Roads and Paper Routes

“If we understood our older media, such as roads and the written word, and if we valued their human effects sufficiently, we could reduce or even eliminate the electronic factor from our lives.” What would that even look like?

Homework from Andrew McLuhan’s Understanding Media intensive, quote from UM

Roads and the written words, as media forms, forced walled villages to give way to empires. These two media, as well as the technologies initially scaffolding from or coupling with them, increase the velocity of human life. “Speed, in turn, accentuates problems or form and sturcture. The older arrangements had not been made with a vview to such speed, and people begin to sense a draining away of live values…” McLuhan says in Understanding Media (p.129). The question then occurs, if the old arrangement can understand and embrace the speed and power of new media, can it sustain or maintain the status quo?

Although he asks, McLuhan illustrates that unfortunately, no. As the lesson is change, total and absolute, we are too effected to respond proactively. The effects of new media forms “result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs” (UM, p.2). Electricity isn’t a medium, it’s a force. But as a force, it allows compoundedly-advanced machinated technologies to evolve – from radio, tv, computers, to the internet, smartphones, and chatgpt. Each of these scaffoldings change how people think and interact, they are not just some “application” or “appliance.” And while they are invented, their wide-spread emergence and adoption is not something the public chooses, nor does this happen evenly.

Accordingly, this divergent emergence creates civilizational confusion and social disruption. While McLuhan posits “if we understood our own media old and new, these confusions and disruptions could be programmed and synchronized,” he follows with the irony that the media themselves distract us from recognizing them (p.130). So after offering the idea that a controlling response might be attained through understanding, Mcluhan confronts this ideal leverage with a truthful human folly. It is possible, but its impossible for us because each new media numbs proactivity.

Yet also, there’s no turning back. Thus he implies in his following approach that religious restraint or zealous isolation from New Media would be the informed response to manage the disruption of new media. He mirrors his previous statement when he says “If we understand our older media[…] and if we value their effects sufficiently, we could reduce or even eliminate the electonic factor from our lives. Is there an instance[…]? If so, that would be an instance of values or reasoned preference” (p.131). Essentially, while he thinks it’s possible he lists no example, because anyone fitting would be a “traditionalist” hold-out.

Upon reviewing this passage, I do not think it is possible for a culture or group to truly remove the electronic factor entirely. Restaint, balance – yes. Many modern people have technological boundaries, some of which are even religiously informed. However, extremism in these boundaries necessitate other media amputations. For instance, ultra-orthodox jewish communities as well as amish communities abscond certain modern uses of electricity but also have other strong value-based opposition to taking on many media forms. Essentially it works, but they are not unaffected by the world of information and connectivity in which they too live.