Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reflections on McLuhan's picture of "our age of anxiety"

Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools and yesterday's concepts. (Marshall McLuhan)

Although he has been deceased for decades (he died in 1980), there continues to be much truth in McLuhan’s insight. Positing his “the medium is the message” ironic twist to a previous truth (the content was the message) McLuhan awakened both anxiety and amazement than most Canadian intellectual giants. Radio and film, as 'hot' media, focusing on a single sense, and spoon-feeding the audience, as compared with comic books, a cool medium, in their engaging of the audience, formed a template created by the media 'guru' that has been at the centre of his work for decades. 
 Beginning with a new kind of literacy, the kind that “read” images, as compared with words, McLuhan pioneered a fresh approach to the education fraternity, in an attempt to help students adjust to a world barely known to their teachers. We grew up with “hard copy” books, poems, short stories, plays and newsprint. There were movies, but they had barely begun to be considered part of the corpus of “world literature”. They were still thought of more as “entertainment.”

 It was in 1969 that I bought my first 8 mm camera, (a Vivitar), enrolled in a “history of film” course, and attempted to produce and direct a highly amateurish movie version of George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984 in a grade twelve “tech” class of eighteen-year-old male students. Such courses were rare entries in university calendars, and the instructor came from Vancouver as a summer lecturer. There were some fifty films included in the syllabus of that course, including Citizen Cane, and The Triumph of the Will, the propaganda piece on the Fuehrer, by Leni Reifenstahl. 
Such “technical” aspects as camera angles, lighting, sound effects including the musical score, lens types (gauze, wide angle, close-up), film speed that examined the frames per second, (the larger the number the slower the pace of the film, and vice versa), and “transitional edits” were among the features we learned to look for, and take our baby steps in trying to appreciate their meaning, purpose and impact. There was a sense of adventure in exploring a medium that depended on the viewer’s capacity and openness to assimilate the montage of images that flowed past the eye, the mind, the psyche and the heart.

Having been a radio ‘nut’ in my youth, and experiencing my first exposure to television in the Spring of the year I left for university (1959), I had a much more attentive “ear” to radio sounds and popular music than I did to cameras and photo images. I cannot remember if there was even one course in film studies at the university during my undergrad years. (I doubt it!)

So, the transition, and transformation that happens when a culture’s focus moves from books and paper, radio and the telephone to television and photographic images, as the staple of both entertainment and learning experiences, while not nearly as dramatic as the current cultural transformation from television and typewriters and hot lead print to digital images, and the technological hardware and software that drive them. Nevertheless, it was the wave that the North American culture rode in the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century.

Remember the first televised presidential debate took place in the campaign between Kennedy and Nixon in the 1960 race for the White House. There have been presidential historians who have speculated that F.D.R., confined to his wheel chair would have had considerable difficulty being elected once let alone three times, if he had had to use television rather than radio to campaign. So just imagine the gulf that has been crossed since that first televised debate, to the twitter universe, facebook, snapchat and all of the other myriad of platforms available throughout the world today.
McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ would have to be completely re-thought today. 

And if we were to take a first look, very superficially, we would be somewhat chagrined that the medium of twitter/facebook etc. might be the message, and not the minimal and often seriously impaired ‘verbal” content of those platforms. Of course, it will take another generation or two to fully comprehend and fully appreciate the potential of these digital media, although their ubiquitous use now is being used as one of the defining features of a nation’s notion of individual freedoms and rights. So in that sense, the access to the new media is part of the message of political freedom, and thereby citizen opportunity.

For those of us who spent decades at the front of English classes, we are deeply saddened at the near total loss of the capacity to spell, and to read beyond the literal and the denotative level of language, not to mention the almost complete abandonment of the “cursive” ability to write one’s own name for school children. It they want to learn how to ‘write’ (cursive) they enrol in something called “calligraphy” as an “art” option since it is no longer an integral part of the “regular” (compulsory) curriculum.

Although legibility is less problematic, a feature that removes considerable anxiety from the practice of drug dispensaries, doctors’ writing being almost beyond readable, the montage of both letters and imogees and photos both still and streaming is generating what could easily be considered a completely new way of communicating.

Such communication also separates the millennials from their parents and their grandparents, since the latter generations would be able to “translate” only fragments of the message. “Rap” too, another melange of sound, rhythm, emotion, body language and political rhetoric, represents another “new language” in our contemporary culture. (One has to wonder how much time people preparing to enter the law enforcement profession spend learning how to read, listen to and interpret/translate “rap”!)
Have you noticed too the use of repetition, (to our ears, ad nauseum) in many of the popular tunes played on commercial radio, on ITunes, Utube and the other music platforms? A single phrase repeated up to twenty times in the space of thirty seconds hardly qualifies as a serious and creative use of music composition.

