Monday, September 1st, 2014
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I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women,
French to men, and German to my horse.

—Emperor Charles V

But in which language does one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response? The questions arise from the accelerating data-streams out of which we’ve learned to draw the breath of life, posed in consultation with the equipment that scans the flesh and tracks the spirit, cues the ATM, the GPS, and the EKG, arranges the assignations on Match.com and the high-frequency trades at Goldman Sachs, catalogs the pornography and drives the car, tells us how and when and where to connect the dots and thus recognize ourselves as human beings. Why then does it come to pass that the more data we collect—from Google, YouTube, and Facebook—the less likely we are to know what it means?

The conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing fifty years ago the presence of “an acoustic world,” one with “no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis,” a new “information environment of which humanity has no experience whatever.” He published Understanding Media in 1964, proceeding from the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Media were to be understood as “make-happen agents” rather than as “make-aware agents,” not as art or philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers. Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought.

To account for the transference of the idioms of print to those of the electronic media, McLuhan examined two technological revolutions that overturned the epistemological status quo. First, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, which deconstructed the illuminated wisdom preserved on manuscript in monasteries, encouraged people to organize their perceptions of the world along the straight lines of the printed page. Second, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the applications of electricity (telegraph, telephone, radio, movie camera, television screen, eventually the computer), favored a sensibility that runs in circles, compressing or eliminating the dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into montage, the word replaced with the icon and the rebus.

Within a year of its publication, Understanding Media acquired the standing of Holy Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age. The New York Herald Tribune proclaimed him “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.” Although never at a loss for Delphic aphorism—“The electric light is pure information”; “In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin”—McLuhan assumed that he had done nothing more than look into the window of the future at what was both obvious and certain.

In 1964 I was slow to take the point, possibly because I was working at the time in a medium that McLuhan had listed as endangered—writing for The Saturday Evening Post, inclined to think in sentences, accustomed to associating a cause with an effect, a beginning with a middle and an end. Television news I construed as an attempt to tell a story with an alphabet of brightly colored children’s blocks, and when offered the chance to become a correspondent for NBC, I declined the referral to what I regarded as a course in remedial reading.

The judgment was poorly timed. Within five years The Saturday Evening Post had gone the way of the great auk; news had become entertainment, entertainment news, the distinctions between a fiction and a fact as irrelevant as they were increasingly difficult to parse. Another twenty years and I understood what McLuhan meant by the phrase, “The medium is the message,” when in the writing of a television history of America’s foreign policy in the twentieth century, I was allotted roughly seventy-three seconds in which to account for the origins of World War II, while at the same time providing a voiceover transition between newsreel footage of Jesse Owens running the hundred-yard dash at the Berlin Olympics in the summer of 1936, and Adolf Hitler marching the Wehrmacht into Vienna in the spring of 1938.

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Lewis H. Lapham is the editor of Lapham's Quarterly.

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