McLuhan and our plight

“Plight” is an interesting word. We are in a plight, meaning we’re in a tangle, a mess, a terrible fix, with “fix” itself an ironic noun in this context. Yet we also plight our troth, meaning “pledge our truth.” Plight-as-peril and plight-as-pledge both come from an earlier word meaning “care” or “responsibility” or (my favorite from the Oxford English Dictionary) “to be in the habit of doing.” Along a different etymological path, we arrive at the word meaning to braid or weave together. The word “plait” is a variant that makes this meaning more explicit. It’s not too far into poet’s corner before weaving, promising, and care-as-a-plight become entangled, at least in my mind, and perhaps usefully so.

The first McLuhan reading in the New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar is from The Gutenberg Galaxy, specifically the chapter called “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society.” I don’t know if McLuhan is punning here, but it’s not implausible that the man who coined the term “the global village” and paid special attention to the role of mediation in human affairs–mediation considered as extensions of humanity–might think not only about the plight we find ourselves in but also the plighting of troth we might explore or co-create or braid.

The trick (and McLuhan is nothing if not a trickster, as others have noted) is that the plighting cannot be straightforward or “lineal,” lest it not be a genuine pledge or an authentic weaving. His very writing is obviously a plight for many readers, but it’s also a brave (and sometimes wacky) attempt to do a plighting of the plaiting kind as a sort of pledge of responsibility. He writes these stirring words for our consideration:

For myth is the mode of simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects. In an age of fragmented  lineal awareness, such as produced and was in turn greatly exaggerated by Gutenberg technology, mythological vision remains quite opaque. The Romantic poets fell far short of Blake’s mythical or simultaneous vision. They were faithful to Newton’s single vision and perfected the picturesque outer landscape as a means of isolating single states of the inner life.

From which I draw these conclusions regarding McLuhan’s argument (or plighting):

1. “Lineal” does not mean “synthesized” or “unified.” The straight path or bounded area leads only to fragmentation and reduction. It is not a weaving and cannot be. The lineal and the fragmented are perilously broken promises.

2. Mythological vision is a technology for enlarging awareness of complexity. Mythological vision is both plighted-woven and a means for plighting-weaving.

3. Fragmented, lineal awareness invents technologies of self-propagation that reinforce more lineality, more fragmentation, while giving the illusion of doing quite the opposite. Single-point perspective is not the same as a unifying vision or a simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects. It is, instead, reductive while pretending to be unified.

4. Even self-consciously or self-proclaimed liberatory movements such as Romantic poetry (or any number of other such apparently radical departures) may quail before the complexity and simply reinscribe a slightly shifted set of boundaries, thus perpetuating a reduction of complexity and a lack of awareness that dooms our technologies to reproducing our failures.

What technologies might reveal, restore, or help us co-construct a mythological vision, a species-wide simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects? It’s a political question that reaches into the realm of complexity science, art, and potentially even philosophy or (gasp) theology. Does Doug Engelbart’s idea of “augmentation” and complex symbolic innovation answer such a call? Does Bill Viola’s anti-condominium campaign? Is there an eternal golden braid to be had, or woven? What loom should we choose, or make?

3 thoughts on “McLuhan and our plight

  1. As usual, your blog has me thinking in several different directions Gardner.

    I wonder if the mythic mind your are seeking precedes any consideration of augmentation. Augmentation amplifies both good and bad. It seems that what is needed is a path that clarifies before it amplifies.

    Vision questing, the journey of the hero and other such ways of building up a mythic knowledge of the world are strangely lacking in our approach to technology. I think it is because the growth of character is less reliable than a cookbook approach to solving problems. I wonder if systems thinking brings us closer to mythic knowledge than goal oriented knowledge, in that it represents a holistic approach to our world view, although lacking in the faith based paths of spiritual practice.

    I wonder whether this also explains why so many of our models for computer use are serial rather than parallel. Parallel is closer to knowledge of the whole which could provide a solution, while serial is a more direct path. Of course, parallel is more likely to follow a curve in the road and serial is more likely to quickly send you over the cliff in a straight line.

    I hope this reply has not been too scrambled. If it is, such is my plight. :)

    cheers, bob

  2. @bob Not scrambled at all, but precise and suggestive. A very lovely comment!

    It’s all about Bateson’s ecology of mind, which is systems thinking at its finest, I believe–mythic consciousness yielding insight into complexity, both serially and along parallel paths. The longer I work at this, the more it seems to me that the richest possible hybridity emerges as the foundational ecology. Choices must be made and will be made, but the choices themselves fork and fork again. The common experience is the leap and rush of insight. The common experience is the slow growth of expanding wisdom. Bateson said he was too poetic for the scientists and too scientific for the humanists. Yes–seems like a (lonely) sweet spot.

    I too wish we could clarify before amplifying. I do think that some clarity around first principles as well as an indefatigable commitment to exploring the “unknown unknown” (paradoxical but possible) can help. But I also think that it’s the augmentation that leads to more potential clarity, and then that can lead to more successful augmentation. The challenge is to keep the alternations coming instead of just getting louder and louder until the universe goes deaf.

  3. Gardner,

    I think of the way we use musical instruments. Musical instruments augment our capabilities to make sound, and by the choices we make in how we play together we can create all sorts of complex sounds we call music. We don’t call the loudest sounds the best, or the most complicated sounds the worst. We listen and use the resonance of that experience with past experiences to evaluate what we have heard. In that way technical augmentation helps us to clarify using human discernment. Currently, I am afraid that we are focussing too much on the augmentation and not so much on the reflection to provide that clarity.

    In the machine-human equation I think that we need to work harder at holding up our end of the bargain. The technical aspects can augment but the ability to clarify is a hard won human trait that winds through many levels of experience including mystical and spiritual (and those areas are not always available for verbal or literal expression). I read an article by Fred Brooks today about computer scientists as toolmakers that may be useful. Brooks balances the role of technologist, scientist and ultimately toolmaker with some deeper social evaluations.

    http://www.cs.unc.edu/~brooks/Toolsmith-CACM.pdf

    Cheers, bob

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