Tuesday, May 05, 2015

McLuhan’s Prescience and the Death of Science & Reason

Marshall McLuhan was truly a man ahead of his time. Starting in the late 50s, he foresaw the sea change that the “electronic age” was hearkening; moving us from he called the “literate man” (cool, detached, rationale and individualistic) to the “post-literate man” (engaged, tribal). McLuhan believed new electronic technologies like the radio, telephone, television, record player and the like were fundamentally changing our lives. And without even knowing of the cell phone or Internet, or even personal computers, he suggested that we were moving toward a “global village” where the entire world would be connected culturally, economically and politically. This suggestion, of course, became reality as globalization accelerated in the 70s and then exploded in the 90s. His notion of the implosion of space and time is particularly relevant here, as the internet, 24-hour news cycle and smart phones have truly shrunk the world down to the filters you use and your download speed. And he also argued that television would force us to take sides in the ongoing struggles of the time, rather than sitting back coolly, which turned out to be true with the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and the host of political issues that have emerged ever since (including, of course, the shooting of unarmed black men today).

He claimed a lot of these changes occurred because different mediums demanded different ratios of sensory perception, over time fundamentally changing the way we “sense the world” and thus “live in the world.” These sense ratios come to define our relationship to each other and ourselves. And today those sense ratios demand almost instantaneous reaction to constant sensual stimuli, arguably meaning less time to contemplate, consider and compare. In other words, in a world where action and reaction are almost simultaneous, we rely more on external cues of how to think and act in particular situations. Given this new reality, McLuhan then made some of his most radical claims about a future where the spread of mysticism, spirituality and retribalization would fundamentally change our lives. And it is those claims that I’d like to briefly consider today.

The first claim was that contemporary life was pushing us away from individualism and toward group membership, what he called “retribalizing.” The idea was that readily available and compelling images of different lifestyles and the reduction in the time to think and react led people to act more like teenagers than adolescents, seeking group affiliation and conformity. This was, of course, the norm in the 50s and early 60s, as he wrote the book, but after the cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s, we appear to find ourselves more tribal than at any point in recent memory. Sure there are more choices than in the past, but really the genius of the modern advertising spectacle is the way it sells nonconformity through conformity itself. Buy this product and you will be cool and unique, even though we are selling it to a bunch of other people at the same time. Worship this celebrity for their lifestyle and then buy the products that move you closer to them. And, of course, there is social networking, which allows one to create and then interact with networks of similar minded people (in their taste preferences, political views, etc.) and to isolate yourself from those who don’t agree with your values, beliefs, political ideologies or even musical choices.

This ability to insulate yourself to ideas and people that disagree with you, or are not like you, is one of the odd byproducts of the “electronic” or “digital” age we live in. Rather than opening the world up to us, as the Internet, social networking and new media can, many use these technologies to create a new insularity very much like the old tribal cultures of the past. In fact, one could argue that the political partisanship we experience today is a perfect example of this new tribalism, along with the radical fundamentalism we see in the U.S. and across the globe. Looking to the news, we can quickly find endless examples of these trends, including the two men who attempted to attack an art show in Texas that featured cartoons of the prophet Muhammad (ISIS has now taken credit for the attack, though it is unclear whether that is in fact true)

One of the byproducts of tribal mentality is a tendency to blindly believe what adherents and leaders tell you and to question, or simply reject, the ideas of those outside your tribe (there is even a psychological term for this: “inside group cognitive bias”). This is the great danger of political insularity, not only leading people toward fundamentalist ideologies (which are always a danger to democracy, but to discount truth in deference to chosen fictions. And thus, as McLuhan argued, it could be that the “electronic age” ushered in a period where we moved away from reason and science and back toward mysticism and faith. We can certainly see examples of both of these trends at work in the U.S. today. The first is the constant battle that is waged to undermine long held shibboleths about scientific truth and separation of church and state. In fact, we can see three Republican Presidential Candidates who perfect embody this anti-science position. Retired doctor Ben Carson, who believes the human brain is too complex to have been created by anyone but God, Rand Paul (the ophthalmologist), who questions the age of the earth and Ted Cruz (the Harvard alum) who continues to argue against evolution and for creationist, are just three of the slate of candidate who also question global warming, spread junk science on vaccines and seem willing to consider any outlandish theory that mobilizes their base.

The fading line between truth and fiction is, of course, one of the central themes of postmodernism but the striking ways that it has influence the political arena in America over the past 20 years is hard to ignore. From the justification for the Iraq War and the belief by many that we did, in fact, find weapons of mass destruction to the many falsified Clinton scandals (both Bill and now Hillary) and the endless debates about a host of issues that are easily resolved with simple research, we are mired in a world where the truth is in the eye of the beholder, not attached in any way to the world, and debates go on endlessly about issues that are long resolved. The intense partisanship in America, the rise in conspiracy theories, the evangelical call to reinsert religion into our politics and schools, the battles over gay marriage and birth control, the war on terror (that the conservative party in Canada is about to ramp up) and the war on democracy all relate in some ways to the world McLuhan envisioned over 50 years ago. Mysticism, spirituality and tribalism. None are terrible on the surface, but when they become the defining memes of an epoch, truth, science and reason are just bygone ideals of a forgotten world.

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