Marshall McLuhan: Creativity in a world without boundaries

mansaram-mcluhan cropIn 1996, Gary Wolf, a writer for Wired Magazine, noticed that someone calling himself Marshall McLuhan was posting comments on the Wired website.

This struck Gary as more than just a little curious, since Marshall McLuhan had been dead for more than sixteen years.

Not one to be put off by such details, and sensing one hell of a story, Gary emailed the deceased media guru and asked him to do an interview.

Marshall McLuhan agreed, and the highly unusual exchange that followed, was published in Wired Magazine (you can read it here).

When questioned about the experience, Gary concluded, “If the author was not McLuhan himself, it was a bot programmed with an eerie command of McLuhan’s life and inimitable perspective.”

Now, whether or not you believe in Marshall McLuhan’s ability to conduct interviews from beyond the grave, the fact is, he was never a man to be limited by boundaries.

Unlike most Western knowledge.

For the last five hundred years, since the invention of the printing press, Western culture has divided human knowledge into a number of separate, discrete silos.

So for example, if you want to find a book in your local library, whether you realise it or not, you would be finding your way around by using something called the Dewey decimal classification system.

This ingenious little system was introduced by Melvil Dewey in 1876, and makes it really easy to find any book in the world by its subject matter. In order to do this, all human knowledge is divided into ten broad areas:

000 – Generalities

100 – Philosophy and Psychology

200 – Religion

300 – Social Sciences

400 – Language

500 – Natural Science and Mathematics

600 – Technology (Including Applied Sciences)

700 – The Arts

800 – Literature and Rhetoric

900 – History and Geography

These ten areas are then each divided into ten divisions, each having ten subsections. The structure is hierarchical and the numerical convention follows this structure. So each subdivision gives increasingly specific subjects within a broader subject area, for example:

500 Natural Science and Mathematics

510 Mathematics

516 Geometry

516.3 Analytic geometries

516.37 Metric differential geometries

516.375 Finsler Geometry

The great strength of the Dewey System is that it allows the reader to find any given subject and drill down into it to discover more and more specialized levels, within that subject.

But that is also its weakness.

Because whilst you can explore data vertically as much as you want, you cannot explore data horizontally.

So you cannot, for example, move easily from, say Neuroscience to Advertising. And a book that has the audacity to cover both will be forced to choose one or the other.

The Dewey System is a perfect model of the way that we in the West, have interacted with information, since the invention of printing.

And this creates extraordinary limitations on the way that we do our research, the way that we make our scientific discoveries and the way that we educate our children.

But all of this was to change utterly with the advent of the digital age.

50 years before anybody ever updated his Facebook page or posted his whereabouts on Twitter Marshall McLuhan not only predicted the creation of the internet, he also predicted most of it’s defining characteristics.

And he coined the phrase “surfing” to describe the way we would all navigate our way in a non-linear fashion through the sum total of human knowledge.

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A double page spread from “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” (1967). Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan had not only predicted the creation of the internet, he had also predicted most of it’s defining characteristics… including the phrase “surfing” to describe the way we would be able to navigate our way, in a non-linear fashion, through the sum total of human knowledge.

In this way, all human knowledge suddenly becomes interconnected in a ways that were previously inconceivable.

And there is no better expression of this world without boundaries than the “Mashup”.

Mashups are perhaps the defining characteristic of late 20th and early 21st century culture. Whether it’s music, video, literature, or software a mashup combines material from two or more sources to create something that is simultaneously 100% derivative and 100% original.

Mashups work by linking two separate cultural expressions, and seeing how they inform and influence each other.

For sheer comedy value the farther apart the two elements are culturally, the funnier the result.

Try this simple thought experiment: think of a subject, any subject let’s say for example, Death Metal.

Think of another as far removed from that as possible, say, monks of the Benedictine order.

Now put them together and Hey Presto… you’ve either got the basis of a new TV comedy (Benedictine monks form Death Metal Band… with hilarious consequences) or the next novelty music hit (Death Metal meets Gregorian chant.)

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Mashups are perhaps the defining characteristic of late 20th and early 21st century culture. They work by linking two separate cultural expressions, and seeing how they inform and influence each other. For sheer comedy value the farther apart the two elements are culturally, the funnier the result.

