McLuhan’s Catholicism

Just passing along a link to Nick Carr’s brief review in The New Republic of Douglas Coupland’s new biography of Marshall McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.  In the review, Carr makes the following observation:

Neither his fans nor his foes saw him clearly. The central fact of McLuhan’s life, as Coupland makes clear, was his conversion, at the age of twenty-five, to Catholicism, and his subsequent devotion to the religion’s rituals and tenets. Though he never discussed it, his faith forms the moral and intellectual backdrop to all his mature work. What lay in store, McLuhan believed, was the timelessness of eternity. The earthly conceptions of past, present, and future were, by comparison, of little consequence. His role as a thinker was not to celebrate or denigrate the world but simply to understand it, to recognize the patterns that would unlock history’s secrets and thus provide hints of God’s design. His job was not dissimilar, as he saw it, from that of the artist.

Below is a clip of the exchange between McLuhan and Norman Mailer that Carr references in his review:

One of my favorite YouTube videos is a clip from a Canadian television show in 1968 featuring a debate between Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan. The two men, both heroes of the ’60s, could hardly be more different. Leaning forward in his chair, Mailer is pugnacious, animated, engaged. McLuhan, abstracted and smiling wanly, seems to be on autopilot. He speaks in canned riddles. “The planet is no longer nature,” he declares, to Mailer’s uncomprehending stare; “it’s now the content of an art work.”

After watching the clip, I’ve got to agree with Carr; ten minutes well spent.


*See also Marx, Freud, and … McLuhan.

Drowning in the Shallow End

As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, we do a lot of our thinking and understanding through metaphors that structure our thoughts and concepts.  So pervasive are these metaphors, that in most cases we don’t even realize we are using metaphors at all.  Recently, metaphors related to shallowness and depth have caught my attention.

Many of the fears expressed by critics of the Internet and the digital world revolve around a loss of depth.  We are, in their view, gaining an immense amount of breadth or surface area, but it is coming at the expense of depth and by extension rendering us rather shallow.  For example, consider this passage from a brief statement playwright Richard Foreman contributed to Edge:

… today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become “pancake people”—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

The notion of “pancake people” is a variation on the shallow/deep metaphor — a good deal of surface area, not much depth.  I first came across Foreman’s analogy in the conclusion of Nicholas Carr’s much discussed piece in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” Carr’s piece generated not only a lot of discussion, but also a book published this year exploring the effects of the Internet on the brain.  Carr’s book explored a variety of recent studies suggesting that significant Internet use was inhibiting our capacity for sustained attention and our ability to think deeply.  The title of Carr’s book?  The Shallows.

What is interesting about metaphors such as deep/shallow is that we do appear to have a rather intuitive sense of what they are communicating.  I suspect we all have some notion of what it means to say that someone or some idea is not very deep, or what is meant when some one says that they are just skimming the surface of a topic.  But the nature of metaphors is such that they both hide and reveal.  They help us understand a concept by comparing it to some other, perhaps more familiar idea, but the two things are never identical and so while something is illuminated, something may be hidden.  Also, the taken for granted status of some metaphors, shallowness/depth for instance, may also lull us into thinking that we understand something when we really don’t, in the same way, for example, that St. Augustine remarked that he knew what “time” was until he was asked to define it.

What exactly is it to say that an idea is shallow or deep?  Can we describe what we mean without resorting to metaphor? It is not that I am against metaphors at all, one can’t really be against metaphorical language without losing language as we know it altogether.  It may be that we cannot get at some ideas at all without metaphor.  My point rather is to try to think … well, more deeply about the consequences of our digital world.  Having noticed that key criticisms frequently involve this idea of a loss of depth, it seems that we better be sure we know what is meant.  Very often discussions and debates don’t seem to get anywhere because the participants are using terms equivocally or without a precise sense of how they are being used by the other side.  A little sorting out of our terms, perhaps especially our metaphors, may go a long way toward advancing the conversation.  (Incidentally, that last phrase is also a metaphor.)

Here is one last instance of the metaphor that doesn’t arise out of the recent debates about the Internet, and yet appears to be quite applicable.  The following is taken from Hannah Arendt’s 1958 work, The Human Condition:

A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.  While it retains visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.

Arendt’s comments arise from a technical and complex discussion of what she identifies as the private, public, and social realms of human life.  And while she was rather prescient in certain areas, she could not have imagined the rise of the Internet and social media.  However, these comments seem to be very much in line with Jaron Lanier’s observation, that “you have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” In our rush to publicize our selves and our thoughts, we are losing the hidden and private space in which we cultivate depth and substance.

Although employing other metaphors to do so, Richard Foreman also offered a sense of what he understood to be the contrast to the “pancake people”:

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.

