The Technium

Environments Are Invisible


“Environments are invisible.”

That’s Marshall McLuhan’ overarching big idea. We are fundamentally, almost inherently, unable to see the largest thing in our lives — our environment. This ocean of ideas, assumptions, expectations, constraints, drivers, beliefs, blinders, and influences that shape our lives and minds is hidden from us precisely because we are in it and of it. It takes a peculiar stance and foolishness to step outside it long enough to perceive it.

Marshall McLuhan was strange and clownish enough to see it.

I found this quote in a very short book about Marshall McLuhan may be the best guide to his very perplexing genius. I thoroughly enjoyed it — and McLluhan’s antics — and discovered some great passages within. Perhaps the most amazing passage is this confession by the author, Douglas Coupland, on how and why he came to write this mini-biography. Coupland was a Vancouver-based artist and author whom we commissioned at Wired, and I’ve always found Doug to be an original character. I include here a snapshot I took of him during one of his visits to the Wired offices around 1995. Here’s Doug Coupland on the genesis of You Know Nothing of My Work.

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I quit smoking on Halloween 1988. In December 1988 I was walking to work in a snowstorm when I had the biggest sneeze of my life and afterwards found in my hand a clump of living tissue the size, shape, and colour of a Thompson seedless green grape. It had veins. Of course this freaked me out, and I went right to a doctor, who said that I should actually be thankful, because “At least it’s not inside you any more.” He made sense. But from that morning on, my hearing became hyperacute and hasn’t wavered since. It’s not just noises (of any sort) that shut me down (and by “shut me down,” I mean they stop my body in mid-motion). Leaf blowers and hammers are the worst. But after the morning of the nasal incident, I also lost my ability to focus sounds. Restaurants are the worst. Or people in Europe who use cellphones on trains–people who use their outdoor voices indoors. I carry cards in my wallet to this effect. They read, I AM UNABLE TO “FOCUS” SOUND AND AM UNABLE TO HEAR YOU PROPERLY. PLEASE HAVE PATIENCE. I hand them out mostly to airline employees and hotel front desk staff. At first, they tend to think I’m running a charity scam, and then they realize I’m for real. I no longer attend large events that take place in big rooms. Also, in the 7,000 or so nights since then, I’ve not once been able to sleep without earplugs, and at its very worst, in 1993, I couldn’t stay in hotels or do any work of any sort until late at night and into the early morning, when most people are asleep. So when I found out that Marshall’s hearing went cuckoo after they took a lump out of his head, I said, “Yes, this is someone I want to write a biography about.”

The biography Coupland wrote is a irreverent and yet as serious as the story above. Here a few highlights:

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In 1962 McLuhan wrote, “Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.”

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“Terror,” he went on to say, is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time… In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.

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“The medium is the message” means that the ostensible content of all electronic media is insignificant; it is the medium itself that has the greater impact on the environment, a fact bolstered by the now medically undeniable fact that the technologies we use every day begin, after a while, to alter the way our brains work, and hence the way we experience our world. Forget the ostensible content, say, of a television program. All that matters is that you’re watching the TV itself.

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Marshall’s other cliché, “the global village,” is a way of paraphrasing the fact that electronic technologies are an extension of the human central nervous system, and that our planet’s collective neural wiring would create a single 24-7 blobby, fuzzy, quasi-sentient metacommunity. And one must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or IBM, but rather by studying arcane sixteenth-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.

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(Chesterton loved aphorisms and mangled puns as much as Marshall did): “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

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Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas. — Alfred North Whitehead

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How do you explain the fact that, while you’re busy hanging out in eternity, the world you left behind has merely the drab little future ahead of it? …Constant awareness of the ancient and divine allowed him an unsentimental perspective on the technical and cultural, and on both the modern age and its future.

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The total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature. — Alfred North Whitehead

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I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it. — M.M.

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For Marshall, the fun of ideas lay in crashing them together to see what emerged from the collision.

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Marshall was in his mid-fifties at this point. He was too old to be a party monster or a rock star or a prima donna; he was a fuddy-duddy in a glen plaid jacket, who, when speaking with executives who had spent a fortune to strip-mine him for insights, was often described as looking like an absentminded prof grading papers. And while hippies may have flocked to him as a guru figure, Marshall saw them as a manifestation of all that was wrong with the way the world was heading. But of course, his policy of not judging backfired–critics mistakenly thought that because he spent some time with hippies he was tacitly endorsing them.

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He then discusses the differences between what he calls “hot” and “cool” media. For example, a hot medium is exclusive, while a cool medium is inclusive. Hot media are “highly defined,” leaving little information to be filled in by the user. Radio is a hot medium because it requires minimal participation. Cool media, like TV, are in contrast “low definition” and highly participatory because the user must fill in the blanks. This framework for judging media is complex and often contradictory.

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Marshall describes Margaret Mead bringing several copies of the same book to a Pacific island. The natives had seen books before, but always different books, one copy of each. When they saw copies of the same book, their minds blew.

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Discarnate man is an electronic human disconnected from his body (a process also called angelism) who is used to speaking to others on the phone continents away while the TV set colonizes his central nervous system. Discarnate man is happy to be asynchronous, as well as everywhere and nowhere–he is a pattern of information, inhabiting a cyberspace world of images and information patterns. – M.M.

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Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness. – M.M.




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