Tag Archives: McLuhan

a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow

Insightful piece on superhero narratives, magic and transhumanism by Iwan Rhys Morus over at Aeon a few weeks back; collides a bunch of my own long-running obsessions in exciting ways. For instance, technology’s deliberate appropriation of the mask of (stage) magic:

During the 19th century, the relationship between technology and divinity took a new turn. In his Letters on Natural Magic (1832), the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster suggested that technological know-how was an integral aspect of ancient (and less ancient) priestcraft. This was how idolaters had fooled their congregations into believing in false gods. He reminded his readers that the Roman writer Pliny, when describing the temple of Hercules at Tyre, had mentioned a sacred seat ‘from which the gods easily rose’. There were other classical descriptions of gods and goddesses who ‘exhibited themselves to mortals’, and ‘ancient magicians’ who ‘caused the gods to appear among the vapours disengaged from fire’. These were all products of a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow. Yet they could just as easily be recast as a charlatan’s game. Thus, the staunch Presbyterian Brewster could insist that Catholic ‘bishops and pontiffs themselves wielded the magician’s wand over the diadem of kings and emperors’. Technology could confer divinity, but only by deception.

Brewster wasn’t the only Victorian with a stake in putting modern technology into a history of deceptive magic. Inventor-entrepreneurs of the 19th-century were often cast (and often by themselves) as latter-day Prosperos, with the important qualification that they really could do what they claimed. Discussions of the newly invented electric telegraph were often couched this way, for example. Upon seeing Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke – the telegraph’s inventors – put their instrument to work, Edward Copleston, bishop of Llandaff, rhapsodised how it ‘exceeds even the feats of pretended magic and the wildest fictions of the East’. This was a technology that promised ‘a thousand times more than what all the preternatural powers which men have dreamt of and wished to obtain were ever imagined capable of doing’. Telegraphy, telephony and wireless telegraphy (radio) were touted as extending the reach of human sensation, offering individuals the power to manipulate invisible forces and act instantaneously at a distance.

Yeah, yeah—infrastructure as the underpinnings of the prestige, in other words. Seen from this POV, McLuhan’s move was to concretise the magic metaphor and run with it… which explains both the power and the limits of that strategy, perhaps. (While Clarke’s Third Law indicates that, even if you try to collapse the metaphor, people will choose by preference to misparse you and assume that you’re conflating technology and magic, rather than making a point about the way in which techniques of provision and display are inevitably concealed by those who master them, as a way of retaining their mastery. We like illusions; indeed, we prefer them to truth, as they are more comforting, and require less thought rather than more.)

There’s some bits on Wells and Tesla, of course—the latter being the better-read transhumanoid’s antecedent crank-prophet of preference (and, of course, being a character in Priest’s The Prestige). But it’s well worth noting that he was cranking out pretty much the same unlimited offers of technotranscendence that the likes of Kurzweil still peddle today:

Newspapers loved this kind of speculation, and Tesla was particularly adept at exploiting its appeal. ‘Nikola Tesla Shows How Men of the Future May Become as Gods,’ screamed a headline in The New York Herald on 30 December 1900. The article featured Tesla musing how his inventions would transform the future of humanity: starting with an image of a newborn child as an animated machine, and concluding with humans harnessing the Sun’s energy and building machines that were self-acting.

Same as it ever was… the Engineer’s Disease in action, as so expertly skewered by Vonnegut in Player Piano.

Another alarming connection that persists in the contemporary version of transhumanism is eugenics and “race science”, and that’s how we can draw a line from Wells and Tesla through Campbell and Heinlein, and on to assorted creeps in transhumanism’s theoretical wing, who I’m not going to dignify with a naming at this juncture.

The notion that technological progress and its impact on the body might deliver something like divine power was becoming a staple of popular science fiction. Not only could technology mimic the supernatural – technology was supernatural. The American author Robert Heinlein played with this idea in his deeply racist novel Sixth Column, originally serialised in 1941 in the science fiction publisher John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine, just as comic strip superheroes were gaining popularity…

Of course, we can’t reduce any of these people to their eugenics fascination alone. The case of Wells (and Huxley, for that matter) is a reminder that eugenics was popular on both sides of the political spectrum—but this fact is often twisted by the new clade of apologists as an argument for its rehabilitation, which even the most generous interpretation would describe as a creative use of the historical record.