This is not necessarily about the recovery of some Romantic notion of the essential self, but it is about a certain degree of complexity and solidity (metaphor’s again, I know).  In any case, it strikes me as an ideal worth preserving.  Foreman and Carr (and perhaps Arendt if she were around) seem uncertain that it is an ideal that can survive in the digital age.  At the very least, they are pointing to some of the challenges.  Given that the digital age is not going away, it is left to us, if we value the ideal, to think of how complexity, depth, and density can be preserved.  And the first thing we may have to do is bring some conceptual clarity to our metaphors.

“Questionable Classrooms”

It’s been awhile since Nicholas Carr has made an appearance, so here is Carr’s recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Some highlights below.

On technology and teaching:

Q. Some professors are interested in integrating social technology—blogs, wikis, Twitter—into their teaching. Are you suggesting that is a misguided approach?

A. I’m suggesting that it would be wrong to assume that that path is always the best path. I’m certainly not suggesting that we take a Luddite view of technology and think it’s all bad. But I do think that the assumption that the more media, the more messaging, the more social networking you can bring in will lead to better educational outcomes is not only dubious but in many cases is probably just wrong. It has to be a very balanced approach. Educators need to familiarize themselves with the research and see that in fact one of the most debilitating things you can do to students is distract them.

On recovering one’s attention span:

Q. If the Internet is making us so distracted, how did you manage to write a 224-page book and read all the dense academic studies that much of it is based on?

A. It was hard. The reason I started writing it was because I noticed in myself this increasing inability to pay attention to stuff, whether it was reading or anything else. When I started to write the book, I found it very difficult to sit and write for a couple of hours on end or to sit down with a dense academic paper. One thing that happened at that time is I moved from outside of Boston, a really highly connected place, to renting a house in the mountains of Colorado. And I didn’t have any cellphone service. I had a very slow Internet connection. I dropped off of Facebook. I dropped out of Twitter. I basically stopped blogging for a while. And I fairly dramatically cut back on checking e-mail. After I got over the initial period of panic that I was missing out on information, my abilities to concentrate did seem to strengthen again. I felt in a weird way intellectually or mentally calmer. And I could sit down and write or read with a great deal of attentiveness for quite a long time.

And on “smart classrooms” in colleges:

Q. Colleges refer to a screen-equipped space as a “smart classroom.” What would you call it?

A. I would call it a classroom that in certain circumstances would be beneficial and in others would actually undermine the mission of the class itself. I would maybe call it a questionable classroom.

Another “Slow” movement

From Patrick Kingsley’s article, “The Art of Slow Reading,” in The Guardian:

If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

And just in case the research proves predictive in your case,

What’s to be done, then? All the slow readers I spoke to realise that total rejection of the web is extremely unrealistic, but many felt that temporary isolation from technology was the answer. Tracy Seeley’s students, for example, have advocated turning their computer off for one day a week. But, given the pace at which most of us live, do we even have time? Garrard seems to think so: “I’m no luddite – I’m on my iPhone right now, having just checked my email – but I regularly carve out reading holidays in the middle of my week: four or five hours with the internet disconnected.”

Multitasking Monks?

In her essay, “Medieval Multitasking:  Did We Ever Focus?”, Elizabeth Drescher addresses the Nicolas Carr/Clay Shirky debate on the relative merits of the Internet.  Drescher’s piece distinguishes itself by taking, as her title suggests, a long view of the issue and by its breezy, phenomenological style.  I think she is right to look for historical antecedents that shed light on our use of new media, however, I have reservations about where she ends up.  I tend to see more discontinuity than she does, particularly in the kind of relationship with the text encouraged by certain features of new media. You can read some of my thoughts in the Letters section below Drescher’s essay or here.  Quick excerpt:

Modularity, or what Manovich also calls the “fractal structure of new media,” allows for individual elements of a hypertext (text, image, video, chart, audio, etc.) to retain their integrity and be easily abstracted and recombined in another setting. Now to get a sense of the significance of this development, imagine a medieval monk attempting to easily abstract the graphic elements of an illuminated manuscript for use in another setting.

I single out modularity because it gets at an important distinction the gets lost if we lay all the emphasis on continuity. Modularity has contributed to a massive reconfiguration of the relationship between the media artifact and the user. The conditions of new media have allowed us to approach texts (and I use that term in the widest possible sense) on the Internet as potential creators, as well, users . . .

We now seem less apt at receiving a text and, at least to begin with, submitting ourselves to it. This is a particularly important development in religious contexts. We are now more likely to jump into the creation of our own meaning and our own texts without first allowing the texts to read us as it were. We are less likely to listen to the text before wanting to speak back to it or speak it anew. We are first disposed to shape the text rather than being open to how the text may shape us.

Along the way Drescher links to the op-ed piece by Steven Pinker that we noted here earlier, but she also links to an op-ed by David Brooks, “The Medium is the Medium”, which I had missed.  In his piece Brooks makes some interesting distinctions and observations, yet my initial response is mixed.  Perhaps more on that later.