Wednesday 17 April 2013

Eric McLuhan on The New Culture

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

Part I

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Eric McLuhan, son of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and a communications scholar in his own right. Eric has been continuing his father's line of reflection and insight since the 1970s and has authored or co-authored some half-dozen books. He gave me a helpful recommendation for my thesis, a work by Swiss philosopher Max Picard on silence that transformed my outlook on human communication.

McLuhan and I later corresponded on a few questions concerning the new digital technology that is becoming pervasive today. In the course of this exchange, he told me that in recent years, he had delivered three talks in Rome on the subject, which remain, to my knowledge, unpublished. The first talk was to a group of university rectors at the Lateran University in 2009, in which he discussed certain pressures that contemporary students face. He made main eight points, all sharing a certain similarity, but together constituting a typically “McLuhanesque” reflection – original, sometimes counter-intuitive, but always illuminating. His main points were as follows, in his words, with my own modest and querulous commentary.

1. The electric crowd (or mass audience) is invisible, composed as it is of de facto intelligences with no bodies.

McLuhan’s insight here is arguably the gravest concern from both a Catholic and a human point of view: the dis-incarnational aspect of the new electric culture. The union of body and mind is being divided as our minds live more in a more artificial virtual environment. Are we widening Descartes’ division between "res cogitans" and "res extensa", that is, between the person as a thinking being and the person as a physical being. I suspect this dualism is at the root of many problems in western society, from how we understand our sexuality to how we do or do not serve our neighbour. The Catholic view, it bears repeating, is that each person is a composite being, a body and soul held in a unity.

2. Minus a physical body, the use of electric media can be in two or two dozen or two million places simultaneously. On the Internet one is simultaneously everywhere the Internet reaches.

In being “everywhere” at once, do we risk being nowhere, and does this contribute to the listlessness and anxiety of youth today? To have peace, one live a certain "here and now" quality. Does the Internet tend to remove us from an awareness of that reality, through a psychic separation from immediate surroundings?

3. The electric crowd, composed of new nomads who haunt the metaphysical world, cannot have distant goals or directions or objectives (“being” is trumping “becoming”).

Cultural events, such as the student protests in Montreal, seem to bear this out. A society without a clearly defined telos has only the assertion of vaguely defined rights, which can degenerate into a culture of desperate entitlement. What T.S. Eliot wrote in “Tradition and Individual Talent” concerning literature seems applicable to our society as a whole: we need to be aware of what has come before us and where we are going if we wish to contribute to the direction of our “becoming”. It's hard to have goals or direction when there are virtually unlimited choices. Does the Internet play into the formation of this mentality of endless miasmic choice, as we range from hyperlink to hyperlink in search of an ever-elusive final fulfilment?

4. People without physical bodies use participational imagery to generate the emotion and aesthetics of being — the only reality left after leaving the physical world behind.

Have you ever noticed that a lot of people today — the young in particular — poise as if they were in a movie, act as if cameras were filming at them at all times? The importance of self-image has never been more exaggerated, hyped beyond reason by a society saturated with commercial advertisements, all telling us how to look and how to be. The digital world is the ultimate chimera, a world where we can manufacture and be manufactured by image unreservedly. We return to the online world to find our affirmation: of our constructed self-identity, and of our need for happy, sad, mad, bored and entertained emotional needs. Yet it is Umberto Eco who posed the warning: “A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for hypnosis”. Never have we had a greater need for silence and experience of “the real” to restore us to balanced appraisals of our lives and their purpose.

(This continues in Part II...)


  1. While it's true that there is a risk associated with the internet's far-reaching character (point 2), I would argue that we should not underestimate the potential good that can come of this reach. There are tremendous opportunities to educate oneself (reading a blog, for example), and to reach out to others in ways that can be genuinely meaningful, for all that they are not tactile. Any shy person is familiar with the paradox that a party may look incredibly social but feel incredibly isolating (or the other way around), and I think we see that on the internet as well. It has the potential for both harm and benefit.

