Wednesday 1 May 2013

Eric McLuhan on The New Culture - Part II

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.


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 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 about a talk delivered to a group of university rectors at the Lateran University in 2009, in which he discussed certain pressures that students face today. Dr. McLuhan’s points from his unpublished 2009 talk continue from Part I as follows.

Part II

5. The aesthetic of these circumstances derives from manipulations of being. Each new medium brings with it a new mode of group being, a new WE … Each new medium collects older ones as “features” even as it becomes included in others as a feature — a process that will continue until all have become features of each other. Their future is features. Gadgetry. Narcissism for the self-less.

What did Eric McLuhan mean by this statement? It seems to echo, in part, two classic points from Marshall, that 1) electronic media will restore “tribal man”, and 2) that each new medium contains its predecessor. Manuscripts contained the previous “oral accounts”, just as radio “contained” the newspaper story, and television “contained” the radio report, while the Internet contains all previous media as a pole around which they gather and converge. Since the dominant medium in a society determines the nature of our social being, the Internet will eventually consume us or become an endless reflection of ourselves, which is essentially the same thing.

It is curious how a certain hubris always seems to be tied to the latest gadgetry. From the Walkman in the 1980s to the cell-phone in the 1990s, technology has been mass marketed as desirable less from utility but more from the image of “coolness” or control that it evokes. We may be advertently or inadvertently cultivating this self-image when we use our tools, more than considering their utility. This is ultimately a diminishment of our rationality and human dignity.

6. The crowd of electrified nomads has no natural boundaries: it overleaps all natural and physical limitations. It is exempt from natural law.

Is media technology contributing to the trend against acknowledgment of a natural law? Emerging mind/body dualism risks turning us into subjectivists of a high degree, in which the world is largely what I, the ghost in the machine, decide it to be. The Gnostics, of course, elevated spiritual reality over the fleshiness of real life, with the result that they either had an ascetical and puritanical distain for corporal reality, or a licentious distain that indulged in the flesh — in both cases distain, since the body didn’t matter! I maintain that today we need to “resacralize” or sacramentalize the material dimension of reality. The theology of the body was a good start on this, especially its recovery of the sense of the spiritual language that our bodies impart. Liturgy is supposed to achieve the same effect, in a climactic unity of matter and spirit.

7. Every aspect of our networked world is global: there is no more local.

Is local dead? Is it possible to “think globally and act locally”? I am hopeful that it is possible, but I suspect that one’s ability to live in the rootedness of a particular place is proportionate to one’s discipline in limiting the role of electronic media in one’s life. Some today make deliberate efforts to have a lifestyle that focuses on the local and “real”, and prioritize the people we live with over digital friends. As Benedict XVI wrote in the World Communications Day message of 2009:
It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbours and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation. If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.
In his 2012 message, the Pope wrote that we should seek to cultivate in our lives “a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.” This way, we can find the means to genuine communication with one another (and with God). This perhaps is the solution.

8. The last characteristic concerns the impact on identities. The Church teaches that each of us is endowed with an individual soul since conception, and the concomitant, an individual conscience. … The alphabet literally paved the way for these matters. These are New Testament times; the Old Testament, for example, had declared the Jews a chosen people — group salvation.

Eric McLuhan is pointing out that the Old Testament was more about communal or national salvation, whereas in Christ we are redeemed as individuals (think the personal baptism instituted in the new covenant or the “I believe” professed in the creed). There remains a corporate or communal dimension to the church, of course, but our individuality in this ecclesia is a reflection of the Trinitarian union of distinct persons in one Godhead.

Marshall had a startling line in a private letter to Jacques Maritain in which he said that electronic environments provide “a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ” (The Medium and Light, 72). If we are evolving into some kind of inter-connected electronic global consciousness, for Marshall it was nothing to be enthusiastic about if it diminished personality, freedom and responsibility. It is ultimately not a true union of hearts and minds, but a kind of digital herd mentality, a collective consciousness about everything and nothing.

In the end, I believe it boils down to being people of discernment. Are we masters of our tools or are they masters of us? Do they assist us in living with and for others, or do they divert and distract us from the reality at hand? This is the challenge we face as we become a culture that is increasingly “plugged in”. To do so, let us find the silence and not be afraid of what it might say to us.


  1. John - every paragraph has something great to chew on. (And I'm glad you used Mary and family as examples of people living deliberately, and in the real!) I also love Pope Benedict's comment about an ecosystem where we have equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds. That gives us a very tangible direction in which to walk through our day and ponder how that equilibrium is going. Good way to check oneself. Your last sentence is a joyful challenge, I think. Because in the end the contentment and the better ability to love, through silence, is where our peace is found.

  2. My sister's blog was a bit random, but it came to mind when thinking about lifestyles that have chosen to embrace the "real" in a intentional and comprehensive way. I'm sure I'm biased, but I admire their philosophy, which has deliberately kept technology in a subservient position, measures its relation to their priorities, which are centred on what Albert Borgmann calls 'focal things and practices': sacraments, family meals, outdoors, tactile learning, literature, music, and good incarnational fun.

    While she and her husband would probably lament the lack of "silence" in their lives with four busy boys, I would argue that silence is not just the absence of noise, but a state of being where recollection and contemplation is possible. If sacraments, reading and music are part of that life, then I think that balance is present. -John