This essay was first published @ LapsusLima on February 5, 2019; a year before the Covidian began in earnest. It’s a remarkable threshold piece, completely pregnant with the motifs that have since engulfed us, touching fingertips with their development. Its monastic appeal predates aspects of Ljiljana’s Radenovic’s Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers, and anticipates some of the writing I myself am doing on post-social media as metaverse.
Every technology creates new stresses and needs in the human beings who have engendered it… The wheel is an ablative absolute of feet, as chair is the ablative absolute of backside. But when such ablatives intrude, they alter the syntax of society. There is no ceteris paribus in the world of media and technology. Every extension or acceleration effects new configurations in the over-all situation at once.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)
The quote “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us” is one of many misattributed to Marshall McLuhan. In truth, the saying belongs to Fr. John Culkin, S.J., a friend of his who used it to describe McLuhan’s work in 1967. Culkin was moreover paraphrasing Winston Churchill, who pronounced “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” upon observing how the architecture of the House of Commons favoured the two-party system of Parliament in 1944. Two conjoined considerations can be drawn immediately from this: that, as frequently as Culkin is misquoted, his Churchillian source is just as likely to remain unnamed.
This broken chain of attribution illustrates the carelessness of oral culture with regard to memory: pithy, incisive remarks are reduced to memes being shaped—as McLuhan really did say—in a medium which itself is the message;1 these packaged memes are then labelled and severed from any historical context and become soundbites passed from mouth-to-ear in a society-wide game of telephone. And though it seems as though memory should play a more important role in oral cultures that either lack or eschew the means of accessible preservation that are predominant in literary cultures; orality relies far less on the retention of the actual patterns of occurrence of reality, than on the preservation of what is per se memorable.
In other words, details fade and history gives way to legend. We would not remember Achilles as a man born of mortal man who killed a handful of others—but Achilles as born of a nereid and responsible for slaughtering hundreds or thousands of heroes has lived on for more than three millennia. Aeneas would be almost certainly forgotten as a defeated scion of Troy, but as paterfamilias of the Roman Republic and Empire, he endures. Though perhaps not so grandiose a claim as turning the tide of a war or founding Rome, the quip of being shaped by our instruments no doubt belongs to the legend of McLuhan more than it does to the obscure friend who, despite his distinguished career, is only typically remembered, if at all, in connection to the famous theorist of media.
The resilience of misattributions underscores the oral dominance of twentieth century Western culture; for it is in the nature of an oral culture to repeat these legendary narratives without researching their historical veracity. This is, after all, the time-devouring realm of scholars swamped in archival investigation.
That the misattributions are, here and elsewhere, being corrected further demonstrates the erosion of recent orality. The falsity of any legend and the errors to be found in any narrative can now be researched and corrected, or at least brought into dispute, by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Welcome to digital life.
Fully free, fully human acts are more rare than we as individuals fully committed (and not as freely as believed) to our sense of agency would like to admit; that is, we choose freely, but only within confines we have not selected and of which we are sometimes not in the least aware—such as believing we are fully free agents. We are all, as Heidegger rightly revealed, invariably thrown into contexts not of our own choosing. Thus, the freedom of our choices—and it is a deceitful deviance of modern and especially Kantian philosophy that freedom must be absolute to be at all—depends upon the indeterminacy of our comportment towards the objects of our cognition, and our awareness of the constitution of that same comportment. As that awareness increases, so too does one’s possibility for freedom. Someone cannot extirpate a habit that possesses them but of which they are unaware, because habits are not only of idiosyncratic origin, but the cultural determinations that comprise our background image of “ordinary life” (such as those by which the tribal villager finds the daily life of the urbanite incomprehensible, and vice versa.)
There exists a formative dynamism between the environment in which an individual lives and that individual’s psyche, a dynamism which molds the expression of our humanity in myriad ways of which are not always conscious. Not the least of the factors involved in this formation is the technology surrounding us, and in which we are immersed. We are better attuned to noting how technology changes our transsubjective action in the world—how industrial developments alleviate physical labour, or the internet is rendering the 9-5 workday obsolete—than we are to recognising the changes that technology effects in our subjectivity itself: how we, as semiotic animals, are ourselves differently attuned by technological media.
As the pace of technological development has accelerated in the wake of the printing press—the direct ancestor of the assembly line that introduced homogenised production processes into the Western world2—the psychological effects have piled up; such that where previous generations had their psyches conditioned through no more than a few technologies, today we find ourselves enmeshed in their increasingly complex concatenation. We have not just the printing press, electricity, the automobile and the supermarket, but also radio, television, the movie theatre (away and at home), streaming media, and pervading it all, the digital, broadly. Nor do these new technologies precisely obsolesce the older; rather, they adjust their roles and alter the ratios of technological dominance to psychological attunement.
