Marshall McLuhan

We Live In A Gossip Column From Which There Is No Escape

This quotation from Marshall McLuhan, more than “global village” or “the medium is the message,” exemplifies what a prophet he was. He wrote these words in the 1960s, several decades before the Internet. All he needed was the wired world of phones, radios, and above all television to foresee not only how all other thought would be drowned out by gossip, but how much it would oppress us. For him, redemption was a physical as much as psychic necessity–such thinking was built into his orthodox Catholicism. In baptism or reconciliation, sins are truly washed away, their imprint removed from the universe, an act which is impossible if they are squirreled away in a database somewhere with Luciferian avarice, always ready to be brandished in accusation or sold for gain.

When our devices don’t let us forget, we can’t move on.

As the record of our daily written communication is fused with our phones, something sinister is happening to our memories of other people, especially those who have died.

William Gibson has described information technology as a form of prosthetic memory, and I agree with him. Written language exists as much to store the past as it does to communicate the present. Accounting records may actually have been the first use of written language, which would make extending human memory writing’s primal function.  Inscriptions to memorialize the glory of the powerful dead followed soon after.

Luke O’Neil recently recounted the strangeness of living with his late father’s last text messages. They record banalities, but also invite him to further communication with the dead every day, hovering just at the edge of his attention, like an advertisement. What he and his father tapped out without a thought have, by proximity alone, been asked to bear the weight of mourning, and they are doing a poor job of it.

We have always used written communication to remember the dead. We have had letters and books and tombstone inscriptions, but these are all deliberately chosen and set aside from daily life. Before digital communication, we could choose to remember our dead in a way that was true and relevant. In contrast, our accidental digital memorials are shoved at us every day by the grim mechanics of our technology. We live forever in the horror of Emily Dickinson’s vision of banality at the last moment: “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”

I have written elsewhere about the need to relieve ourselves from the burden of perfect digital memory, and how Marshall McLuhan got it right when he said:

“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”

Our prosthetic memory is attached to us at too many nerve endings. When we can remember everything, memory is simply noise. We burn out on memory and, by extension, the present moment, which is no less than life itself.

Meeting the President

Because of my habit of saying awkward things to famous people, I was determined not to say anything to Al Gore last week. We were in the same room because he was getting an award at the Interfaith Center of New York’s annual dinner, where I was filling out the table of a friend and donor to the center where I work. Despite my determination, at the cocktail reception I found myself turning around and suddenly shaking hands with the most famous person in the room.

As he took my hand in his, he looked right into my eyes and greeted me with respect and openness. For a long moment, I felt as if I were the only person in the room with him. It was dazzling. This is remarkable when you consider how often he has had to greet strangers. Summoning the psychic energy to do so over and over again with genuine respect, or even its convincing simulacrum, must require monastic levels of strength and discipline. I once saw the performance artist Marina Abramovic make a moving piece out of honoring strangers one by one with her full attention in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Gore’s presence was equally striking.

I had a front row seat to his remarks later in the evening. He was introduced and humanized for the crowd by his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. She recounted her childhood admiration of her father’s ability to balance large objects on his nose for long periods of time. He had once, she said, explained the theory of nuclear disarmament by using salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table. As a girl, she had confronted him one morning with the front page of the Washington Post, showing the picture of a woman suffering in the Bosnian conflict, and asked why America wasn’t doing more to help. That same day Gore told this story to Clinton’s national security team, kicking off a conversation that eventually changed US policy. From the surprised reaction of James Parks Morton, a Gore family friend sharing the stage with her, I surmised that this wasn’t the usual patter trotted out to personalize her father’s public appearances.

Then Gore got up and cast his spell over the room. Because of my time in the Whiffenpoofs and my work in New York’s not-for-profit galaxy, I have been to my share of fancy dinners with the 1%, and one of their tribal quirks is to talk through events where basic politeness would require silence (as when the Whiffenpoofs are singing, for example). I can’t explain this behavior, but I have come to expect it, so the silence in the room during Gore’s remarks surprised me.

