Does changing your T.V. channel actually change your mind?...
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Already in the 1970s, American scholar Marshall McLuhan suggested such hypothesis, even considering it the basis for understanding the implicit dynamics present in all media. For decades, McLuhan´s dictum “the medium is the message” has profoundly persuaded the intuition of many great intellectuals and artists, although it´s still today shocking to realize that there´s not available any rigorous philosophical, psychological or anthropological explanation of such peak realization on how media operates with our minds. Many artists, during deep states of contemplation and meditation, are often prone to realize the truthfulness of McLuhan´s dictum, yet eventually fail to “download” such intuition into specific concepts and language. Yet it´s precisely this incapability to share such realization to others what provides us the best clue in order to understand McLuhan´s powerful intuition, especially when aiming to find the actual connections that exist between human thought and its means of expression.
But probably the most critical impediment to intellectually grasp such realization is that technology -although impregnating all aspects of our modern life- is still conceived in most urban-industrial societies as a “means” that is supposedly at the mercy of the individual will who “employs it”. In other words, a computer or cell-phone are assumed to be means at the service of the economic, humanistic, anthropomorphic, moral, political or religious values of the individuals or society who decide to employ them. But this assumption fails to see that the phase of use of a technology constitutes the very tiny “tip of the iceberg” of a much vaster techno-industrial infrastructure that is passed unobserved by culture, academia and science in general. Jacques Ellul referred to this techno-industrial phenomenon as the “technical phenomenon”, and the French philosopher constantly pointed in his works that “technique” and “technology” must never be conceived as synonyms. To put it simply; driving is technique; a car is technology... What´s more, the act of driving is not only a technique but also a language, a language of gestures that relate unconsciously to the car´s technology when at work. McLuhan not only already referred to this molding of human senses by technology as a “massage” but also conceived it as the real underlying message implicit in the technological means. Ellul, besides, considered that the language that is implicit in technique is loaded with symbolic aspects, in the highest sense of the world “symbolic”, since technique is a raw gestural expression of the dynamic relations that exist between human consciousness and all the external technologies that have gained power upon nature, that is to say, all those technologies that have managed to drive the processes of the natural world towards very specific architectures; in our times: techno-industrial and cybernetic architectures. If we look carefully at any traditional form of ritual, they´re ultimately techniques that symbolically connect the human spirit to a greater cosmos. And in our times, technique allows us to relate to a technological cosmos.
A crucial aspect that is required to be acknowledged here is that it´s impossible to adapt a society to such technological architectures unless the unconscious reflexes of such society are first molded by the symbolic language implicit in such architectures… In other words: it´s not the content of the videogame what has a formative action upon a child, but the interface, this is, the mediation that exists between the content of the videogame and the child´s mind. This mediation/interface is composed of symbols (icons, windows, menus, etc.) that relate directly to the child´s gestures, reflexes, either in the hands or in the eyes. This “massage” of the reflexes induced by technique eventually directs the child´s perception in a very specific way, a direction that allows afterwards relating to other similar technologies, and also allows relating to other children whose minds are also molded by the same technological infrastructure.
McLuhan emphasizes very often the radical transformation that Gutenberg´s print had in this “molding” or “massage” of the former medieval cosmologies towards the cultural standards that characterize modernity. The medium of the “book” we are familiar with today derives precisely from such historical transition, and it´s worth remarking here that the particular “book” medium we manipulate today is a by-product of the mechanization implicit in Gutenberg´s print technology. As a consequence of the mechanistic character of such technological transition, literacy was no longer the artistic privilege of the higher medieval priest castes but during modernity became accessible to the masses, this is, to those sectors of society whose reflexes were being molded by the progressive mechanization that was impregnating the way that society at large was starting to relate to nature.
These former outlines take us to the following radical realization: if someone feels attracted to buy a book in Wal-Mart, the underlying symbolic message implicit in such action is simply that the book was bought in Wal-Mart. Regardless of the academic education of the buyer of his/her personal opinions, the consumption of such book in such context constitutes the substantial cultural message, since what is actually consumed here is the added value of the book, this is, the sum total of all the technical processes that characterize industrial book production in modern society, processes that spread along a complex chain supply that links the writer to the book´s presentation in the bookstore. Regardless of the book dealing with History, philosophy, fiction, science or art, industrial book production demands the same technical standards to be applied to all genres.
