A Technology Example of McLuhan’s Reversal of Cause and Effect

29Mar17

Elisha Otis free-fall safety demonstration in 1853

Posted to the MEA listserv on March 23, 2017 by Robert Logan:-

“Here is an item that appeared in this morning’s Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada: 
‘MOMENT IN TIME

The first elevator installed

March 23, 1857: Like most entrepreneurial inventors, Elisha Otis was a bit of a showman, too. Otis had invented an automatic safety device – a wagon spring, really – to keep an elevator from falling if its cable broke. With few orders, he took his “safety hoist” to New York’s Crystal Palace in May, 1854, and rode a platform high into the air – then ordered the rope cut. As people gasped, his assistant swung an axe, the hoisting line was severed, the spring snapped into place and grabbed the rails on either side – and the platform came to a sudden stop. His first safety elevator for passengers was for a building just five storeys high, the E.V. Haughwout & Co. store in New York. But his invention would make the skyscraper possible, transforming skylines around the world. – Massimo Commanducci’   (From the Toronto Globe & Mail at https://goo.gl/8yFsjx )                   – Bob

I share it because it illustrates McLuhan’s idea of the reversal of cause and effect. The effect of the Otis safety elevator was the cause of the skyscraper”.

New York City skyscrapers, 1883

 Paul Levinson replied later the same day, March 23, 2017, with the following related observation:-

“Great example – and it’s also an example of soft determinism, or necessary conditions.  The elevator was a necessary (not sufficient) condition of the skyscraper – part of the skyscraper’s ground.  Media determinism is a soft determinism, or a determinism of necessary conditions.  (Without radio there would have been no Hitler [Understanding Media] – without Twitter, no Trump [McLuhan in an Age of Social Media].)” – Paul

Otis Elevator Passenger Car, 1850s

Marshall McLuhan discusses this reversal of cause and effect idea in Chapter 1 of Understanding Media (The Medium is the Message):-

 Such economists as Robert Theobald, W. W. Rostow, and John Kenneth Galbraith have been explaining for years how it is that “classical economics” cannot explain change or growth. And the paradox of mechanization is that although it is itself the cause of maximal growth and change, the principle of mechanization excludes the very possibility of growth or the understanding of change. For mechanization is achieved by fragmentation of any
process and by putting the fragmented parts in a series. Yet, as David Hume showed in the eighteenth century, there is no principle of causality in a mere sequence. That one thing follows another accounts for nothing. Nothing follows from following, except change. So the greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant. With instant speed the causes of things began to emerge to awareness again, as they had not done with things in sequence and in concatenation accordingly. Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs”. (pp. 11-12)

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