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The Right to be Forgotten

A court in the EU has recently upheld the complaint of a man who said that the Google hits associated with his name should be taken down, on the grounds that they were no longer relevant to his life. As somebody with a very distinctive name, I applaud this decision. When you Google me, there is no doubt who you’re getting information about. I’m grateful that none of my stupid mistakes in life have ended up as an electronic record somewhere. But if they ever did, there would be no way for me to avoid having them easily accessible to everybody in my vicinity with a smartphone, for the rest of my life.

Up until the advent of the World Wide Web, an ineradicable reality of life was the erosion of our old decisions, thoughts and in essence, selves. Like a snake’s former skin, they fell away, to be replaced by who we were becoming in the present. We have always had to take responsibility for our actions, but that’s not the same as being pursued by a perfect and ever present and ambiently available record of them, forever. Yet this is the future that technology is taking us in, and those of use who aren’t running huge Silicon Valley companies don’t have any say in the matter.

As Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s (and as I quoted back in 2011):

“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”

How he could’ve seen this so early on I don’t know. His gift of prophecy is eerie sometimes. McLuhan was a traditional Catholic, and for him the erasure of earthly mistakes through the mechanism of divine forgiveness was an important part of living a full life. Along with forgiveness came the ability to atone for and move on from one’s mistakes. Perhaps he felt there was something more than a little Luciferean about a world where that process was hampered by technology.

The pain of having all our mistakes remembered forever is a symptom of what we used to call information overload, but it’s not a symptom that anybody saw coming. We all knew we were going to have trouble organizing increasingly massive amounts of information usefully so it could become a basis for our decisions. We didn’t know that forgetting some of that information was an essential part of the process.

Predictably, Google’s response to the EU’s ruling is to call it “anti-business,” and their zombie objection has been echoed by the Financial Times. Here’s the first sentence of what is supposed to be an objective article on the topic (at least I assume so, since it was their lead news piece and not in their Op-Ed section):

A landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling against Google in Europe risks damaging the next generation of internet start-ups and strengthening the hand of repressive governments looking to restrict online communications, Larry Page, the search company’s chief executive officer, has warned.”

You could be forgiven for reading that first sentence and internalizing it as the main take-away on the issue, rather than the opinion of Google’s co-founder. The FT really is a bit much, sometimes. Their piece doesn’t even make the nod to the idea that technology should serve people and not just businesses or the ideology of innovation at all costs.

Here’s a much more thoughtful report on the “right to be forgotten,” from TIME’s incomparable Lev Grossman. In the piece, he says: “Just because something is technologically feasible, and part of a business plan, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Amen to that.

How media reshapes our consciousness

“All of us have become the unwitting workforce for social change.” -Marshall McLuhan

Lincoln Douglas Debates (source: wikimedia commons)

In nineteenth century America, it was common for citizens to gather and listen to dense political oratory for hours at a time.  At the first of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln proposed that the debate be split in half to make it easier on the audience.  The two men would share the podium for just four hours before lunch and three hours after—even with the break, an excruciating stretch of time by today’s standards.  Yet the crowd that day reportedly listened with rapt attention for the full seven hours, only breaking their silence to express support or disagreement, or to applaud a well-turned phrase.  Nineteenth century audiences regularly gathered by the thousands to perform similar feats of sustained attention.[1]  Neither Lincoln nor Douglas were considered prolix, yet just one of Lincoln’s responses that day ran to over sixteen thousand spoken words.

In contrast, the entire televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in September of 1960 ran to fewer than ten thousand words. (more…)

Marshall McLuhan’s unmediated faith

by Bill Baker & Evan Leatherwood

by permission from The Catholic Herald, where this piece originally appeared.

Marshall McLuhan, who coined “global village” and “the medium is the message,” and who predicted the internet and the rise of social media, was born a century ago this past July.  He is considered one of the 20th century’s intellectual giants.  Along with Marx, Freud, and Darwin, McLuhan is one of those rare thinkers with a persuasive “theory of everything.”  He was also a devout Catholic, who taught almost exclusively at Catholic universities and attended mass nearly every day of his adult life. (more…)