The printing press, for instance, made literacy a private pursuit. No longer the preserve of the priestly class, the availability of books made reading accessible to private individuals. Even if it took a long time for them to become affordably accessible, the number of books that could be produced in a year compared to the number of manuscripts shifted the entire cultural landscape of the Western world. While a manuscript was primarily a public resource for a small group, though the product of public disputation, shared, and copied by monks; a book was the property of an individual—perhaps shared and discussed, but to have a copy someone simply had to buy it.3 As print turned the Western individual increasingly inwards, it also laid the ground for nationalism: the uniformity of the technology required a uniformity of language, and it produced a uniformity—not of every thought—but of an identifiable literature (e.g., an English or French literature, and so forth, which would eventually result in an English or French press.)4 Print made us more individualistic even as it also made groups of individuals more alike to one another.
Electricity, contrariwise, blurred the boundaries of individualism—especially as it developed into radio and television. Unlike print, which spread articulated and prescribed ideas to large groups in a culture that it thereby defined through literacy; electric communication media spread sentiments to even larger groups it thereby determined through orality. And as the electric communication network grew from local radio and television to national and international, these shared sentiments became increasingly common as well. Hence, as McLuhan put it, we became members of a “global village”.5 When everyone from casual readers to media studies professors latched on to this phrase, they behaved exactly as the orality of an electric culture could expect them to. They reduced it to a packaged meme receptible by a shared conception of instant ubiquity to the thought that we are all, via our radios and televisions—and, yes, the internet—situated around a global well. Missed by this Procrustean reduction is the distinctive orality of this global gathering: though radio and television may be archived on tapes kept in studio basements, they are not preserved. A broadcast comes-into/goes-out-of being as quickly as it is transmitted around the world.
Whether global or provincial, ancient or modern, the village is not a preserver of precise truth, but a fermenter of myth and narrative made memorable precisely because it is larger than life. In a village we are prone to fantasy in different forms. Its industrial variant, for example, glories in the idol of control, as it leans towards a comprehensively planned-out fantasy of self-actualisation. The electric-industrial village is beholden to the idol of self-supremacy, which leads into delusion. This is the syntax of our society.
As history’s most recent landmark innovation, the digital may seem like a continuation of the electric revolution in technology; but this appearance is deceiving. The digital is what McLuhan would call an ablative absolute; namely, a grammatically unconnected Latin word or phrase which nevertheless profoundly affects the meaning of a sentence’s predicate. A technological ablative absolute’s continuity with some human faculty6 invariably introduces alterations to the ratio of the human psyche; the more profound the extension of the faculty that technology introduces, the more profoundly this ratio is altered. Where electric media commonly extend the human ability for fantasy, digital technology extends the human ability for memory. In brief, while digital technology seen in abstracto is the storage, preservation, and recall of data through a binary reduction of positive and non-positive values—which, with quantum computing, may evolve to a non-binary system—seen as an extension of human faculties, and thus as what truly defines a technology, the digital serves our abilities to retain and recollect.
Consider this in contrast to the ephemeral transmissions of radio, television, even film: each proceeds fluently from one moment to the next and is-what-it-is not by a stored-up accretion of bits, but by their very continuity. Were we to deconstruct the production of any broadcast or movie, it would lose its “magic”; even the news—in fact, especially the news, which may be wholly faithful to the facts, but for the countless infidelities of omission and tone. The “fakeness” of news stems less from inaccurate reporting than from the careful crafting of a narrative, and for this, it requires expert narrators no less than the wildest fantasies of film or television—more so, since it cannot rely on special effects or outlandish ideas. The oral culture of the global electric village relies upon its trust in elders, among whom the newsmen are undoubtedly included.
But the irruption of digital technology is shattering the social syntax of artfully constructed narration that these elders built: each individual now has the ability to leave the village and to see things for themselves. Everyone is able to report their own interpretation of how things really are. More than that, each and every one of these interpretations can now be recorded, preserved, and compared against all others. The internet overflows with not only opinions but exposures: for the internet—which is to digital technology as lightning was to Dr. Frankenstein’s monster7—is a technology public in principle, and however encrypted or protected content may be, it is seldom erased and all too easily revealed.
We have left the global village, possibly forever. But where have we gone? For now, the digital diaspora has made most of us nomads. Leaving the village in every direction, we encounter a fragmentation of ideas unlike any seen before. Every idiosyncrasy of taste or thought now finds not only a means of expression, but likely an audience—a small one, maybe, but an audience nonetheless. Communities centered around any idea at all may thereby develop despite distance, the busyness of their members, or their own controversial nature.
For the majority whose minds are still adapted to life in the global village, this has led to a state of pseudo-tribalism where ideas that were once peripheral become increasingly central to the identity of every “tribe’s” members.8 These pseudo-tribes—postgender rights activists, white ethno-nationalists, extremes of both “left” and “right”, committed centrists, and so on—are aggressive to each other and dismissive towards smaller troupes of nomads. My suspicion is that this profusion of centres will not hold, for the adhesive keeping each together cannot withstand the continual rush of thought to which it is subject under the digital paradigm.
In addition to this, the ideas around which these communities revolve are, for the most part, poorly grounded and established not through reasoned thought, as their possessors would like to suppose, but through either a kind of tenacity—that is, through repetition to the point of “naturalcy”—or an adequacy to one’s prior convictions that, of course, presupposes their truth.9 Uncritically-formed background images thrive in a fantasy-oriented Umwelt, but illusions cannot protect any idea or belief for very long under the harsh exposure of the digital.
