedia)
By Iona Miller, 4/2004
New Media; McLuhan’s Message; Artistic Immunization;
Cultural Stress Test; Media Ecology; Cyborgs R Us;
Sense and Sensorium; Technological Humanism; Neo-McLuhanacy
"New communication theorists will arise, as if from straight out of the asphalt, the concrete, the vinyl tiles, or the PermaPour flooring. But one thing will not change. First they will have to contend with McLuhan." ~ Tom Wolfe, Introduction to MM’s Understand Me
“A theory of cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the changing sense ratios effected by various externalizations of our senses.” ~ MM, Gutenberg Galaxy
"It is debatable when exactly the history of digital art began. Artists have been experimenting with computers at least since the 1970's... As in the evolution of photography and video art, this new medium was often considered a threat to traditional art forms... Over the decades, art making use of digital technologies has taken many forms, and even today, the question of how exactly digital or new media art can be defined is still being debated." ~ Christiane Paul, New Media Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, FotoFest 2002 Catalogue Introduction
Introduction to New Media
Media oracle, Marshall McLuhan <archives.cbc.ca/IDCC-1-69-...ty/mcluhan/ became a pop culture figure in the 1960's with his seminal works, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964) and The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with designer Quentin Fiore, Random House, 1967). Most of MM’s quotes used here to make our arguments are from these works, though some points were later attacked by Postmodern critics.
Polymath, Wyndham Lewis and McLuhan were close friends in the 40s and 50s. Lewis published America and Cosmic Man in 1948 (Britain) and 1949 (US). Lewis’s book on the United States as prototype Cosmopolis greatly influenced that pioneer exponent of electronic globalism, McLuhan, inspiring his famous phrase "Global Village". Lewis was a novelist, critic, philosopher, poet, sociologist, travel writer, autobiographer and, far from least, painter with galvanizing styles all his own.
''An explosive force'' is what Lewis required the artist to be. Some of the chief artists of that time, including Lewis, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, were among the first to probe and define the esoteric dimensions of media. These artists teach us to distinguish figure from ground and so allow a consciousness of the surround (ground) which shapes us. This new consciousness is a path to freedom from control by the new surround.
McLuhan indicates that the advertiser is like the artist in wanting to get his effect across (“McLuhan: What If He Was Right?”). Both are less concerned with what their audience thinks than with theories or with changes of mind, interested in shaping sensibility, in molding the individual's manner of experiencing the world. The advertiser is the artist of the “Electranascence,” having learned his techniques from the more “traditional” artists.
Marshall McLuhan's central theory of the mass media as a global extension of the human nervous system is developed from Lewis's stated and published enthusiasm for and belief in the unifying role of mass communications, and their role in rendering the solitary human body obsolete.
He echoed R. W. Emerson who wrote that "The human body is the magazine of inventions, the patent-office, where are the models from which every hint was taken. All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses" (1870). McLuhan claimed, “Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."
Famous also for coining the phrases "The medium is the message" and “the user is the content”, McLuhan’s prescient insight also touched deeply on the nature of creative process and creative freedom in the electronic era. He suggested artists are the cultural antidote to relentless technological future shock, which simultaneously dominates and emancipates us. For example, artists inoculate us against its effects by introducing technological innovations long before they mainstream and by jolting us out of our commercially programmed trances and mass-media social conformities.
There are historical, theoretical, aesthetic, conceptual and technical challenges presented by the relatively recent collision of art, culture and computing power. Through envisioning information as popular media, science fiction, computer games, marketing tool, and artist's projects, technology has been and will continue to be a key component of culture rather than just a digital wasteland.
Art itself can be a powerful communal stimulant.
In ordinary human perception, men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves - in their interior faculties - the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect - that is the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new manner. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being. ~ McLuhan in “Catholic Humanism”
MM was a "crisis" philosopher on the razor's edge of the information revolution (or what he termed The Age of Information). This academic rebel's novel approach blazed new territory with world-class contributions to communication theory and cultural anthropology. His startling breakthroughs concerning cultural upheaval - commencing with Gutenberg's printing and complicated by the industrial revolution - reveal the unforeseen consequences of print technology's fragmentation of society. He elaborates on electronic media's ability to synthesize multimediated experience as well as unify and retribalize the human race.
McLuhan’s central message was that to understand today's world, one must actively study the effects of media. What are media? They are, simply put, any extensions of sense: of eye, of ear, of nose, of touch, of taste, of mind – the perceptual vortex of the cultural imagination. Culture is more than integrated spectacle.
Arguably, the first medium was consciousness or self-awareness, then speech, then expressive arts, the printing press, and now the digital revolution. The digital epiphany is releasing reason and imagination through the technological experience. It is both a technique of artistic and other discovery and a new angle of vision on the technological experience itself – the technological imperative with its multi-faceted point of view.
McLuhan thought that the preservation of the fullest degree possible of creative freedom in modern life is compromised within the unbound potentials of ars electronica. It is similar to the potential compromise of our humanity through genetic engineering.
The stress induced by technology keeps us in a constant state of emergency; we can’t adapt quickly enough. For example, we have replaced our music collections from vinyl, to tape, CDs, DVD, and MP3. In McLuhan's discourse, individual freedom as well as civil culture itself are wagered in this contest with technology, so recognizable civilization doesn’t disappear through its own ‘vanishing point.’
His thought strained toward defining how humanity could be liberated both from and through technology: the primacy of space over time; the fascination with the exteriorization in electronic technology of an "inner experience" which is electric, mythic, inclusive, and configurational; the primacy of "field" over event; the vision of "processed information" as somehow consonant with the perfectibility of the human faculties (technotopia).
In McLuhan's estimation, "technology is part of our bodies”. To the extent that corporations acquire private control over the electronic media, we essentially "lease out" our eyes, ears, fingers, legs, and the brain itself, to an external power.
As a consequence, in the electronic age, this era of collective and integral consciousness, those with control of technological media are allowed "to play the strings of our nerves in public." In a sense, even our thoughts are no longer our own.
It is precisely the control over the speed, dissemination, and implanting of new mind controlling technologies by the corporate command centers of North America which subverts the very possibility of an age of "creative freedom," with technocratic politics.
Buckminster Fuller pointed out that, "Corporations are neither physical nor metaphysical phenomena. They are socioeconomic ploys — legally enacted game-playing — agreed upon only between overwhelmingly powerful socioeconomic individuals and by them imposed upon human society and its all unwitting members." (Grunch of Giants).
Technological dependency leads to consideration of issues such as personal will, and at least potentially, the poetry of consciousness. Technostructure is leading toward hegemony of abstract media systems, along with the promise of enhanced flexibility.
For McLuhan, the advent of electronic technology creates a collective sense of deep distress, precisely because this quasi-externalization of the central nervous system induces an unprecedented level of stress on the individual organism. The "technological massage" reworks human biology and the social psyche at a deep, subliminal level.
McLuhan understood that we react to new media first with terror followed by numbing. This classic mind/body response to trauma is how we protect ourselves from the alien, the foreign, the Other. His task was to show how and why this occurs and how we can adapt. The media we fear need not be our enemy. As so-called modern people, we are not yet there. We are not yet electric, even though our media point in that direction.
The content is irrelevant; the medium is what is important. The medium is transforming how we think, how we live, how we are. The medium offers the hope of transforming and liberating us in time from the shackles, which have bound us since the dawning of consciousness, the dawning of art.
It is the artist who will articulate this new vision, adapting first to the technology, bending it to our will, making the universal into the particular, reviving the primacy of content, meaning, and value – reclaiming the human elements. The artist is the first who learns to dream in the new vernacular.
McLuhan showed how the artist plays a critical role in this transition. It is the artist's role to anticipate and show us how to avoid media trauma and to prevent its numbing effects by producing what he calls immunity to the numbing effect of electric media.
The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. The artist can correct the alteration in the sense ratios brought on by new media. McLuhan’s definition of art shows us how to ride with the punch, rather than taking a knock out on the chin: “Art provides exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own expanded facilities.”
