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Time Tunnel Interview: McLuhan on Real Time, Twitter and the Digital Body

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The interface emerged in a SemioText(e) edition of Baudrillard’s Simulations, it was a reference to Marshall McLuhan. The pointer was unexpected and lead me to engage in more in-depth inquires. And so, of course, my first stop was YouTube. The Mechanics Institute Library yielded four printed texts, and Netflix responded with the documentary McLuhan’s Wake. A flood of provocative thinking invaded my playlist.

“But almost everyone agrees that no one can make sense out of more than 10% of what McLuhan says..”

It occured to me that the linear quality of time shouldn’t be an obstacle to a good interview. And there are some questions I needed to ask McLuhan. There’s a sense in which questions and answers can address each other across time. This connected up to Jeff Jonas’s thinking on Perpetual Analytics or what he describes as real-time situational analytics– the idea of changing the time context of a database from polling to data streams. In his blog post, Sequence Neutrality in Information Systems, Jonas asks the question: “What if the question being asked today is not a smart question until next Thursday?”


In reading McLuhan’s work from 1964, I got the sense that he was providing answers to questions that his contemporaries could not yet formulate. Jonas posits a data ground where data finds data, and relevance will find the user. McLuhan’s answers seemed to be seeking out my questions.

echovar: The transition from visual space to acoustic space seems to be a key to understanding– among other things in your work, the oft-quoted fragment “the medium is the message.” Can you discuss the idea of acoustic space and what makes it different?

McLuhan: The new environment of simultaneous and diversified information creates acoustic man. He is surrounded by sound– from behind, from the side, from above. His environment is made up of information in all kinds of simultaneous forms, and he puts on this electrical environment as we put on our clothes, or as the fish puts on water.

Acoustic space is created by our ability to hear from all directions at once. Electric information arrives from all quarters at once. Thus, in effect, acoustic environments were created by the telegraph and began to show up in the press as mosaics of juxtaposed and discontinuous items all under one dateline. Acoustic space is all touch and interplay, all resonance and sympathy. Acoustic space is like the relationship of mother and child, which is audile-tactile, sound and touch. The cooing and handling and touching– this is the kind of world the electric media put around us. The electric media are a mom-and-child or rock-and-roll relationship.

The acoustic or simultaneous space in which we now live is like a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose margins are nowhere. Acoustic space cannot be cut up into pieces, as visual space can. It is both compressed and indivisible.

echovar: As your thinking matured, you migrated from the long form essay to the probe– the fragment and the aphorism. In the age of Twitter, we sometimes feel that depth is sacrificed to brevity. Can you address how depth is preserved in the compression of your thought?

McLuhan: In the work of Harold Innis, each sentence is a compressed monograph. He includes a small library on each page, and often incorporates a small library of references on the same page in addition. Most writers are occupied in providing accounts of the contents of philosophy, science, libraries, empires and religions. Innis invites us instead to consider the formalities of power exerted by these structures in their mutual interaction. He approaches each of these forms of organized power as exercising a particular kind of force upon each of the other components in the complex. By bouncing the unknown form against known forms, he discovered the nature of the new or little known form.

I call this method a probe. The probe is a means or method of perceiving. It resists any single point of view; it’s a better form than expository prose for examining our time because it works by gaps and interfaces. For instruction, use incomplete knowledge so people can fill things in– they can round it out and fill it in with their own experiences. There’s no participation in just telling: that’s simply for consumers– they sit there and swallow it, or not. These probes might easily be tweets:

“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

“The only cool PR is provided by one’s enemies. They toil incessantly and for free.”

“Language is metaphor in the sense that it not only stores but translates experience from one mode into another.”

“A frontier is not a neighborhood. It is a gap, a ferment, an interface.”

echovar: What is the shape of the digital body in the globally networked village?

McLuhan: During the mechanical ages we extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as the planet is concerned.

My main theme is the extension of the nervous system in the electric age, and thus, the complete break with five thousand years of mechanical technology. This I state over and over again. I do not say whether it is a good or bad thing. To do so would be meaningless and arrogant.

Any medium presents a figure whose ground is always hidden or subliminal. In the case of TV, as of the telephone or radio, the subliminal ground could be called the disincarnate or disembodied user. This is to say that when you are “on the telephone” or “on the air,” you do not have a physical body. In these media, the sender is sent and is instaneously present everywhere. The disembodied user extends to all those who are recipients of electric information. It is these people who constitute the mass audience, because mass is a factor of speed rather than quantity, although popular speech permits the term mass to be uses with large publics. Mass man is a phenomenon of electric speed, not physical quantity.

echovar: Talk about the role of time– clock time and real time in the new media landscape.

McLuhan: As a piece of technology, the clock is a machine that produces uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern. Processed in this uniform way, time is separated from the rhythms of human experience. The mechanical clock, in short, helps create the image of a numerically quantified and mechanically powered universe. By coordinating and accelerating human meetings and goings-on, clocks increase the sheer quantity of human exchange.

The point of the matter of speed-up by wheel, road, and paper is the extension of power in an ever more homogeneous and uniform space. Thus, the real potential of the Roman technology was not realized until printing had given road and wheel a much greater speed than that of the Roman vortex. Yet the speed-up of the electronic age is as disrupting for literate, lineal, and Western man as the Roman paper routes were for tribal villagers. Our speed-up today is not a slow explosion outward from center to margins but an instant implosion and an interfusion of space and functions. Our specialist and fragmented civilization of center-margin structure is suddenly experiencing an instantaneous reassembling of all its mechanized bits into an organic whole. This is the new world of the global village.

When you hear the word “progress,” you know you are dealing with a nineteenth-century mind. Progress literally stopped with electricity because you now have everything at once. You don’t move on from one thing at a time to the next thing. There is no more history; it’s all here. There isn’t any part of the past that isn’t with us, thanks to electricity. But it’s not thanks to print, it’s not thanks to photography, it’s thanks to electricity. Speed, huge speed-up, means there’s no more past. Now, there is no more history.

echovar: We seem to have a hard time coming to terms with our new media/social landscape. Why is it so difficult to perceive and talk about the environment we inhabit?

McLuhan: It is very hard to get a man in the print belt of culture to recognize that the form of print is itself cutural and deeply biased. The fish knows nothing of water.

Our typical response to disruptive new technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities of the new environment. Failure to notice the new opportunities is also failure to understand the new powers.

Nobody yet knows the language inherent in the new technological culture; we are all deaf-blind mutes in terms of the new situation. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us by referring to the previously existent, not to the present.

The environment is always “invisibile” and its contents is always the old technology. The guy who is going to use a superhighway thinks he is the same man who used the dirt road it replaced… He doesn’t notice that the highway has changed his relation to his family and his fellows.

In television (and computers), images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point. (The fish knows nothing of water)

{McLuhan’s mosaic of answers culled from: Understanding Media, The Book of Probes and On McLuhan: Forward Through the Rearview Mirror.}

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