But back to Cap’n Bob again:

Heinlein’s example [in e.g. Time Enough for Love] is pertinent here for revealing something important about the political culture of contemporary superism. By the 1970s, Heinlein’s politics were explicitly libertarian, and much of the underlying culture of superheroes shared a libertarian commitment to varying degrees. Superman or Batman might have put their superpowers at the service of civic authorities in Metropolis or Gotham City, but they themselves were not part of those authorities. Their power came from their capacity to work outside the state. Heinlein’s later novels increasingly celebrated the independent agency of the individual. The collective was a hinderance, rather than a help. This is the ethos of contemporary superhero culture as well. In some respects – and this is a key difference between the original generation of superheroes and their contemporary successors – collectives are part of the problem to which superheroes are the answer. [PGR: this is also a dynamic identified as central to the technological utopia, both the sf-nal and urban-planning versions thereof.] State agencies are helpless, incompetent or blinkered at best; corrupt and malign at their worst. Superheroes bring salvation precisely because they work outside such structures. And they can act like that precisely because their technologically enhanced bodies give them the freedom of exemption.

Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state.

I’m not certain, but it seems to me that Morus is seeing literature as primarily reflective of the prevailing culture—which of course it is, but I’m interested in the extent to which the prevalence of such literary-cultural (and more generally media-cultural) narratives act as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. Do underwear perverts and transhumanist captains of industry normalise the techno-hero’s journey and the myth of the Competent Man, rather than simply illustrating their popularity?

(Spoilers: I believe that yes, they definitely do, and that the world right now is a really good illustration of that dynamic in action.)

Good piece; go read the whole thing, why don’t you?

The medium is the message: why I’m sick of Twitter

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about McLuhan’s famous aphorism lately, and I’ve decided it explains why I am, in a very literal sense, sick of Twitter.

The point of McLuhan’s riff as I understand it isn’t that the content delivered by any given medium is irrelevant, but that the way in which any given chunk of content impacts on your sensorium is inevitably shaped by the form in which it is constrained. The form of Twitter is hypercompressed, caught up in a 140 character limit that even the SMS message from which it was inherited has largely transcended at this point; it is also, by default, a one-to-many broadcast format, a bullhorn in the town square. To be clear, that compression is a huge part of Twitter’s appeal and effectiveness, as is the bullhorn thing. The problem is the way in which the individual elements of massive ecosystems are obliged to evolve behaviours optimised to survival in said ecosystem. In the context of Twitter, or at least Twitter’s default public one-to-many mode, the optimal behaviour is the grabbing of attention, but that’s arguably true of any peer-to-peer medium; it was certainly just as true of the blogging era I pine for, and of newspapers, broadsides, and the popular ballad.

But the medium shapes the message: the innate terseness of Twitter inevitably requires the stripping away of nuance, the boiling-down and concentration of a single sharp point; meanwhile, the ephemerality of Twitter means not only does one have to grab attention, but one has to grab it RIGHTFUCKINGNOW, before someone else comes along with something equally grabby. As such, I think the polarisation of Twitter — which is not necessarily a monolithic Left/Right thing that covers the entire userbase, so much as a polarisation specific to each and every topic or event — is an inevitable consequence of the medium’s form, per McLuhan.

That said, I think this has been exacerbated by slower mediums deciding to plug themselves into Twitter in order to garner more eyeballs for their “proper” content. In the majority of cases, most major media brands have an established political polarity already, and had become very adept at grabby compression long before Twitter; this is the art of the headline, of the sound-bite. What Twitter brought to that party was the ephemerality mentioned above; it’s not just about grabbing attention, it’s about grabbing attention RIGHTFUCKINGNOW. Having money and metrics to throw at the problem, this behaviour has been optimised very quickly indeed — and individual users have absorbed many of the techniques involved by osmosis, much as one learns a local vernacular in order to remain part of the discourse. Level up, or get drowned out.

(Ironically, the corporate brand has never found Twitter as congenial a medium as the personal brand which — or so I’d suggest — is exactly why corporate brands are trying so hard, and often so laughably or grotesquely, to act more like personal brands, even as personal brands ape the corporate. The medium is the message; a crowded niche supports a limited range of physiological and behavioural adaptations. Evolve or die.)

This probably sounds more than a little bit “things ain’t what they used to be”, but y’know what? Things *aren’t* what they used to be. That’s how temporality works — and if noticing that difference and expressing a preference for the previous state of affairs is nostalgia, then fuck you, I’m nostalgic. However, I recognise that time’s arrow only points one way, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Twitter used to be a rhizome of watercooler conversations, and it still is — but the big numbers and fierce competition for attention, exacerbated by the monetisation of said attention, means that Metcalf’s Law has kicked in. Winner takes all; either you go big, or you go home.