His ideal value was that of the "creative process in art;" so much so in fact that McLuhan insisted that if the master struggle of the twentieth century was between reason and irrationality, then this struggle could only be won if individuals learned anew how to make of the simple act of "ordinary human perception" an opportunity for recovering the creative energies in human experience.
If we are to recover a new human possibility it will not be "outside" the technological experience, but must, of necessity, be "inside" the field of technology. The digital art revolution is beginning to reflect this. What is really wagered in the struggle between the opposing tendencies towards domination and freedom in technology is that which is most personal, and intimate, to each individual: the blinding or revivification of ordinary human perception.
For McLuhan, the "poetic process" - this recovery of the method of "sympathetic reconstruction," this "recreation" of the technological experience as a "total communication," this recovery of the "rational notes of beauty, integrity, consonance, and claritas" as the actual stages of human apprehension - was the key to redeeming the technological order.
If only the mass media could be harmonized with the "poetic process;" if only the media of communication could be made supportive of the "creative process" in ordinary human perception. Then technological society would, finally, be transformed into a wonderful opportunity for the "incarnation" of human experience. McLuhan viewed technological society as an “incarnation in the making.”
McLuhan saw no artificial divisions between "ordinary human perception" and the technical apparatus of the mass media or, for that matter, between biology and technology. In his discourse, the transpersonal value is reason. The creative process of human perception as well as the technologies of comic books, mass media, photography, music, and movies is viewed as relative phases in the working out of a single process of apprehension. "...The more extensive the mass medium the closer it must approximate to the character of our cognitive faculties." Or, on a different note:
As we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV it is borne in on us that for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness.
We no longer passively watch our TVs and computer screens. We program them, interact with them, and create with them at roughly the same speed with which we think. We already have many forms of technology that simulate experiential aspects of reality. The next phase of this revolution will take us further toward blurring the boundaries of subjective and objective, inner and outer, imaginal and real. It is the fully interactive world of full immersion technologies.
Cultural Stress Test
All media are related to and create anxiety as they reveal and externalize what is fundamentally internal. The medium of consciousness can be described as a fall into what has since become a state of universal anxiety. Media captures the moment of change and releases that energy dramatically.
There is a relationship between stress and numbness. A central theme in McLuhan's reflection on biotechnology was that under conditions of deep stress, the organism anesthetizes the area affected, displacing the shock to peripheral regions.
McLuhan always insisted that this age of electronic circuitry is a time of high stress. He asserts that the advent of electronic technology creates a collective sense of deep distress, precisely because this externalization of the central nervous system induces an unprecedented level of stress on the individual organism. The "technological massage" reworks human biology and the social psyche at a deep, subliminal level.
High-speed simultaneity fosters the idea that all things are connected, but fosters confusion because that connectedness remains unarticulated. This is the ambivalence that underlies technoculture. It thrills and repels us simultaneously, implying loss of our simple humanity in the act of externalizing our own nervous systems. It fills us with future shock – technosis -- the unspoken knowledge that we now have to ‘keep up’ with it or become the new illiterates.
In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan insisted that we cannot understand the technological experience from the outside. We can only comprehend how the electronic age "works us over" if we "recreate the experience" in depth – metaphorically and mythically -- of the processed world of technology.
All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the way media work as environments.
He viewed all technology as the pushing of the "archetypal forms of the unconscious out into social consciousness." This is likewise what art does. When McLuhan noted in Counter Blast that "environment is process, not container," he meant that the effect of all new technologies is to impose, silently and pervasively, their deep assumptions upon the human psyche by reworking the "ratio of the senses."
For McLuhan, it is a processed world now. As we enter the electronic age with its instantaneous and global movement of information, we are the first human beings to live completely within the mediated environment of the technostructure. The "content" of the technostructure is largely irrelevant.
It was McLuhan's special genius to grasp at once that the content (metonymy) of new technologies serves as a "screen", obscuring from view the disenchanted locus of the technological experience in its purely "formal" or "spatial" properties. McLuhan invented a "new metaphor" so we can "restructure our thoughts and feelings" about the subliminal, imperceptible environments of media effects.