As shown in this illustration, some books are more prone to be processed by the book industry than others, and this decisively depends on how such books foster the adaption of the reader´s mind to the technical processes that characterize the technological system
Hence the technical “use” of the book, this is, it´s reading, constitutes a very marginal “tip of the iceberg” of a much vaster infrastructure, an infrastructure that has already molded the unconscious reflexes of the consumer who finally decides to buy the book amid such industrial-type context. In parallel, the typical Wal-Mart consumer is much more prone to pay for food that has accumulated much more industrial added-value (this is, highly industrial processed foods) because the person´s digestive system has already been formerly modified by the industrial additives that go hand in hand with the industrial production of food. The “use” of the food, this is, the act of eating, constitutes as well a very marginal “tip of the iceberg” action of a much vaster technological infrastructure, and once someone´s digestive system has already been modified by such infrastructure, it´s inevitable to question to what extent such consumer is free to “use” (this is, “to eat”) on a daily basis any type of food that no longer satiates the specific needs that the industrial world molded in the person´s digestive system. So here it´s impossible to not agree with Terence McKenna when the great mind affirmed that: “A culture is what it eats”…
In the same line of thought, the habit of spending 4 hours per day watching national T.V. broadcasts is also here the substantial cultural message -regardless of the spectator watching news, documentaries or soap operas- since such action symbolically exposes the spontaneous attachment of the spectator´s mind to the techniques employed in such broadcasting medium when processing/filtering/distributing what is happening in the country or in the world. This type of spectator is never interested in what really happens in the country or world, but rather has the perceptive faculties passively focused in the processing of what happens in the country or world, and such process is a modern phenomenon called information. Information is very often confused with knowledge, but both terms are very different… If you have learnt to cook your own food, that´s knowledge of food; if you outsource the cooking process to external industries; what you receive from them is food that has been in-formed. Today, the Internet presents an unprecedented amount of massive information, but it´s radically false to state that it provides knowledge… Knowledge only becomes manifest in the way the person who browses the Internet is capable of providing an integral and coherent structure to such information, this is, in the way such person actively “cooks” such information and makes sense of it. The specific capacity of such person to filter and arrange the information depends directly on the former molding of his/her perceptive faculties (education, in the most classical sense of the word) a formation which vastly transcend the development of literacy skills, and that depend decisively on the degree of experiential knowledge gained by such person.
Unless the technique of literacy is integrated within a cutting-edge language that conceptually addresses the power of technique and technology upon today´s sociopolitical, economic and psychological facts, literacy shall become powerless to serve as a liberating tool for the individual´s consciousness. And a direct consequence of such powerlessness is that the technique of literacy (this is, “reading”) then becomes subservient to all the technical/technological forces of one´s time, especially propaganda, fostering the production of a very specific type of writers, that is to say, dilettante-type speculators and opinion-makers who are prone to think about today´s world exclusively with the language and conceptual/ideological frameworks that characterize mainstream press articles. Yet the true language of today is no longer the mainstream article on politics, economics or sport written in newspapers, but rather the vast technological process that mediates between the writer of such articles and the reader´s retina. In other words: the medium is the true message, a “massage” of the mind that is what the reader of newspapers is really paying for.
Cartoon: Spanish humorist, "El Roto"
At this point, some reader might be rather skeptical about all the former outlines and suspect that it “can´t be the same” that a given T.V. spectator watches a documentary about science in the Internet in comparison to watching a pornographic film in the same medium… However, once again, it must be reemphasized that the act of watching an audiovisual product of any kind is an extremely tiny part of a much vaster technological infrastructure that has not only dominated the field of science but also human sexuality and many other aspects of human life. An individual is free to choose watching either one content or another, but once such individual goes to work in his laboratory or relates sexually to his/her partner, such person shall eventually realize the power that technology has on his/her work standards and his/her sexual life. Some might even suggest that watching a documentary on science, art or History is more “moral” than watching pornography, but this Puritan moralistic reaction fails to understand that the same “mechanization of sex” that characterizes pornography is equivalent to the downgrading in most documentaries of the fields of science, art and History with their filtering through mechanistic and reductionist paradigms. Whether the spectator is watching a documentary on science, art, History or watching a pornographic film, such spectator in no way is learning about science, art, History, or erotic attraction between the sexes, but rather is feeding his/her mind with the mechanistic paradigms that characterize technological and urban-industrial societies, so that such person can become better adapted to its routines and standards. Again, the medium is the message, the “massage”, a “massage” that is what the spectator is actually paying for. McLuhan referred to this process in Understanding Media as the “juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”.
Unfortunately, today McLuhan´s studies on media have been relegated from most philosophical and sociological debates, and it´s therefore no coincidence that the power of the technological mediums upon the mind of society has reached such unprecedented and terrific levels. What Theodore Roszak has referred to as the “cult of information” has eroded practically all forms of knowledge, and this itself has strongly challenged the generation of any type of true wisdom.
*Miguel A. Fernandez is an industrial engineer specialized in chain supply logistics, process modeling/simulation, sustainable architecture, conservative/ethnographic projects and energy production consultancy.
For many years, Miguel has been devoted to synthesize the cultural heritage of the West with the most advanced scientific-economic challenges presented by techno-industrial societies. He is the author of several essays and novels that address the techno-scientific and economic issues of our times. Also, Miguel aims to establish a fruitful dialogue with the Eastern traditions and worldviews.