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Digitizing the Global Village:
Marshall McLuhan and ISDN
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1988 by Robert J.
All Rights Reserved.
John Robert Colombo, compiler of The Dictionary
of Canadian Quotations, the two best-known Canadian
quotations are "the global village," referring to the knitting
together of the world through telecommunications, and "the medium
is the message," an observation that the fundamental
characteristics of a particular form of communication, rather
than the content, determine what a person experiences.
Both of these phrases were coined by the late University of
Toronto English Professor Marshall McLuhan. He became a
communications guru in the 1960s with his innovative theories
about the effects of mass media on thought and behavior.
A lot has changed in the twelve years since McLuhan died,
especially in the ever-advancing field of telecommunications.
Today, instead of the discrete media he wrote about video,
audio, the printed page we're at the dawn of the age of ISDN,
the Integrated Services Digital Network.
This international public system will combine what McLuhan called
"hot" media (high-information-content forms requiring little
sensory involvement and contemplation) such as print and packaged
audio, and "cool" media (lower definition, requiring more user
involvement) such as telephone and interactive video.
What would McLuhan have made of ISDN? Hugh Innis, Professor of
Economics at Ryerson Polytechnic University and the son of
McLuhan's mentor, Harold Innis, admires McLuhan greatly. "But he
had the good sense to die at the right time," he says. "Neither
he nor his theories would have been treated well if he had hung
around much longer. For instance, his theory of social change
holds no water at all. Despite his predictions that the global
village would mean the collapse of the church and individual
states, both are alive and well."
Derrick De Kerckhove, on the other hand, thinks that McLuhan is
still "enormously relevant" today. De Kerckhove is co-director
of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at U of T.
"True, Marshall wasn't tuned into the newer technologies, but
nobody has yet made a better attempt at understanding the
electronic age," he says.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton on July 21, 1911.
He reached a level of popular fame enjoyed by few other
academics, becoming the subject of a New Yorker cartoon
and appearing as himself in Woody Allen's movie Annie
Honors were heaped upon him: he was a companion in the Order of
Canada and a Schweitzer Fellow at Fordham University. Tom Wolfe
called him the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin,
Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.
Although he didn't rise to prominence until the 1960s, he
presented the foundations of his communications theories in his
1952 book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial
Man. His later books, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of
Typographic Man (for which he won the 1962 Governor General's
Award for Literature), Understanding Media: The Extensions of
Man (1964), and The Medium Is the Message: An Inventory of
Effects (1967), expanded on his ideas. From 1946 until his
death on New Year's Eve, 1980, he taught at the University of
McLuhan never specifically discussed ISDN, but he surely
predicted its potential when he wrote: "Our extended senses,
tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems
incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the
electronic age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence
among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite
new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now
constitute a single field of experience which demand that they
become collectively conscious."
That certainly sounds like the integrated world of ISDN, but
McLuhan wasn't a futurist. Robert Arnold Russel, President of
the Consortium for Creativity and Innovation, knew him well. "I
asked him once, `if, as you claim, each medium contains the one
that preceded it, what is the next medium?' He was stunned by
this and mumbled something about `new media glare,' a term he'd
made up on the spot to explain why one couldn't foresee the next
medium, which, of course, turned out to be the universal
digitization offered by ISDN. McLuhan didn't understand what
digitizing would mean, allowing all types of media to be treated
in the same way. Nor did he understand the personalizing of
media that was forthcoming through personal computers and
videocassette recorders, which made mass media accessible on an
individual demand basis."
If McLuhan failed to grasp all the implications of the digital
revolution, perhaps it's because he felt ill at ease with the
instruments of the electronic era. In a memorial radio program
on Toronto's CJRT-FM broadcast eleven days after McLuhan died,
Ryerson Polytechnical Institute professor Don Gillies, who was a
member of McLuhan's Media in Society seminars at U of T's
Centre for Culture and Technology from 1969 to 1971, told a
"At Ryerson in 1971, he asked a couple of us to do some videotape
with him in a variety of media settings. We began to do some
very open, free-form work for instance, putting McLuhan in the
studio control room and having the cameras on the floor shoot him
through the windows. After two or three sessions, McLuhan
appeared to be very unhappy with the media hardware. He
complained, for instance, about the irritation from the
high-frequency whistle that you sometimes get in that sort of
electronic environment. Pretty quickly his agent told us that we
couldn't be experimenting with Marshall in this manner, and that
was the end of it. I think he was pretty uncomfortable with
modern communication technology."
Still, perhaps an outsider McLuhan abandoned training in
engineering to become an English literature scholar can best
see broad trends. He felt, for instance, that movable type
changed the world, giving rise to nation states. "Typographic
man," as McLuhan dubbed those who lived before the electronic
age, subdivided all processes into little components that had to
be categorized, not unlike an old typesetter's case with separate
cubbyholes for each letter.
On the other hand, he felt that we "electronic man" had to
grasp processes as a whole, since to subdivide instantaneous
communication would result in a gross misinterpretation of it.
In fact, said McLuhan, if we could just adjust our minds to the
idea of instantaneous information, we could "escape into sheer
ISDN will provide instantaneous information in spades, and it
will do so across several media. This would have made McLuhan
happy, for he felt that dealing with only a single medium
especially print was a form of self-hypnosis (psychologists
sometimes define hypnosis as the filling of the field of
attention by one sense only).
