November 20, 2007

Sigmund and Marshall

I tend to think of Marshall McLuhan as a visionary in the same style as Sigmund Freud, someone whose ideas were ahead of the physiological neuroscience available to him at the time of his landmark work. As a result, the theories of both tended toward the heuristic and metaphorical rather than the rigorously scientific. I suppose a brain surgeon might plumb around all day in someone's cranium without actually finding the site of an id, or an ego or superego. As a result, Freud has been often dismissed by serious psychologists who are impatient with his references to Greek myths about killing the father as an explanation for a patient's neurosis. Well, he was doing what he could with what he knew; still in all, his hypothesis of an unconscious was extraordinarily fruitful in understanding the mysteries of human mental life, and for that alone he is justly regarded as a pioneering genius.

And McLuhan more than other theorists cast light on the pervasive influence of the electronic "extensions" of human consciousness found in "media," a term which was not widely used until his work. His writing is dense, allusive and elusive, and jargoned-up to the point where it's difficult to make sense of a sentence. Still, you knew something important was contained in his idea that the "medium was the message." I think we're now fully enclosed by the world he described, in fact. He once explained what he meant by saying the "content" of the medium, say a television program, was irrelevant to its effect; we could turn the airwaves over to public television and televise debates, educational programs, Shakespeare's plays or serials of Henry James's books on a 24/7 basis, and the effect on the viewers would be the same as nonstop "American Idol" and "Survivor." That's hard to accept, and given the state of neuroscience at the time, McLuhan seemed like a crackpot. Later research unearthed the reality that brain wave patterns when "consuming light" from a television are different from those when reading. The latter are conducive to retention and synthesis (sometimes called "learning"), whereas TV is a form of hypnotic relaxation. Furthermore, as described by Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, constant consumption of television images distorts our perceptions of reality, substituting a "mediated world" in place of the real one that sustains our lives. Perhaps as a direct result of this substitution, humans have become increasingly careless about the appearance and health of the natural environment. And maybe you've noticed, as I think I have: you can't go anywhere out in public anymore without finding yourself surrounded by people using the gestures and stock phrases of television and movie characters. "Extensions" of consciousness, indeed; or have we become the extensions of it?

America always leads the way in these degenerate processes, of course. A new study by the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that Americans just don't read books very much anymore, and as a result, they can't write either. 72% of the employers surveyed said that recent high school graduates in their employ lacked basic proficiency in writing English. About half of all Americans aged 18 to 24 read a book "voluntarily" as a form of entertainment or self-improvement. Reading rates for all other Americans, and the amount spent per capita on books, are on steep downward trajectories over the last 20 years. I sometimes think that shows like "Hardball" and the rest of those irritatingly crappy programs should forswear Pat Buchanan and George Will for one afternoon and just bring a panel of public high school teachers and ask them what they think of the future of American democracy. Keep bringing them on, panel after panel, hundreds and hundreds of teachers on the front lines of America's future, until we get the idea. It might put a stop to this silly notion that one more "election cycle" is all that is necessary to transform the American polity into its former vibrant, productive self. It's probably truer to say we ain't seen nothin' yet. We think it can all be done with a conjurer's trick, as wish-fulfillment, instead of looking at the actual architecture of the "electronic village" and seeing how horribly wrong it's all gone while we weren't paying attention.

I gotta run; can't miss "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann. After all, he must have the answer to everything.

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