In many ways, mashup techniques have become the default methodology for creativity in the digital age because they work so consistently well.

In fact, no lesser an author than J.K Rowling used the mashup technique, when she took the narrative conventions of the genre commonly known as “Sword and Sorcery” and mashed this up with that most beloved genre of English children’s literature… the boarding school novel. (A genre made famous by Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings, and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers amongst others). And created the most successful children’s books of all time… the Harry Potter novels.

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J.K Rowling created a classic mashup, when she took the narrative conventions of “Sword and Sorcery” and mashed this up with that most beloved genre of English children’s literature… the boarding school novel.

But for McLuhan, the instantaneous nature of electronic media had implications far beyond the cultural mashup.

McLuhan had shot to international stardom in the 1960s with radical ideas about the effects of media on human consciousness.

For McLuhan, the introduction of any new medium, whether it is the invention of alphabetic writing, the printing press, or television will always affect our central nervous system by becoming an extension of one or more of the five human senses.

Thus the introduction of any new medium has the effect of distorting the way in which we perceive reality.

So every time there is a significant new development in media, there will also be an equally significant impact on human consciousness.

For McLuhan, the most significant effect of electronic media was to dissolve the traditional barriers that segmented knowledge into separate compartments. And in particular the eradication of our traditional notions of “Time” and “Space”.

This “allatonceness” – as McLuhan terms it – created by digital media allows us to connect across the complete range of human knowledge and experience. Instantaneously dissolving the divisions between, say, language and mathematics, art and advertising, opera and pop music, distance and proximity and the living and the dead.

In “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” (1967), a book he co-created with graphic designer Quentin Fiore. Marshall McLuhan describes the dramatic impact that is being brought about by the arrival of electronic media:

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication…

The alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment. Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement…

Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village…a simultaneous happening.

Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information.

Our electrically configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience co-exist in a state of active interplay.”

And yet these ideas about the effects of media on human consciousness, although radical were not entirely original.

McLuhan was particularly indebted to Harold Innis, professor of political economy at the University of Toronto and the author of a number of seminal works on media, and communication theory.

McLuhan was indebted to Innis not just for giving the young McLuhan a framework for his ideas about media, but also for giving him permission to ignore cultural boundaries in his search for a greater understanding of the effects of media on culture and consciousness:

“I remember the excitement I felt when I first realized I didn’t have to restrict my studies to literature. Innis taught me that I could roam through all history and all subjects in search of the true meaning of the medium is the message.

My friend… who teaches economics at Toronto University tells me that F. von Hayek says, “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.”

Likewise, no student of media studies can afford to be only a student of media studies. A man who only reads about TV is as good for a man as a steady diet of coke and chips.”

Ignoring all the usual boundaries between academia and popular culture, contemporary creativity and ancient literature, McLuhan became the most extraordinary synthesizer of the ideas of others.

From the Ukrainian Scientist, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky , and French Jesuit philosopher, Teillhard De Chardin he took the idea of the “Noosphere”, as the basis for his notion of the “The Global Village”. Walter Ong’s account of what he calls the “oral-to-visual” shift was, in his own words, “hammered out with great agony” in his 1958 book “Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue”. And was to greatly influence McLuhan’s first major publication, “The Mechanical Bride”.

But, without doubt, the greatest influence of all on Marshall McLuhan’s were neither philosophers nor media theorists… but a little known revolutionary art movement, which had appeared on the eve of the first World War in Britain.

This movement was called “Vorticsm” and although it had little impact on the world at the time, the men behind it, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce and T.S Eliot would go on to shake the culture of the English speaking world to it’s very foundations.

These “Men of 1914”, as McLuhan was fond of calling them, set out do destroy many of the artificial boundaries that separated high art from low art, and would both define the key characteristics of the Modernist world, and help bring it into being.

Through their influence on McLuhan, however, they would also prefigure and define the key characteristics of the digital age (including the invention of the cultural Mashup). And help bring the digital age into being.

Next: Allatonceness: McLuhan and the Men of 1914

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