Marshall McLuhan’s Maelstrom Metaphor for Our Digital World (With the Assistance of Edgar Allan Poe)

21Aug17

Into the Maelstrom: How the Hyperconnected Age is Tearing Us Apart

By Jamie Stantonian   –   August 16, 2017

“Xerox or xerograpy enables the reader to become a publisher, and this is an important aspect of electric circuitry. The audience is increasingly involved in the process. With print, the audience was detached, observant, but not involved. With circuitry, the reader, the audience becomes involved in itself and in the process of publishing. The future of the book is very much in the order of book as information service.”

Information would become personalized, as one would “phone up” a service and say the type of subject you were interested in knowing, and you’d be sent a “xerox” bundle personally compiled and curated for you as an individual. He also could see that the mass media was making the world smaller, coining the phrase the “global village,” prophesying electronic media (as he called it) would have a “retribalizing” effect on us by shifting us back to oral rather than literate cultural patterns. While the idea of the global village has practically entered the common tongue, one lesser known metaphor ran through all of his work but perhaps summed up his thinking more totally; the Maelstrom. The term was drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, A Descent into the Maelstrom in which three fishermen were sucked into a gargantuan whirlpool while out at sea, and describes how they tried to escape the monstrosity:

“At first only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelstrom is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were pulled into it, he deduced that ‘the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent.””

 Poe 1848

For McLuhan saw the mass media as a titanic vortex pulling society towards new forms of behaviours — new ways of being — that threatened to completely overwhelm or even destroy it.

In the electric age, the fluid nature of information and the sheer amount of it thwarted our attempts at top-down classification methods so characteristic of literate culture. His hopes that like the sailor protagonist of the poem, that if we now study the perturbations and “configurations” of the mass media, we can make sense of it and devise a way escape its centripetal pull.

“The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with similar possibilities of evasion or consequences of destruction. By studying the patterns of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion and survival.”

At the same time McLuhan was captivating television audiences with his often cryptic prophesies and ideas, the political scientist Simon Herbert was discussing the evolving landscape of communication technology from a less poetic, but perhaps more practical perspective. When he coined the phrase “attention economy” in the early 70s, about 18 computers were attached to the internet. But even though the internet was still in its infancy, he could see how the growth of global mass media and cheap publishing were putting an increasing strain on our ability to collect and process information, writing that:

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Read the rest of this essay at https://goo.gl/kzw29N

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2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan’s Maelstrom Metaphor for Our Digital World (With the Assistance of Edgar Allan Poe)”

  1. 1 Randy Lumpp

    This is a very nicely done piece on one of McLuhan’s favorite and most comprehensive metaphors for today’s reality. Metaphors generate insight, as he said, by translating one kind of experience into another kind of experience. This captures forcefully inevitable effects of living in the global village.
    Thanks for this, Alex!

  2. Yes, I agree Randy and it’s good to hear from you. I hope you are well. Best wishes!……..Alex


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