Yet, a tweet should not be the primary tool of communication for a presidential candidate either! So much for nuance, subtlety, the mastery of complicated files and the intellectual timbre that was historically considered a minimal requirement for serious contention for high public office. They are all relegated to the museum in the current political climate.

And it is not only adjusting to the new languages of the digital technology that brings McLuhan to mind. It is also the growing gap between the current laws and conventional cultural expectations of ordinary citizens in a world in which such massive shifts of capital, labour, intelligence and the environment have almost completely rendered political and legal and professional organizations out of touch and out of step with the responsibilities they are charged with fulfilling. The more suction and storage capacity we develop and deploy to manage information, including metadata, the larger grows the gap between those in charge of both the collection, storage and interpretation, not to mention the dissemination of that information. Body cameras, security cameras on the street corners of many cities, thumb prints and iris images as marks of one’s identity as just the tip of the iceberg of the gap in both content awareness and power differentials between ordinary people and the “establishment” whose access to the secrets entombed in those many vaults, on those many hard drives is unfettered, compared with the “public” access, awareness and inclusion in the new circle of “knowing”.

This gap between those who “know” and those who will never “know” even what they do not know, inevitably generates a deficit of trust, seemingly even a hollow cave empty of trust, and thereby of confidence among ordinary people. There is a case to be made that this gap between those “inside” and those “outside” the circle of the public discourse, normally considered to be filled with a set of agreed pieces of information, as well as a conventional method of making sense of the patterns of that date, is one of the serious impediments between those in the various institutional “establishments” and the people who send them there, whether by vote or indirectly by appointment through the normal channels of the elected representatives.

Everyone knows and agrees that the pace of new technological developments has already outpaced our human capacity to absorb, to assimilate and to adjust to a purposeful and a meaningful relationship between our lives and the new technology. All of us are playing catch-up and will be for the rest of our lives. Even though our children and grandchildren have and will continue to spend far more time in front of their “screens” doing all of the various things they can do (and this list is growing daily) than we will, they will experience a kind of scepticism about the gap between their perception and comprehension of the world and our’s. The normal gap between individual perceptions and world views is not under consideration here. It is the cultural gap, the conception of the universe that comes from the capacity to “talk” and to “see” anyone anywhere in real time, through the technology of the chip, along with all of the other “transactions” that are possible in all of the other spheres of human existence, that comprises a generational separation that could rival the shift from agriculture to industrial cultures.

Another shift in both perception and conception of the world is the shift to a nano-second as the normal unit of time, compared with a former university lecture “hour” of fifty minutes, a laboratory session of two hours. Meals are often punctuated by cell phone or tablet messages, thereby rendering the family dinner table vulnerable to a new way of being in the same room. “Presence” can no longer be considered in the manner of only a few decades, a time period of being with another, that frequently knew no limits, or at least rather loose time limits.

Another implication of the idolatry contemporary culture displays in its worship of the new technology is the sound of the suction of millions of people from the pews, the choir lofts, the organs and the pulpits on thousands of churches. Accompanying this suction is the silence that fills the collection plates in those same sanctuaries, and the ca-ching of the real estate deals completing the sales of those historic pieces of architecture from the churches to the new land-developers.

While there is greatly enhanced opportunity for everyone to apprentice their “photo” skills and talent, and thereby the visual literacy of the next generations will inevitably be significantly better than was/is our’s, the kind of potential human connection, community if you like, seems to be threatened, at least in the physical sense. How can anyone be fully present to a face-to-face conversation when those encounters are constantly interrupted by the invasion of some too often vacuous message on a digital device? The short answer is, “You can’t!”

While it is truism of the capitalist world that “they require stability” and “constancy” and a sense of what are the rules, people too rely on some semblance of normalcy, stability, constancy and predictability. These qualities rely to a considerable extent on getting to know ourselves, on getting to know and experience a few others, both family and friends, and on spending time “with” others. Flitting like gnats from text to text and twitter to twitter, from utube song to utube song, and from email to email, (although the latter take at least a few minutes to “write”) is hardly the stuff of community, connection, relationship-building and feeling an integral part of something that is outside of and bigger than one’s self.


A basketball team, a swimming team, a hockey team….they are all worthy activities, and kids need them still. It is the time away from ‘scheduled’ time, away from competing for marks, competing for part-time jobs, competing for championships,,,just hanging out together than could be one of the prices of our new technology whose size and significance we will not begin to know until another few decades of digitization have stamped their feet on our psyches.

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