Marshall McLuhan 1965 – The Future of Man in the Electric Age
Kermode: In a sense, you have been a historian as you’ve gone about your work. Let’s talk rst a little, if we may, about your book The Guten- berg Galaxy, where you argue that for a long time, without actually understanding it, we’ve been living in a culture in which our whole way of looking at the world has been determined by typography, by the successiveness of print and so on. Would you like to enlarge on that a bit?
McLuhan: Well, I remember I decided to write that book when I came across a piece by the psychiatrist, J.C. Carruthers, on the African mind in health and disease, describing the e ects of the printed word on the African populations – it startled me and decided me to plunge in. We have a better opportunity of seeing our old technologies when they confront other populations elsewhere in the world – the e ects they have on most people are so startling and so sud- den that we have an opportunity to see what happened to us over many centuries.
Kermode: Yes, which we couldn’t see because we’re inside the system.
Kermode: Don’t you say that what happened was that we got used to having our information processed as it is in print – that is to say it’s set out successively – whereas at the root of your thoughts, perhaps, there’s the view that we can see the world as an image instanta- neously, but that we’ve chosen, under the pressure of a technolo- gy, to set it out successively like a block of print.
Well, every technology has its own ground rules, as it were. It de- cides all sorts of arrangements in other spheres. The e ect of script and the ability to make inventories and collect data and store da- ta changed many social habits and processes back as early as 3000 BC. However, that’s about as early as scripts began. The e ects of rearranging one’s experience, organizing one’s experience by these new extensions of our powers, are quite unexpected. Per- haps one way of putting it is to say that writing represents a high degree of specializing of our powers.
Compared to pre-literate societies, there’s a considerable concen- tration on one faculty when you develop a skill like scripting.
Kermode: Well, this is the visual – what you call the visual sense.
Yes, this is a highly specialized stress, compared to anything in or- dinary aural societies. There’ve been many studies made of this in various ways, but in our own Western world the rise of the pho- netic alphabet seems to have had much to do with platonic culture and the ordering of experience in the terms of ideas – classifying of data and experience by ideas.
Kermode: You mean that sight has become the pre-eminent sense, as it was with Plato, and it went on being so in so-called civilized, as op- posed to primitive, societies?
Increasingly so, to the –
Kermode: – and climaxed with the invention of printing –
Printing stepped it up to a considerable pitch, yes.
Kermode: Now, how would you describe the impact of the invention of the printing press? Give us some instances of what happened as a con- sequence of it.
It created – almost overnight it created what we call a national- ism, what in e ect was a public. The old manuscript forms were not su ciently powerful instruments of technology to create pub- lics in the sense that print was able to do – uni ed, homogeneous, reading publics.
Everything that we prize in our Western world in matters of in- dividualism, separatism, and of unique point of view and private judgment – all those factors are highly favored by the printed word, and not really favored by other forms of culture like radio or earlier by the manuscript. But this stepping up of the fragmented, the private, the individual, the private judgment, the point of view, in fact our whole vocabularies, underwent huge change with the arrival of such technology.
Kermode: Now, could I ask you about the technology which, in your view, is superseding it and which is having its own e ect on our lives, com- parable with, though of course entirely di erently in kind to, the Gutenberg technology?
Well, the Gutenberg technology was mechanical to an extreme de- gree. In fact, it originated a good deal of the later mechanical revo- lution assembly-line style and the fragmentation of the operations and functions as the very rationale of industrialization.
This fragmentation had begun much earlier, after the hunter and the food Gatherers, with Neolithic man. I suppose, in an extreme way, one might say Gutenberg was the last phase of the Neolithic revolution. Gutenberg plus the industrial revolution that followed was a pushing of specialism that came in with the Neolithic man, the agrarian revolution – pushing of specialism all the way, and then suddenly we encountered the electric or electromagnetism, which seems to have a totally di erent principle. It is, some people feel, an extension of our nervous system, not an extension merely of our bodies?
If the wheel is an extension of feet, and tools of hands and arms, then electromagnetism seems to be in its technological manifes- tations an extension of our nerves and becomes mainly an infor- mation system. It is above all a feedback or looped system. But the peculiarity, you see, after the age of the wheel, you suddenly en- counter the age of the circuit. The wheel pushed to an extreme sud- denly acquires opposite characteristics. This seems to happen with a good many technologies – that if they get pushed to a very dis- tant point, they reverse their characteristics.
Kermode: What difference is the electric technology making to our interest in content in what the medium actually says?
One of the e ects of switching over to circuitry from mechanical moving parts and wheels is an enormous increase in the amount of information that is moving. You cannot cope with vast amounts of information in the old fragmentary classi ed patterns. You tend to go looking for mythic and structural forms in order to manage such complex data, moving at very high speeds, so the electric en- gineers often speak of pattern recognition as a normal need of peo- ple processing data electrically and by computers and so on – a need for pattern recognition. It’s a need which the poets foresaw a century ago in their drive back to mythic forms of organizing ex- perience.
Kermode: Well, here we are, a couple of archaic literate men, Gutenberg men, talking on the television. What is the audience getting from this? Is it listening to what we’re saying, or is it feeling the impact of a new electric medium?
There is a book called Is Anybody Listening? It’s what worries the advertising men a great deal. The idea of feedback, of being in- volved in one’s own participation, in one’s own audience partici- pation, is a natural product of circuitry. Everything under electric conditions is looped. You become folded over into yourself. Your image of yourself changes completely.
Kermode: In the other book, Understanding Media, where you … use a kind of slogan, I think the expression is the “medium is the message.” Would you like to illuminate that?
I think it is more satisfactory to say that any medium, be it radio or be it wheel, tends to create a completely new human environ- ment.
The human environment, as such, tends to have a kind of invisible character about it. The unawareness of the environmental is com- pensated for by the attention to the content of the environment. The environment as merely a set of ground rules and as a kind of overall enveloping force gets very little recognition as a form, ex- cept from the artist. I think our arts, if you look at them in this con- nection, do throw quite a lot of light on environments. The artist is usually engaged in somewhat excitedly explaining to people the character of new environments and new strategies of culture nec- essary to cope with them. Blake is an extreme case of a man who was absolutely panicked by the kind of new environment that he saw forming around him under the auspices of Newton and Locke and industrialism – he thought it was going to smash the unity of the imaginative and sensory life all to bits. But the artist, what he was insisting upon in his own lifetime, became quite a popular and widespread movement later.
Kermode: Can I return to television because here we are, whoever’s listening to us, is also undergoing the impact of television at the moment. On your view, they’re all deceiving themselves insofar as they’re paying attention to what we’re saying, because what’s going on is a medium which is in itself the image that they ought to be concern- ing themselves with.