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Hear me, you hearers,
and learn of my words, you who know me.
I am the hearing that is attainable to everything;
I am the speech that cannot be grasped.
the Perfect Mind"
March 1995 ~ I am profoundly uncomfortable with the question, “How does the world work?” I do not share the confidence which Marshall McLuhan claimed to possess when he said that because to his Catholic heritage he believed that the world was ultimately intelligible. My upbringing was agnostic; I tend to believe that while science may lead us to clues about how the world works, some form of ultimate reality is unknowable. I therefore approach media theorists such as McLuhan, James Carey, and Harold Innis with some caution. Their basic question – how does communications technology influence and construct culture? – to be an attractive one. But I remain, to a great extent, skeptical that it can be answered in any satisfying way.
It is interesting that when we look at these three important writers and realize that they were connected to each other in ways that go beyond intellectual influence. Innis and McLuhan, for instance, both taught at the University of Toronto at the same time, although Innis was many years senior to McLuhan. And McLuhan and James Carey were friends; Carey, when interviewed, refers to McLuhan as “Marshall,” describing him as something of a carouser who liked to tell profane jokes. There is a thread of history which runs through their work and their lives; Carey will speak of his friendship with McLuhan and the influence of Innis, who he never met.
Speculation about the effects of and processes surrounding art and performance go back to the beginnings of Western philosophy. But the project of Innis, Carey and McLuhan is one which includes a technological, political, and social environment which goes well beyond the scope of Poetics or Phadera. The communications milieu of 1950 was radically from anything which had come before; the first half of the century had seen the introduction and widespread acceptance of the telephone, the phonograph, radio, the motion picture, radio, and television. Communications had entered an age of mechanical reproduction of information and entertainment, distributed to a mass audience, and old models of communication, grounded firmly in aesthetics, no longer seemed adequate.
As well, the post-war world could no longer imagine technology in simply positive, modernistic terms, leading inevitably to personal liberty and happiness. Technology as a whole was viewed with a mixture of wonder and dread in the wake of the first atomic bomb explosions and the factory-like efficiency of the Holocaust. In particular, scholars became concerned with the uses of communication technologies during the war by both Allied and Axis states as they attempted to influence groups and individuals with propaganda and disinformation. This is not to say that communications technologies were approached unproblematically as simply technological progress and nothing more in all cases. As Carey himself points out, while there was a generally positive reaction to the introduction of the telegraph, there were some dissenters who opposed its influences (207).
The project begins, I think, with Harold Innis. It is his work which is the starting point for McLuhan and Carey, the basis upon which they have built much of their theory. Innis believed that communications technology is not seen as merely a human construct which attempts to fill preceived needs and wants. Rather, media has an influence on how society is actually constructed, and this in turn effects the development of further technology.
It is at the end of his Empire and Communication that he presents his most lucid and straight-forward thesis:
Concentration on a medium of communication implies a bias in the cultural development of the civilization concerned either towards an emphasis on space and political organization or towards an emphasis on time and religious organization. (170)
Innis’ key thesis is that communications technology will influence how society is organized. Communications media which are time-biased – such as writing in stone monuments or clay tablets which are hard to transport but durable over a long period of time – will result in religious organization. Media which are easy to transport – such as paper – allow for a greater range of political control over distance.
Important as well to Innis is a tension between the two biases, a dynamic which can lead to the growth of empire (170). Innis describes an almost cyclical process of change in which time- and space-biased media replace each other, at times acheiving a balance. For example, Innis states that the Byzantine Empire “emerged from a fusion of a bias incidental to papyrus [space] in relation to political organization and of parchment in relation to ecclesiastical organization [time]” (170).
This is, of course, something of an over-simplification of Innis’ work. Empire and Communications, like much of his other writing, presents a plethora of fact in sometimes choppy and seemingly unconnected sentences, leaving it up to the reader to do much of the interpretation. Although time- and space-bias are central to Innis’ theory, much of his chapter on printing and paper in Empire is describing a complex cyclical process of cause and effect , resulting in societal change and new technologies.
It is interesting, then, that the cover of the 1977 paperback edition of Innis’ The Bias of Communication, a collection of his speeches and essays, is dominated by a quote from Marshall McLuhan, written in huge type. The quote is from McLuhan’s introduction to the book: “Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research.” Where Innis is obscure and sometimes difficult, McLuhan is populist to the extreme of producing such works as War and Peace in the Global Village in the 1960s, collections of history, theory, and imagery concerning the impacts of media.
Innis writes of a process of change due to an interaction among societal forces (particularly economics) and technology. In his essay “The Medium is the Message,” McLuhan starts at a different point: the human body. McLuhan begins from the premise that media are extensions of human senses. For example, television, by allowing us to see farther, extends our sight to places we will never visit, but are allowed to see. In so doing, the medium changes how we perceive and think.
Following from this, McLuhan states that the “medium is the message.” His most famous pronouncement means simply that the real impact of media is brought about on individuals because of the extension of their experience and the new scale which is added to their lives (100). Going further, McLuhan states that the content of any medium is simply another medium; “the content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph” (101). The content of speech is described as “nonverbal,” and hence contentless (101); media alters patterns of perception “without any resistance” (111).
I will avoid too much critique of McLuhan’s work here, especially since Miller and others did so much more effectively some twenty years ago. Suffice to say that much of his thesis rests on notions of physiology and perception which may not be at all accurate. However, McLuhan brought to the broad popular and intellectual discourses the core question of Innis’ later work: what is the process by which communications technology influence us? McLuhan places significantly more emphasis than Innis does on the effect on the individual of electronic media, particularly television.
The work of James Carey, a friend of McLuhan’s, goes in a somewhat different direction. He does not write in the difficult style of Innis, nor the broadly popular mode of McLuhan. Of the three writers, Carey is the clearest in both his question and in his result, focusing on specific communication “revolutions” and pulling apart both their causes and results.
Carey examines the telegraph as a medium which transformed human interaction by collapsing space. He states that until the advent of the telegraph, communication and transportation were synonymous. Carey takes a core idea from Innis: that communication technologies have an effect on the utility of time and space, collapsing the former and making the standardization of the latter more important (227). He suggests that the telegraph had three classes of effects: the obvious effect on the boundaries of human interaction; changes to language and conceptual systems; and new forms of social relations which lead, ultimately, to the creation of a commercial middle class (204).
In some ways, Carey is describing a three step process of change, a dynamic in ways similar to Innis’ tension and balance between time and space bias. But Carey goes further; building on Innis, he places the creation and acceptance of communication technologies within a context of ideological and the religious sensibilities. In particular, he writes of the “rhetoric of the electrical sublime,” the notion that communication will lead to a “Universal Brotherhood of Universal Man” (208). He thus identifies the will of society to create communication technologies.
Carey touches on a number of ideas which I think are vitally important to consider when examining this type of work. The question of agency is, to me, central to discussions of the effect of communication technology on culture. McLuhan, for his part, indicates that some sort of free will is impossible when under the influence of media; not only is the individual changed, but their relations with others are changed as well. It is unfortunate that the point has to be made so strongly for us to notice it within a popular discourse.
The approach of Carey is more satisfying. He states that there is both a range of causes and a range of impacts of new communications technologies, a thesis similar to Innis but easier to comprehend. I would take this a step further and imagining building on Carey’s project; that is, examining the nature of technological change within the context of ideology and religion. In his essay “Techgnosis, Magic, Memory, and the Angels of Information,” Erik Davis presents a number of intriguing parallels between notions surrounding currently emerging media forms (multimedia and the Internet in particular) and mediaeval conceptions of magic and divine communication. Davis suggests that the discourse of new technologies is nothing new in the West, and that we are simply revisiting quasi-religious notions of communications similar to Carey’s “Universal Brotherhood of Man,” ideas which have existed in Western thought for centuries. We can imagine a stream of motivation which has run beneath technological development for centuries, centering on profoundly important values, including the desire for instantaneous access to information/enlightenment and to other people.
Yet this desire, which apparently plays an important part of the development of communication and information technologies, never quite fulfills its promise. What is missing, of course, is an actual transcendence in the spiritual sense, and a revitalization of notions of the divine. It should surprise no one that as we continue to collapse time and space with new technologies, we become increasingly disenchanted with the inability of seemingly magical technologies to solve problems (spiritual and temporal) within society – yet we continue to be surprised.
It is an intriguing notion, one which suggests some of the limits of this type of theorizing. While I would like to believe that we can somehow strip away layers of reality to discover the “real mechanics” of technological change and effect, I expect such an enterprise can only ever be partially successful. More important, I think, is that we raise questions about the modernist technological project we all seem to be engaged in, and focus, at least occasionally, on both personal and societal pursuit of something approaching epiphany. ~ John Stevenson
Carey, James W. “Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph” in his Communications as Culture (Winchester: Unwin-Hyman, 1989), pp. 201-230.
Davis, Erik. “Techgnosis, Magic, Memory, and the Angels of Information.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 29-59.
Innis, Harold A.. “Paper and the Printing Press” in his Empire and Communications. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), pp. 142-170.
McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message” in The Process and Effects, 2nd Edition, op. cit., pp. 100-115.
Copyright © 1995, 1996, 2001 John Harris Stevenson, tranquileye.com.