“Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality. Further, one is programmed for interactive communication, one's whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.”
— Ivan Illich, “To Honor Jaques Ellul” (1993)
Consider the following words spoken by a character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel, The House of Seven Gables:
“Then there is electricity, the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence! … Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but a thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!”
A bit overwrought, perhaps, but it expresses something of the wonder, dread, and exhilaration which attended the growing understanding of electricity in the mid-19th century. Roughly the same historical context had already yielded Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with its imaginative debt to galvanism, the late eighteenth century fascination with the relationship between electricity and biological life.
Hawthorne’s language in this passage calls to mind the way, a century later, Marshall McLuhan would talk about electronic forms of communication. “With the arrival of electric technology,” McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself.”
I would guess that this is the the kind of claim that makes McLuhan seem a bit too esoteric or even a little bizarre to some readers. But if we sit with it for just a moment, I think we’ll find it both fairly straightforward and also illuminating (no pun intended). The relationship between networks of electronic communication and the nervous system, which also communicates via electrical impulses, seem obvious enough, of course. McLuhan is suggesting that the networks of electronic communication extend the functions of the biological nervous system beyond the physical limits of the body.
So let’s take a look at a handful of places where McLuhan leans on the concept of electronic communication as an extension of the nervous system and see where this might lead us. Bear in mind that McLuhan is writing in the 1960s, and these observations predate the advent of the internet as we know it. McLuhan has radio and the television chiefly in mind, with the telegraph as a distant predecessor. He is, however, already thinking about how the computer will affect these networks of electronic media.
So here is McLuhan explaining the analogy a bit further: “It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience.”
In other words, global networks of electronic media augment our field of experience. Whereas the field of experience constituted by our biological nervous system was anchored to the body’s location in space and time, electronic media as an extension of the nervous system generates a field of experience that is potentially global in scope.
Emphasizing the speed electronic networks of communication, McLuhan noted that “when information moves at the speed of signals in the central nervous system, man is confronted with the obsolescence of all earlier forms of acceleration, such as road and rail. What emerges is a total field of inclusive awareness. The old patterns of psychic and social adjustment become irrelevant.”
The notion of a field of inconclusive awareness (or unified field of experience) is more or less the same dynamic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan noted when he made the following observation: “In the past, news that reached me from afar was old news. Now, with instantaneous transmission, all news is contemporary. I live in the present, surrounded by present time, whereas not so long ago, the present where I am was an island surrounded by the pasts that deepened with distance.”
Contrary to how he is sometimes (mis)read, McLuhan was not exactly sanguine about this state of affairs. “To put one's nerves outside, and one's physical organs inside the nervous system, or the brain,” McLuhan argued, “is to initiate a situation ... of dread.” But McLuhan was deeply interested in understanding rather than deriding the psychic consequences of these transformations occasioned by new technologies.
Note how he tells us in the paragraph I cited above that the “old patterns of psychic and social adjustment become irrelevant.”
There are two important parts to this claim, first the distinction between psychic and social, and, second, the idea that patterns of adjustment have become irrelevant. Regarding the latter, I take him to mean that whatever means of organizing and coping with information, stimuli, perceptions, etc. we deployed in the old age of pre-electronic media were now no longer up to the task.
Regarding the former, the distinction is a common one. We are accustomed to distinguishing between the individual and society. But I think McLuhan is also implying that we can speak of a social or collective consciousness in the same way that we might speak of a person’s consciousness. And that, along similar lines, we can speak about disorders of the corporate psyche in the same way that we might speak about disorders of the individual psyche.
I find it helpful to think along these lines by taking memory as a case in point. Clearly, we have our personal memories, and, certainly, even these memories have a social dimension. When we gather with old friends or family members, we might mutually spur each other to recollections of shared events that no one member of the group would have arrived at on their own. But I think it is meaningful to also speak about how societies remember (to borrow the title of Paul Connerton’s book on the theme).
A society’s memory is not merely the sum total of all the memories of the individuals that make up that society. In fact, in certain respects, it may be said to exist independently of individuals. It is true that such memories are not always subjectively realized in human consciousness, but they do not, for that reason, cease to effect the social body. We might even speak of such memories as suppressed or repressed, and, in this way, also potentially traumatic. Naturally, we do not look for these memories in structures of individual consciousness, but rather in the material structures of society: the layout of its cities, its architecture, its allocation of resources, its place names, etc.
So, for example, the layout of a city may continue to reflect decisions made decades earlier with overtly racist intent. Whether or not any individuals consciously remember such decisions, the material substrate carries the memory, as it were, just as the body often carries memories the mind has forgotten. And such memories continue to work themselves out in the life of the city, whether a critical mass of the city’s populace becomes consciously aware of them or not. In this way, we might even speak of them as traumatic memories. Only when they are brought to conscious awareness is there any hope of escaping their disordering consequences. But awareness is, I think, a double-edged sword. At least, we might say that awareness can in its own way become paralyzing for both individuals and society.
So, if we allow for the usefulness of the concept of collective consciousness we can entertain the idea that the consequences of the internet, for example, are felt not only privately but also collectively. This may seem like a banal observation, and may be it is. Of course the internet has collective and social consequences, it seems that we have been doing little else than talking about such consequences for the last several years. But I mean to especially emphasize the consequences felt at the level of the social psyche. As I put it a few months ago, I don't think we take seriously enough the idea that the internet functions as a kind of collective unconscious which is generating a form of collective madness.
Perhaps madness is not the best word, although, I don’t know, it seems like a credible case can be made on certain days. But let’s return to a few more of the comments McLuhan made before working our way to some kind of conclusion.
“In the electric age,” McLuhan observed, “when our central nervous system is technologically extended to the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action.” “It is no longer possible,” he added, “to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner.”
Both the idea of participation in depth and that of a novel interest in the consequences of our action as a result of electronic media are recurring themes in McLuhan’s work. I think they make more sense when we try to imagine what instantaneous exposure to national and world events would have seemed like to people who had ordinarily only encountered such events through write-ups in newspapers. (McLuhan, I should note, was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta.) It’s easy to forget the wonder of seeing events transpiring live from across the globe when most of us have only known a world in which this was a banal experience. In other words, I don’t think we are well-positioned to comprehend what it would have been like to suddenly feel as if the world were collapsing in on you because electronic media had now dramatically extended the reach of your perceptive apparatus.
Of course, you happen to be around 40 years of age, give or take a few years, you might be rather well positioned to comprehend how digital media built upon and augmented these developments, chiefly by allowing us to carry our extended nervous system around with us at all times. But there are important differences, of course. The age of pre-digital electronic media was also the age of mass, non-participatory media. Whereas electronic media in the pre-digital age generated a more or less passive experience of rather uniform streams of information, digital tools have wildly diversified our feeds and enabled us to generate a meta-level of self-aware discourse to overlay the field of unified experience that electronic media generated. Digital media has also generated massive and readily accessible databases of memory, which feed back into the layer of self-aware discourse. Indeed, in a metaphorical sense, we might say that if electronic media constituted an extension of the nervous system, digital media has extended memory and speech. Together, these three have generated a simulacrum of collective consciousness. Seen this light, we have become mad indeed, talking endlessly to ourselves and increasingly trapped within our own words, unable to rightly perceive the world around us and much less act effectively in it.
Consider, too, McLuhan’s claim that it is no longer possible to adopt an aloof or dissociated stance toward our experience. McLuhan seem to have had in mind the way that electronic media involves one affectively in the events they transmit. We might, for example, note, as McLuhan did, how television coverage of the war in Vietnam transformed the American experience of war. American society felt the war in a different sense than it had any previous war. But digital media does more to erode the ideals of disinterestedness, objectivity, and neutrality. It diversified the mass media feed that had previously generated a false sense of national consensus. Its expansive and searchable archives through light on every inconsistency and all hypocrisy which sustained the myth of disinterested neutrality on the part of experts, leaders, and institutions. It was observed frequently in the late 20th century that television especially made the aura of detached, formal dignity attending public figures, and the respect it ostensibly commanded, implausible. It did so by collapsing the distance between public figures and the masses, which was the prerequisite of such an aura. It rewarded more approachable, visually charismatic, and informal presentations of the self. Digital media has had an even more profound effect, which will become all the more evident once the light of the electric age is altogether extinguished.
McLuhan, I’ll note in passing, also understood the dynamics of the so-called attention economy long before the term was coined. “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems,” he warned, “to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left.” “Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests,” he added, “is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation [!], or like giving the earth's atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.” In other words, we do not own our extended nervous system, nor our external memories or our augmented voices. And this only heightens the disorders of our collective consciousness. It generates a kind of paranoia about what we perceive, which in the meta-discourse of our collective mind takes the form of endless debates about tech platforms, free-speech, deep fakes, filter bubbles, etc.
McLuhan also argued that the act of extending one of capabilities is simultaneously an act of auto-amputation. “With the arrival of electric technology,” McLuhan wrote, “man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself.” “To the degree that this is so,” he continued, “it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism.”
Further on, he claimed that “the principle of self-amputation as an immediate relief of strain on the central nervous system applies very readily to the origin of the media of communication from speech to computer.” Each new technology seeks to relieve the stresses induced by the earlier medium, but then serves only to create a more desperate situation requiring a further extension and subsequent acceleration. This dynamic seems self-evident at this point. Just make note of all the ways we turn to new technologies and techniques in order to compensate for the consequences of existing technologies. McLuhan is here anticipating, in rather more esoteric terms, an crucial element of Hartmut Rosa’s more recent theory of social acceleration, in which he describes a feedback loop whereby technical acceleration, achieved by both new techniques and new technologies, leads to the acceleration of social change, and the acceleration of the pace of life, which then calls for further technical acceleration.
Interestingly, McLuhan also claims that “self-amputation forbids self-recognition.” But I’m not sure this is quite right, at least not any longer. As McLuhan himself explained, we are, as of the mid-twentieth century at least, increasingly aware of the consequences of new technology. “Today it is the instant speed of electric information,” he observed, “that, for the first time, permits easy recognition of the patterns and the formal contours of change and development. The entire world, past and present, now reveals itself to us like a growing plant in an enormously accelerated movie.” And so, we may perhaps be able to recognize the self-amputation of our perceptive apparatus.
This possibility recalled, not surprisingly, something that Ivan Illich wrote in a talk honoring Jacques Ellul. Noting the degree to which we had taken leave of our senses, not our wits, mind you, but our more literal senses, sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste.
Notice the McLuhanesque phrasing when he notes that “existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality. Further, one is programmed for interactive communication, one's whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.”
But here was the cure, as far as Illich could see it:
“It appears to me that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship.”
News and Resources
Farmville is shutting down after a ten-year run. This piece, leaning on Ian Bogost, looks at how the game set the pace for the much of the internet in the last decade.
“The game encouraged people to draw in friends as resources to both themselves and the service they were using, Mr. Bogost said. It gamified attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being imitated by everything from Instagram to QAnon, he said.
‘The internet itself is this bazaar of obsessive worlds where the goal is to bring you back to it in order to do the thing it offers, in order to get your attention and serve ads against it or otherwise derive value from that activity,’ he said.”
30 “Bug” drones delivered to the British Army.
“Limits to prediction: pre-read.” For a course taught this fall by Arvind Narayanan and Matt Salganik (made available by Narayanan):
“Is everything predictable given enough data and powerful algorithms? Researchers and companies have made many optimistic claims about the ability to predict phenomena ranging from crimes to earthquakes using data-driven, statistical methods. These claims are widely believed by the public and policy makers. However, even a cursory review of the literature reveals that state-of-the-art predictive accuracies fall well short of expectations.”
“Principled Artificial Intelligence: Mapping Consensus in Ethical and Rights-Based Approaches to Principles for AI” (January 2020):
“The rapid spread of artificial intelligence (AI) systems has precipitated a rise in ethical and human rights-based frameworks intended to guide the development and use of these technologies. Despite the proliferation of these ‘AI principles,’ there has been little scholarly focus on understanding these efforts either individually or as contextualized within an expanding universe of principles with discernible trends.
“To that end, this white paper and its associated data visualization compare the contents of thirty-six prominent AI principles documents side-by-side. This effort uncovered a growing consensus around eight key thematic trends: privacy, accountability, safety and security, transparency and explainability, fairness and non-discrimination, human control of technology, professional responsibility, and promotion of human values.”
Stanford Medical Center came under fire this month for not having prioritized its front-line workers for vaccine distribution. Clearly, the whole matter has been highly contentious, and my aim in linking this story is not to stake out a moral position on the question of vaccine distribution. Rather, it is to highlight how hospital administrators took refuge in “the algorithm made me do it” rationalization. When you outsources human judgment to algorithmic process you also outsource (or at least distribute) responsibility, which will be all too convenient to some.
“Singularity Vs. Daoist Robots”: An interview with Yuk Hui, a Chinese philosopher of technology, which serves as a helpful introduction to his work. One goal for 2021 is to become better acquainted with Hui’s work, which was first brought to my attention, if I remember correctly, by Carl Mitcham. More recently, Adam Elkus recommended his work and this interview as a good starting point. I believe that Hui also plays an important role in Alan Jacobs’s latest essay for The New Atlantis, which is still behind a paywall.
“The mechanical monster and discourses of fear and fascination in the early history of the computer”:
“This discourse established a clear dichotomy of fear and fascination: fears of a loss of autonomy and usurpation of labour, and fascination with a machine that possessed unlimited possibilities. What made the computer truly a mechanical monster was its hybridity, which was perhaps more present in representations of the computer than in the mechanics of the technology itself. It represented both the technological sublime and an apocalyptic dystopia at the same time. Through the combination of existential threat, categorical impurity, and exotic fascination, the computer emerged as a contemporary image of the mechanical monster.”
Marshall McLuhan: “Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.”
This recent release from Theodore Porter looks interesting: The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900.
— Wendell Berry, almost certainly channelling Ivan Illich, in “Health is Membership” (1994):
People seriously interested in health will finally have to question our society's long-standing goals of convenience and effortlessness. What is the point of ‘labor saving’ if by making work effortless we make it poor, and if by doing poor work we weaken our bodies and lose conviviality and health?
We are now pretty clearly involved in a crisis of health, one of the wonders of which is its immense profitability both to those who cause it and to those who propose to cure it. That the illness may prove incurable, except by catastrophe, is suggested by our economic dependence on it. Think, for example, of how readily our solutions become problems and our cures pollutants. To cure one disease, we need another. The causes, of course, are numerous and complicated, but all of them, I think, can be traced back to the old idea that our bodies are not very important except when they give us pleasure (usually, now, to somebody's profit) or when they hurt (now, almost invariably, to somebody's profit).
— From Wendell Berry’s 2012 collection of Sabbath poems:
In memory: Ivan Illich
The creek flows full over the rocks
after lightning, thunder, and heavy rain.
Its constant old song rises under
the still unblemished green, new leaves
of old sycamores that have so far
withstood the hardest flows. And this
is the flux, the thrust, the slow song
of the great making, the world never
at rest, still being made
of the ever less and less that we,
for the time being, make of it.
I have one more newsletter project that I am working on right now, and that is to collect the essays I’ve written throughout the year into one document, which I’ll make available in a few days. I’m doing this mostly for my sake, but perhaps some of you might want to download the document, too. So you can look for that next week.
Other than that, you can look for the newsletter to continue in the new year with another installment out by the middle of January. In the new year, I hope to also get back to my conversations with Ivan Illich’s friends and colleagues, his co-conspirators. The online Illich reading group will also resume with David Cayley’s, Rivers North of the Future, which is essentially the transcript of a long interview Cayley conducted with Illich in the late 1990s. (The reading group is pretty much the only paid subscriber-only content.)
Some of you will be coming to the end of your year’s subscription in the next couple of weeks. Through the time warp that was 2020, it seems like the launch of the newsletter was both just yesterday and a decade ago. In any case, I hope you’ve found The Convivial Society valuable enough to continue your support. (Thanks to you, the newsletter is apparently holding down the 25th spot under Substack’s Culture tag.)
Some of you have written to tell me that you would appreciate it if the newsletter had a more robust community-building dimension to it. At least that’s how I would summarize the comments. I have continued to think about this, and I hope to find some ways to make that possible. In truth, I suspect that the chief requirement would be more time on time on my part in the work of moderating and engagement, and that’s going to be a bit of a challenge. Nonetheless, I think we can make somethings happen on this front, so stay tuned.
Happy new year, to all for whom that applies. I wish I could say that I was optimistic about the coming year, especially given all that 2020 has been. But, alas, I can’t quite. Nonetheless, may we find the right measure of courage, resilience, humility, generosity, and even gratitude to face whatever the new year will bring. And may we work, in whatever way we are able, for the health of our communities, remembering, as Wendell Berry has put it, that “a community in the fullest sense—a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”