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he told me that in recent years, he had delivered three talks in Rome on the subject, which remain, to my knowledge, unpublished.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...)