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Computers and society from the 1980s to today (Part Four)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 13, 2012

Computers and Society: Future Perspectives and Current Dilemmas of Technological Advance

(The essay below originally written in March/April 1986 – author's note.)

Nevertheless, Marshall McLuhan, the leading media theorist and himself virtually part of popular culture, achieved a sort of cool optimism about the future. His essential ideas, drawn from the works of Harold A. Innis on the roles of different writing media in the formation of ancient empires, as well as the technological optimism of Teilhard de Chardin, postulated the formation of a "global village" – a new form of society entirely different from the print-based "Gutenberg galaxy". [18]  This passage gives some feel for McLuhan's concepts, which, it should be noted, are heavily predicated on the continuing development of communications and computer technology:

This externalization of the senses creates what de Chardin calls the "noosphere" or a technological brain for the world. Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [19]

This, then, is another way of looking at the future in terms more congenial, perhaps, to those who are technologically oriented. One of the salient features of McLuhan's is the stress on the violence of the transformation from a print-based to an electronic-based society:

We know from our own past the kind of energy that is released, as by fission, when literacy explodes the tribal family unit. What do we know about the social and psychic energies that develop by electric fusion or implosion when literate individuals are suddenly gripped by an electromagnetic field such as occurs in the new Common Market pressure in Europe? Make no mistake, the fusion of people who have known individualism and nationalism is not the same process as the fission of "backward" and oral cultures that are just coming to individualism and nationalism. It is the difference between the A bomb and the H bomb. The latter is more violent, by far. [20]

The Sixties, one may presume, were only the first of far greater social disruptions which will follow before the "global village" society is created and stabilized. As in all theories based on single factors, it is easy to accuse McLuhan of ignoring the role of politics and ideology in his view of the future. Daniel Bell, in his book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, states, "… the lack of a rooted moral belief system is the cultural contradiction of the society, the deepest challenge to its survival." [21]   This, of course, echoes George Parkin Grant, and other traditionalist-conservative thinkers such as T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.

The question might now be posed if the technology of the computer will aid or hinder in any way, various more positive or more negative outcomes of the future. Since ceaseless dynamism might be seen as the very essence of our society, it might be argued that the computer explosion will only accentuate this tendency, to drive the texture of life forward to such an extent few people can stand it. The author does not see computer technology as having the ability to generate a serious change in the ruling ideology. The control of the education system, the academy, the social services, and, above all, the mass media, is all that is necessary to control a modern society. The formal elected government is possibly the least important element in the structure, thus paradoxically undermining the element of democratic choice in a society calling itself "democratic". It matters little whether we call this system corporate "conservatism" or media "liberalism" or institutionalized "socialism" – it could be argued that it in fact negates the better meanings of all of these concepts. Thus, the computer technology, it seems, will accentuate current trends, without generating new directions in the ideological system. Social change will have to be generated in different ways.

In fact, one might point out here the essential flaw of an "information" society – "information" is a "value-free" category, which might apply equally to a manual on constructing bombs or to Plato's Republic. The central question of a unified value system appropriate to our society remains unresolved, no matter how far technology advances. ESR

Notes (rendered continuously)

  1. Among McLuhan's most important works are Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and the The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. The concept of the "global village" is generally known.
  1. The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 32
  1. Understanding Media, p. 50

Just what McLuhan's theories amount to is difficult to arrive at. He seems to be advocating a kind of optimistic technological determinism that reduces whatever actions individual men might take to irrelevance. He seems to say that the problems of society will resolve themselves of their own accord due to this technological determinism. His ideas would therefore seem to justify whatever the ever-changing media status-quo is.

  1. Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, p. 480

The central contradiction as Bell sees it is between a functional, rational, economic sphere and an irrational, antinomian cultural sphere. The disjunction between these two realms threatens to destroy society.

Bibliography

Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Frates, Jeffrey and Moldrup, William. Computers and Life: An Integrative Approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983.

Grant, George. Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1979 [1965].

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1975 [1932].

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965 [1962].

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965 [1964].

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Penguin Books, 1984 [1949].

Roszak, Theodore. The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Zoll, Donald Atwell. The Twentieth Century Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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