  2. I agree. What I think the communications and technology philosophers are trying to identify are the liabilities and losses that might get lost in the glow of the media's great and undeniable benefits. McLuhan said "We make our tools, and then our tools make us" -- an invitation to critical reflection if there was one! Thanks. -John

  3. Wow, John. So the question is: How do we get off the train? I find myself lately saying "I choose silence." And I consciously do so. I always think about the youth, and of course, my own kids. The image, the posing, the awful self-consciousness...I can't imagine having to grow up with that. Don't know the answer - it seems to me if one isn't conscious of all this, one is just bound to get sucked into the addiction. (What an uplifting comment!)

  4. Hi Regina: I don't want to scare anybody (well, not too much!). These points of E.M.'s are probably similar to what Marshall McLuhan called "probes" -- provocative statements designed to elicit critical thinking and discussion. The end result of all this, I hope, is greater balance in our lives. Email, social media, etc, all have a positive role to play. We just don't want them to take over the essential of who we are.

    It's fairly normal for teens to be self-conscious. Our goal in forming them should be encouraging them to have experiences that take them "outside of themselves": encounters with the real, the outdoors, helping others/volunteering... fanning the sparks of altruism that will make them into mature Christians. And lots of faith! -John

  5. Why this concern about discarnate or bodyless mediated communication when we’ve had nearly 600 years of Gutenberg print culture in which writers & readers have been separated and invisible to each other? The Internet is an extension and expansion of that print culture, as well as human consciousness, but is still evolving in an anthropotropic way towards greater lifelikeness, according to Paul Levinson. Internet users are not intelligences sans bodies any more than Shakespeare, Joyce or any author is or was bodyless, except after death. Their texts capture and convey their spirit which is a manifestation of living bodies and all that living bodies can leave behind after death. Internet users, like writers, live locally in a physical world, but can communicate globally with anyone they can connect with, without ever leaving their physical bodies behind. If it wasn’t a concern with books, which mediate authors, why is at concern with the Internet? The Internet is not some monstrous, soulless evocation of a machine world, but the global extension and realization of consciousness that Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere. See .

  6. My apologies for providing the wrong link for noosphere. It should have been . For some reason your blog did not allow me to login via Wordpress, which holds my blog, and logging in via Google identified me with gibberish. My name is Alex Kuskis and I publish the McLuhan Galaxy blog at .

  7. Thanks for your great points, Dr. Kuskis, which bear much consideration. The Internet is bringing about much that is good. MOOCs (massive open online courses) are but one example, especially for the poor or those geographically distant from prestigious schools that create them. There is much that is up for debate here, especially for educators. It's almost at the point where we might ask whether we should have classes at all!: better teachers have taught the same material and made it available to all practically free-of-charge online. It comes back, I believe to less a question of incarnational reality, and more that of relationality or relationship. I think we'll agree that learning is more than - to use the computer metaphor - the mere transfer or downloading of information, but a complex process that involves the "relating" of knowledge and an experience of absorption or learning. I'm sure this can be done well through online courses, but my confidence is greater in graduate students where there's already a more "formed" and disciplined learner at the other end.

    Books and print media are disembodied knowledge, I agree. Concerns over the Internet's ascendancy in the social and cognitive spheres are legitimate, however, and at least deserve some attention. Carr describes many of them in "The Shallows": lowered attention spans, literacy, long-term memory retention, contemplative capacity, and so on. I don't know the future, but if each new class of post-secondary students are any indication, the trend seems to be towards a lowering of these capacities. All I argue myself is that we have enough perspective on what our devices and their platforms are asking of us. McLuhan encourages us to "pay attention". Some anti-enviornment can go a long way to helping us remain free individuals who exercise intellect and will in our use of electronic media, so that they serve to contribute to the enhancement of our humanity.

    As for the noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin -- his notions are certainly debatable. McLuhan seems to have parted ways with him regarding enthusiasm for an emerging electronic consciousness. What does a global or cosmic consciousness even look like? What are the implications for personhood when consciousness becomes "one"? -John O. P.S. I greatly enjoy your blog.

    1. With regards to the noosphere, Teilhard was clear that its positive development not only preserves but enhances personhood and personality. It occurs through charity. I haven't read what he had to say about “electronic consciousness“, but Teilhard did reject social movements where the individual is lost: hence his forthright disapproval of Marxism and similar forms of socialism. (It should also be pointed out that the noosphere for Teilhard is not a new phenomenon, but appeared along with the emergence of the human species.)