"McLuhan noted that we have a single nervous system that
coordinates all our senses and all conscious and subconscious
systems," says De Kerckhove. "With ISDN, we're seeing a reunion
of the separate parts TV, radio, telephone, computers into
a sensory synthesis that Marshall would have considered much more
appropriate to human beings."
De Kerckhove believes that the unification of computer
peripherals worldwide through ISDN will knit McLuhan's global
village even tighter. "Consider what video alone, in the form of
television, has managed to accomplish: everyone has already been
everywhere in the world by watching TV. But it's a narrow
picture, defined by what information we thought we needed. For
years, people just thought of Kuwait as a petroleum-producing
country. But with recent events, we now know about the Kuwaiti
monarchy, too. With ISDN, we will have faster and cheaper access
to all kinds of information. Perhaps that will result in more
accurate, fuller pictures."
Unfortunately, such instantaneous information is less conducive,
McLuhan felt, to analysis and consideration. Information that
comes quickly has to be taken at face value if one is to keep up
with the flow.
Such ready access could also lead to what McLuhan called
"information overload." ISDN will support hypertext (a term that
McLuhan would have loved, for he relished in word play), the
pulling together of related words, data, sounds, and pictures
from myriad sources. Hypertext will, by its nature, be
redundant. But McLuhan would have known how to deal with it,
judging by what he once told CBC-TV: "There is an enormous
redundancy in every well-written book," he said. "With a
well-written book I read only the right-hand page and allow my
mind to work on the left-hand page. With a poorly written book I
read every word."
Kelly Gotlieb, husband of SF writer Phyllis Gotlieb and a
computer scientist at U of T, was a member of the McLuhan
Program's graduate faculty. He suspects McLuhan would recognize
that ISDN is not a new medium per se. "But he would be
fascinated by the differences inherent in the components of the
network," says Gotlieb. "For instance, he would have recognized
that there are very different protocols and habits depending on
whether you're using an ordinary telephone or a picture phone.
He would have called them very different media, and that means
you get very different messages."
Gotlieb believes McLuhan would have foreseen the emergence of a
new kind of etiquette around the picture phone, determining under
what conditions it would be rude not to have a picture to go
along with the voice. "Consider the etiquette for interrupting,"
says Gotlieb. "With a voice phone, if somebody says something
that outrages you, you still let him go on serially. But on a
picture phone, he can see your outrage and he might stop. That
kind of difference would have interested Marshall."
McLuhan would also have been fascinated by the etiquette that has
built up around electronic-mail networks "netiquette," as it's
come to be called (another term McLuhan would have enjoyed).
It takes a skilled writer to transmit jokes and irony with just
words. On many email networks, beginning with the UNIX-based
Internet, others have overcome that problem by transmitting a
stylized facial expression along with their text messages. A
colon/hyphen/right-bracket combination like this :-)
represents a sideways smiling face as eyes, nose, and upturned
mouth, meaning the message should be taken lightly. Using a
semi-colon instead of a colon like this ;-) connotes a sly
wink. Unhappiness can be shown with a left bracket instead of a
right, like so :-(. There's even a poker face like this
:-| for those times you want to be deliberately
inscrutable, or indicate that you are holding your feelings in
"These are voluntary controls," says Gotlieb. "When the
bandwidth goes up in ISDN, I think we're going to have to develop
the appropriate netiquette for it. If, as Marshall said, the
medium really is substantially more powerful than the message,
its own rules will develop."
Netiquette may seem like a small detail. McLuhan would have been
equally fascinated by the big picture. "With ISDN, like any
medium, Marshall would look for problems and find them," says
Derrick De Kerckhove. "He'd say, perhaps, that television was an
open, generous medium, pouring images and dreams out at you. By
contrast, the computer is not generous. You have to give to it,
pour your insides into it, eviscerating yourself. He might say
that the open, easy-going Sixties were that way because
television was the dominant medium. And he'd say the closed,
me-generation, yuppie Eighties happened because the demanding
computer was the dominant medium."
McLuhan might have drawn other conclusions, too, according to De
Kerckhove. "He might have made parallels between ISDN and the
automobile. Cars started out as a tool, then became an art form.
They were refined, became faster and more efficient. But when a
technology reaches its saturation point, it flips into a contrary
form and becomes an irritant. Today motorcars crawl through our
cities, hampering all forms of movement. Marshall would see the
good and the bad in any medium or in a collection of media,
such as ISDN."
Certainly McLuhan would have preached caution when people talk
about ISDN as a purely positive force. As he said shortly before
he died, "In the Eighties there will be a general awareness that
the technology game is out of control, and that perhaps man was
not intended to live at the speed of light."
Regardless of such warnings, ISDN is on its way. Exactly what
Marshall McLuhan would have thought about it we'll never know.
But, according to Hugh Innis, "We desperately need another
McLuhan to give us some ideas about where the new media are
going. Nobody is providing his kind of stinging, probing
overview. Without a McLuhan to see the big picture, we're
traveling blindly into the future."
[1998 bionote] Robert J. Sawyer is the author of the
science fiction novels Golden Fleece,
Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter,
Foreigner, End of an Era,
The Terminal Experiment, Starplex,
Frameshift, Illegal Alien,
and Factoring Humanity.
He has won the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year (for The Terminal
Experiment) and been a finalist for the Hugo Award four times.
More Good Reading
Rob's interview with Isaac Asimov
Rob's article Technology and the End of Culture
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