To establish a strong foundation for life in a digital world, we cannot turn to any of the increasingly volatile pseudo-tribal ideologies, regardless of their merit relative to the others.
Then how is one to go about it? That is the question; and preserved before your eyes may be the inkling of an answer. To understand how we ought to exist, with the cognitive and cathectic stability that’s requisite to human flourishing, we need to understand the technologies which, by mediating them, determine our psychological capacities. Digital technology first and foremost extends our ability for retention and thereby, for recollection.10 What does this do to us, as human beings—how does this tool shape us? Are we—can we still be— oriented towards fantasy? For now, yes; the electric world still pulses through us and its means are more pervasive than ever. Through the anywhere-and-everywhere-and always medium of the internet, we can immerse ourselves in fantasy completely. Fictional franchises expand now to the point that they are known as “universes”. And so, the essence of digital influence on our psychology comes in two primary extensions, from which a third results as a consequence.
The first is retention: to preserve in such a way that what is preserved can be accessed again. Digital technology in itself is archival; every computer now houses a potential library of infinitely-expansible capacity and, through the internet, every library is potentially accessible from any other. But more than this, the digital archives itself: future processes depend upon processes previous, and so the success of any digital operation depends upon fidelity to itself.11 The very structure of digital technology seeks—almost by nature, as it were—to completely and totally retain all that occurs within it.
The second is recollection: to bring together again into an ordered whole. What we think of as remembering is not simply recalling an event as an isolated, self-contained incident, but is the reassembly of its parts into a specific pattern. We recollect continually, even if not conscious of it; for we rely upon the patterns of parts that form every concept through which we filter our experience of the present. The digital may extend this by ensuring that our recollections are faithful; that we do not, over time, re-vise the past.12
Last but not least, there is categorisation and the facility of distinction: it is a consequence of preserving large quantities of diverse anything that it must categorised. To be well-organised or well-categorised, we need above all else a power of distinction.
Thus, what the digital demands of us—the shape that it insists we take—is neither that of villagers nor of imperials; not that of nationalists or globalists; not that of ruralists or urbanites. The closest analogue that I can think of is that of the Latin Age monk, whose task it was to preserve, to study, to distinguish. This new quasi-monasticism does not observe a unified creed—and this may yet be its undoing—nor is it guaranteed to thrive. The monastic scribal culture of the Latin Age may not have taken place at all had the monasteries not been built as places of refuge and had the art of parchment-making not been realised as a means of preserving knowledge for great lengths of time. The quasi-monastic digital culture may not blossom today under the pressures of fantasy-induced psychosis, or it may well be overrun by pseudo-tribal reactionaries.
By that some token, it may outlast all expectations and abide in isolated corners for the benefit of future generations; as the monasteries led to the medieval university through new quaestiones disputatae, cursus philosophicus, and not only new summae theologiae but summae scientiae, too. Of course, this only stands a chance of happening if we are ready to renounce the global village.
Brian Kemple, who received his PhD in Philosophy in 2016 at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, under the direction of the inimitable John Deely, challenges the academic status quo. He is the author of Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition, The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology, Introduction to Philosophical Principles, and Linguistic Signification (forthcoming), as well as the Executive Editor of Reality (realityjournal.org) and the Executive Director of the Lyceum Institute (lyceum.institute).
McLuhan 1964: Understanding Media.
McLuhan, ibidem, 298: “[John Keats] had never thought about media or the way in which Gutenberg created Henry Ford and the assembly line and standardized culture.”
Descartes’ Meditations, a short collection of private thoughts written in isolation and addressed to no one but himself, were published in 1641 and became a great success. John Poinsot’s Cursus philosophicus, a course of philosophical study based upon the model of disputed questions, was published in several volumes between 1632 and 1634, and though it retained some prominence in the Catholic education of 17th century Iberia, it was nearly forgotten for 300 years—and largely still is, outside the influence of one late semiotician. Descartes’ work fit the printing press; Poinsot’s did not. The way of ideas overtook the way of signs. Cf. Deely 2001: Four Ages of Understanding.
McLuhan, ibid., c.18.
McLuhan, ibid., 6: “As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village.” 130: “Our speedup 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.”
Terminological note: “faculty” here translates the Latin potentia, “power”; and “ability” translates the idea of a Latin operatio—the kind of an act (as “judgement” names both the ability I have to judge, as well as any actual intellectual composition or division followed by assent to the truth of the composing). Abilities belong to—are particular enactments of—faculties. Thus, evaluation is an ability of the cogitative faculty, and so on.
For a good, succinct, and entertaining history of the digital computer, I recommend George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral.
It’s no small irony that much of the “rational centrist” movement—which sees itself as being in opposition to so-called postmodernist extremism on the one hand and ethno-nationalist bigotry on the other—has itself turned into a pseudo-tribe.
Or as Aristotle’s c.449bc treatise is titled, Περὶ μνήμης καὶ ἀναμνήσεως.
The consequences of infidelity in digital processes in a technologically-advanced, transhumanist setting are explored in media franchises like Shirō Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell.