[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > McLuhan and ISDN

Digitizing the Global Village:
Marshall McLuhan and ISDN

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1988 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


According to 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 Hall.

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 Toronto.

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 revealing story:

"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 understanding."

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 check.

"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
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