Ong & McLuhan

We often think of technology as the most recent revolutionary innovations of our own time. The “tech” beat in today’s journalism is dedicated to software and gadgets, rarely considering anything other than computers and the things consumers can do with them. So it can be a helpful corrective to take a long view of technology, and to think of some of our most basic, taken-for-granted ways of communicating as technological.

The phonetic alphabet, for instance, and the ways of forming its letters into writing, is a fairly recent innovation in the scope of human history. It was not the first kind of writing or media but it was important, as Walter Ong shows us, for a number of reasons. For instance, alphabetic writing allowed for the spread of written documents outside of cultures that produced them, making possible the circulation of knowledge separate from the individual who possesses it. Writing transforms speech into space, removing language from its moment of utterance and the individual who produced it. The written alphabet democratized knowledge and formalized the study of rhetoric, leading toward many further developments in intellectual culture. And as Marshall McLuhan would agree, the alphabet was an essential precursor to a much more profoundly transformative technology, the printing press. For McLuhan, print caused one of two stages of massive change in human sense perception and social organization, bringing about not only nationalism and industrialism, but a specific form of human understanding, of “man.” If phonetic alphabetic writing was a bombshell, McLuhan argues, the printing press was a 100-megaton H-bomb. Only the electronic media of his own time, particularly television, equals print in significance. So these historical developments of epochal importance were, for both Ong and McLuhan, the ultimate products of a technology we hardly even consider to be technology: letters, along with the media used to create and circulate written texts.

Technologies of communication are any kind of tools for transmitting meaning from one person to another, and simpler, older tools might be no less productive than newer and more noticeable ones. We never stop living in the world made by alphabetic writing. Indeed, our own recent experiences of transformation in mediated communication are crucially dependent on the alphabet: messaging, texting, tweeting, updating statuses of many kinds, are new genres of writing that in some ways take the place of oral communication. Our highly computerized social interactions adapt some of our oral habits of conversation to a written format, pairing traditions of both oral and written cultures in a form of exchange still highly reliant on the phonetic alphabet. Despite advances in voice interfaces, it’s hard to imagine giving up the affordances of written communication even in such a technologically sophisticated world as can be imagined in the near future.

There are many ways of seeing technology’s impact on society, as Nancy Baym discusses in “Making New Media Make Sense.” The idea that the phonetic alphabet caused a chain of later outcomes, such as the study of rhetoric or the rise of print nationalism, might be characterized as “technological determinism.” Ong and McLuhan alike see technologies as change agents. For instance, the title of Ong’s chapter, “Writing Restructures Consciousness,” and the most famous phrase of McLuhan’s, “the medium is the message,” both paint technology as a force shaping meaning and giving society and the individuals within it certain ways of thinking and being. Sometimes, however, it seems that critics might overread the claims made for technologies as causal agents. For instance, Ong might really mean that people used writing in ways that led to the restructuring of consciousness, such as thinking of time in more abstract ways and separating facts from the individuals who testify to their truth. The phrasing of his title could work as a kind of shorthand. McLuhan, however, is much more fervid in his insistence that technologies are key agents shaping the societies in which they become powerful forces. When he insists that no matter the content, TV tattoos itself on your skin, he is making a more powerful claim than Ong ever ventures.

Many of McLuhan’s most important assertions come from novel interpretations of effects of living in a society dominated by one medium in particular. Despite the many forces which can shape an individual’s psychology (family, peers, school, work, religion), McLuhan insists that the dominant medium in a society is the force that produces a particular “sense ratio” in each person. In oral cultures, where the spoken word is the dominant medium of communication, McLuhan sees a “tribal man” who inhabits an audile-tactile world of sensory integration. The senses are harmonious and the acoustic space makes the tribe cohere as one; tribal society in oral cultures has none of the individualism characteristic of later modernity. The argument for print bringing about a new conception of “man” in which the senses fragment, with the visual sense coming to dominate, is entirely a function of the new technology of the press transforming society. By being a “hot” medium demanding the full concentration of the individual through a single sense, the printed word made for new ways of perceiving and experiencing the world, the linear and sequential order described by the young person in the cartoon above. The “message” of a medium is thus not a theme or moral or lesson of any particular instance of communication. It is the character of the society as a whole produced by that medium.

The medium is much more powerful, according to this theory, than anyone had ever thought. Ordinary people live entranced by a “Narcissus narcosis,” unable to apprehend the contours of their reality. “Fish don’t know water is wet till beached.” This counterintuitive, mysterious power of the medium was part of the appeal of McLuhan’s thought, making him seem like a sage or guru with a deeper understanding of modern society than anyone else, capable of revealing media’s true functions and effects to those willing to struggle to understand him.

What must have made him most compelling, however, was his diagnosis of the contemporary scene as one undergoing transformation as radical as the print revolution. Like Ong, who compares worries over the effects of writing with similar concerns about computers, McLuhan addresses his theory to a modern reader who notices change all around and wants to know its implications. This is often how observers of technology see the present: like Tom Wheeler in his book Net Effects, we consider the present to be a hinge in history, a key moment of passage from one era to another. Sometimes this can seem like a compliment we pay ourselves, as witnesses to radical historical change.

The electronic media of the 1960s, according to McLuhan, were breaking society out of the sensory ratio of print culture and substituting a return to the sensory integration of “tribal man.” The cause of the retribalization was the electronic media and in particular TV, which he argued was a medium of hearing and touch rather than vision. Because of television’s low-definition picture, McLuhan denied that it was a medium like print or cinema that commands the full attention of one’s eyes. Instead he saw TV as a “cool,” participatory medium, involving its spectator using multiple senses to fills in its content.  The electronic media were furthermore characterized as extensions not of a single sense, like vision or hearing, but of the central nervous system itself. The electronic media, what he calls “new media” (including computers), would function to bring together a global village of participants whose central nervous systems, extended through technologies of communication, are integrated in a new tribal community.

While describing a world transformed by television and other new media, McLuhan also sees the future as a replay of the past. The retribalized society shaped by television is a return to oral culture’s environment of sensory integration that preceded the age of print. One way of thinking about this historical scheme is as a Christian narrative of innocence, fall, and return to paradise. There is comfort in thinking of the new as deceptively familiar and of the days to come as a redemption of something lost. One persuasive way of making new media make sense can be to put it in a recognizable context, a new version of something we have already seen. Marshall McLuhan argued that media were the most important force moving society in a new direction, but like many scholars of technological change, he also regarded technological breakthroughs to be bringing about a replay of the past.

More: McLuhan links I posted a few years ago, when I taught an earlier version of this class.


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