How McLuhan’s Rejection of Experts Presages Wikipedia
Wikipedia & The Death Of The Expert
Bob Stein, founder and co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book (and co-founder, in 1984, of the Criterion Collection company) has been writing persuasively in this vein about Wikipedia for years now. I asked him recently to give an update on his views, and he said that if I wanted to understand the significance of Wikipedia, I should read Marshall McLuhan.
“Go back and study the shift in human communication, what McLuhan called ‘the shift to print,’” he said. “The place where an idea could be owned by a single person. One of McLuhan’s genius insights was his understanding of how the shift from an oral culture to one based on print gave rise to our modern notion of the individual as the originator and owner of particular ideas.”
According to McLuhan, Bob explained, “the ownership of an idea” was made inevitable by the invention of printing; it is this era that we are outgrowing, as McLuhan foresaw. “If the printing press empowered the individual, the digital world empowers collaboration.”
Straight Outta Cambridge
“The ruinous authority of experts […] was McLuhan’s lifelong theme.”—Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (1989)
McLuhan’s chief insights centered around the idea that technology strongly affects not only the content of culture, but the mind that creates and consumes that culture. He maintained that technology alters cognition itself, all the way down to its deepest, most elemental processes.
His 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy is a difficult, disorderly, weirdly prescient and often dazzling book. Reading it is like riding on an old wooden rollercoaster that is threatening to blast apart at each turn; it isn’t organized into chapters and doesn’t make a linear argument; its insights throw off sparks in all directions. On the surface, The Gutenberg Galaxy is about the end of an evolutionary progress from print (“linear,” “authoritative”) to digital (“collaborative” “tribal”) ways of reasoning.
McLuhan prefigured the Internet era in a number of surprising ways. As he said in a March 1969 Playboy interview: “The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the Logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of harmony and peace.”
McLuhan came of age at Cambridge, the cradle of modern literary criticism, in that groundbreaking moment when (a) the role of readers and (b) the world at large suddenly became matters of interest to literary scholars. As the New Critics would come to do in the U.S., the Cambridge gang sought the meaning of a literary work in the text itself, in its means of communicating its message to a reader.
Before these rationalists came on the scene, literary criticism had a mystical character rooted in the Romantic ideas of guys like Walter Pater, who viewed literary production and consumption both as occurring through the inspiration of an almost divine agency. (The phrase “purple prose” might have been invented for Pater, who was given to such turns of phrase as “to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”) Artists ranging from the Pre-Raphaelites to Oscar Wilde bought into this super-aestheticized model of understanding art and literature, but it was ill-attuned to the rationalist demands of a post-industrial society (though we aren’t yet quite free of this idea of the Muse striking us with the inspirational equivalent of Cupid’s dart; Harold Bloom, for example, is still forever blathering on about Pater.)
Modern criticism was also born out of frustration with the hidebound academics who appeared to believe that English literature had ended in the 17th century. F. R. Leavis, an influential critic who taught McLuhan at Cambridge, was among the first who dared to rank Pound and Eliot alongside Milton. The view of the scholarly establishment on both sides of the Atlantic had theretofore been that it would take you a lifetime simply to master the recondite joys of Milton; that was the true and real study of literature, and nothing written in our own lifetimes was ever going to count. It took some serious English-department renegades to alter those convictions. Studying under Leavis at Cambridge, McLuhan developed the beginnings of the lifelong distaste for “expertise” and “authority” that would come to characterize his work.
McLuhan took Leavis’s methods far beyond literature, though. Just as, in Leavis’s view, a poem imposed its own assumptions on the listener, created its own world, so too did every medium of communication force its own methods of connection into the human mind. The late David Lochhead, a Canadian theologian, did a lovely job of explaining McLuhan’s approach in 1994.
It is not only our material environment that is transformed by our machinery. We take our technology into the deepest recesses of our souls. Our view of reality, our structures of meaning, our sense of identity—all are touched and transformed by the technologies which we have allowed to mediate between ourselves and our world. We create machines in our own image and they, in turn, recreate us in theirs.[…]
Our machines allow us to reach out beyond the limits of our flesh. Our machines alter the ways in which our senses feed us information about the world beyond. […] Our machines offer us an image of ourselves — an image, which like the reflection of Narcissus, can hold us transfixed in self-adoration.
McLuhan drew from many, many sources in order to develop these ideas; the work of Canadian political economist and media theorist Harold Innis was instrumental for him. Innis’s technique, like McLuhan’s, forswears the building up of a convincing argument, or any attempt at “proof,” instead gathering in a ton of disparate ideas from different disciplines that might seem irreconcilable at first; yet considering them together results in a shifted perspective, and a cascade of new insights.
In the familiar, linear method of argument, it’s as if the author were a trial attorney and the reader a juror. By contrast, the McLuhan/Innis method is more like throwing the reader in a helicopter, taking him somewhere far away and simply exposing him to a vast new panorama. These authors wanted not to make and sell their own “point of view,” but to take you on a head trip instead.
As McLuhan writes in The Gutenberg Galaxy:
Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of the urgent need for insight … When he interrelates the development of the steam press with “the consolidation of the vernaculars” and the rise of nationalism and revolution he is not reporting anybody’s point of view, least of all his own. He is setting up a mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight … Innis makes no effort to “spell out” the interrelations between the components in his galaxy. He offers no consumer packages in his later work, but only do-it-yourself kits, like a symbolist poet or an abstract painter.
All these elements—the abandonment of “point of view,” the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing “of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either,” the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from “authorship” (brought about by the emergence of a “hive mind”) is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.
How neatly does this dovetail into a subtle and surprising new appreciation of the communal knowledge-making at Wikipedia?! It’s no wonder that McLuhan is among the patron saints of the Internet.
It’s no accident, either, that from grad school onward McLuhan was involved in collaborative projects that drew in a wide variety of disciplines, institutions, students, and paths of inquiry. If the results were chaotic (and they often were) they were also vital and thrilling. He worked with educators, corporate executives, computer scientists and management theorists; he helped develop high-school media syllabi, designed a study relating dyslexia to television watching, and conducted sensory tests for IBM. (For more on McLuhan, I can highly recommend Philip Marchand’s fine biography, The Medium and the Messenger.)
McLuhan’s insights, though they are being lived by millions every day, will take a long time to become fully manifest. But it’s already clear that Wikipedia, along with other crowd-sourced resources, is wreaking a certain amount of McLuhanesque havoc on conventional notions of “authority,” “authorship,” and even “knowledge.”
Read the full article here: http://tinyurl.com/3jnjofv
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