The End of Memes or McLuhan 101

02May17

Media and Formal Cause (2011) by Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan
by Mark Stahlman, President, Center for the Study of Digital Life, with Deborah Newman, Doc Searls, Peter Berkman, Ben Stolz, Jeff Martineau, Scott Talkington, Adam Pugen, and Tom Lipscomb     –     May 1, 2017

McLuhan 101

What many miss about McLuhan is that his entire work was an attempt to understand how technologies have massive pre-conscious psychological effects on those who’ve been habitually using them since childhood. In his landmark Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), McLuhan described this as a process of “shaping our attitudes and behaviors.” His colleague John Culkin, in his A Handful of Postulates (1966), put this as “We shape our tools and, thereafter, they shape us.” McLuhan himself often summarized this understanding in terms of a Gestalt: figure and ground. Without this basic concept, McLuhan cannot be grasped. This is McLuhan 101.

No, this does not make McLuhan a “technological determinist.” That derogatory term is based upon an impoverished view of causality. In fact, McLuhan is widely cited for his comment, “Nothing is determined.” What McLuhan was talking about when he used the word “shaping” was a very different sort of causality. In philosophy, this is called formal cause and, as Marshall’s son and collaborator Eric has insisted, that was all his father ever cared about.

Formal cause has been largely ignored for centuries in the West, highlighting McLuhan’s own intellectual roots in the “scribal” Middle Ages, long before the printing press. McLuhan describes the effects of this in The Gutenberg Galaxy: Making of Typographic Man (1962). In modern terms, formal cause is roughly analogous to “structure” or “environment” or “paradigm.” In psychological terms, formal cause means those technological influences that condition the early-stages of learning, which substantially define the “wiring” of our initially plastic brains.

Yes, in this way McLuhan could be considered the “patron saint” of understanding how we are each “wired” by the invisible technological environment in which we live. Alas, that is not what Louis and Jane meant.

Figure – Ground Perception

The Inevitable Defeat of Memes

Communicating this notion of the unremitting “invisibility” of technological effects in our lives as they shape us in ways we deliberately refuse to acknowledge was McLuhan’s greatest contribution and — simultaneously — his greatest failure. Perhaps McLuhan should be considered as a breakthrough psychologist instead of as a “media guru.” His times were the same as those of Freud and Jung et al, and, in many ways, his goal was to provoke a widespread recognition of the need to consciously understand patterns that were being constructed in the human pre-conscious mind. Thus: Understanding (the pre-conscious effects of) Media.

In the last decade of his life, after the attention that made him a counterculture icon — and that landed him on Wired’s masthead — had faded, and his Monday Night Seminars were filling up with walk-ins, the McLuhans — father and son — devised their final contribution, which they thought so important that they described it as a “new science.” This was the Tetrad, in which these pre-conscious effects of human technological artifacts were organized into a quartet of simultaneous impacts on the human psyche: Enhance, Obsolesce, Reverse and Retrieve. Unpublished until after his death, the resulting Laws of Media: The New Science remains the most obscure of McLuhan’s works and is often ignored today by McLuhan scholars.

Laws of Media: The New Science (1992) by Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan

As Wired’s patron saint, Marshall is often credited with predicting the “digital typhoon” the magazine claimed to be writing about. But did he? Buried on page 188 of Laws, unnoticed by most McLuhan scholarship, is what may have been his single greatest observation. Using his Tetrad, McLuhan specified the effects computers have upon us all. In the critical “Retrieve” quadrant (the most fundamental from the psychological standpoint), he wrote “Perfect memory — total and exact.” It is this ability to remember (which computer do to us when we habitually use them), as opposed to the ability to suspend belief over the make-believe of television and similar types of media that mark the end of the effectiveness of memes under digital conditions.

As computer architects know, digital systems are constructed as hierarchies of memories. We experience this every time we access an URL or use the Web’s domain name service — both of which are just abstracted memory addresses. Computers, as it turns out, spend little time “computing.” Instead, at the micro-level, computers are endlessly busy storing and retrieving items from memory locations that were initially found inside the machine but are increasingly found everywhere throughout the world. Totally and exactly: just as McLuhan suggested over 40 years ago.

Digital technology is all about remembering. Thus, digital technology sounded the death knell for make-believe memes. This radical shift in our psychology towards memory was what McLuhan was reaching for as evidenced by his commitment to remembering the basis of Western civilization. With our new digital environment, this process of remembering has now become the ground of our daily experiences. If, as his one-time student Walter Ong suggested, electric media (telegraph, radio, television etc) threw us into a “secondary orality,” then digital technology pushes us towards a “secondary literacy.” We are now living in the digital paradigm.

Therefore, all honors deservedly go to “Saint” Marshall McLuhan, based upon whose insights we are now compelled to understand digital life. (The full essay from which this is an excerpt can be read at https://goo.gl/EUINMP )

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