There are backwaters and oxbow lakes, of course: Black Twitter, for instance, clearly provides a vital space for mobilisation for a demographic which desperately needs more such spaces, and the way in which messages from there can leak out into the global town square is clearly beneficial. But there is no avoiding the fact that those speech-acts are also polarised by definition, and hence attract speech-acts of the opposite polarity with all the inevitability of anions attracting cations. Compressed communications are highly reactive or volatile, to continue the chemistry metaphor, just as boiling down a solution will tend to polarise its pH toward acid or base. One of the great joys of Twitter — because make no mistake, it is a space that has brought me a lot of joy and good friends and interesting information over the years — is the way in which it gives everyone a voice. But as anyone with a marginal opinion will tell you, that is also its great horror; for every SJW, a G*merG*tor.

(And as repulsive as you might find either one of those two tribes, know that for sure that the tribe that revolts you feels an almost identical revulsion to your tribe. The medium is the message; you don’t have the bandwidth to be anything more than the affiliation ((or lack thereof)) in your biog-blurb, and they don’t have the bandwidth to look any further than it. Black hats versus White hats is the only game in town. You are Other, and that’s that.)

There are also attempts to ameliorate the problem: private and/or alt accounts, curated lists, so on and so forth. But this reminds me a lot of what it was like to live in a compound in a foreign city, as I did for a few years as a child; the compound is quite literally an oasis of comfort and familiarity, but that only serves to enhance the fear of what’s outside. This seems a particularly cruel irony in the case of Twitter, where in order to flee the echo-chamber of the town square, we simply try to build a smaller echo-chamber with a more exclusive guestlist… and the hypothetical end-game of that paradigm, if you think about it, is a return to a non-town square form. In order to “fix” Twitter, we’re trying to make it into not-Twitter. But even as the compound doesn’t feel like the city outside, the compound is still constrained by its being a polder; it is inherently defined by what it is trying to exclude. The compound is a contradiction, and living in a contradiction is exhausting; the walls of the dyke must always be maintained and strengthened, even as that which it holds back is studiously ignored.

But like I say, maybe it’s just me, or just people with whom I share some significant psychological overlap. Lots of folk I know seem to be able to manage that contradiction, or find the town square vibe thrilling and congenial, and I wish them luck — hell, I think I maybe even envy them, in a way. But I’m prone to anxiety and depression; large crowds have always made me nervous, and mob phenomena are terrifying — although it is a function of my white male Anglo privilege that I’m much more likely to be part of a mob rather than its victim, and I fully acknowledge that I have less to lose by giving up on any given medium than those who lack the luck of birth and circumstance I have.

Nonetheless, I’ve had enough. The literature on CNS stimulants such as amphetamines or MDMA talks about the “law of diminishing returns”, whereby as one becomes habituated to a stimulant, one needs ever larger doses to recapture the incredible high of the first few hits; at the same time, the lows of the comedown become ever deeper, and arrive more swiftly. I am sick of Twitter like an addict eventually becomes sick of speed or pills, and I do not have the psychological fortitude to carry on regardless of the increasingly obvious cost to my mental health.

I’m not saying “Twitter = bad” — though that’s exactly how this post will be tweeted if anyone decides to pick it up out there in the Twittersphere. Twitter’s just another extension of the human sensorium, another cybernetic part of us — and like us, it contains both good and bad, contains the potential to enact both good and bad. But I do not believe it to be determinist to suggest that the form of Twitter, per McLuhan, means that it is inevitably a polarised black-and-white space… and I crave the detail and nuance that only comes when there’s at least some bandwidth for a greyscale, if not even full colour.

Nor am I claiming that some mass renunciation of Twitter and a return to the slower, longer conversations of blogging would return us to some idyllic cultural golden age. The lid on Pandora’s box can never be closed; we can never go back, only forward. Perhaps Twitter will evolve into a slower, less brutally competitive ecosystem; perhaps a new ecosystemic niche will emerge; perhaps (and most likely, IMHO) social media will turn out to be yet another of the periodic new-medium fads our civilisation has been prone to, like the letter, the telephone, and so on. Only time will tell.

But I’ll be waiting the time out somewhere else, I think. As Michael Franti once reminded us, hypocrisy is the greatest luxury, and I’ll be keeping my Twitter account for announcing blog posts like this one — in the wider ecosystem of which Twitter is merely a subsystem, I literally cannot afford to disappear entirely, just as many do not have the luxury of even the partial renunciation which this essay announces. But privilege is at its worst when it is wasted, and the Skinner box that is Twitter is a demonstrable waste of whatever it is that I am.

So I’m done with it. Thanks for the memories, and I’ll be here if you need me.