Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Marshall McLuhan on surveillance and identity in the electric age (1977) [video] (twitter.com/bfcarlson)
108 points by llimos on Jan 4, 2023 | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments

The full video of this interview is also available via YouTube, which is accessible through third-party players / downloaders, including yt-download and mpv:


My jaw literally dropped when he said TV takes away your body. That's mastery of the medium, he owned the fourth wall harder than I've ever seen. Beautiful little lie, it's not true for him in the moment, but it is true for the viewer, and he's concerned with the viewing so it is kinda true...

That's angling towards qualia. What does it feel like to be an AI? I can imagine a world where programs are paid in experience. Querying a model is cheap, and leaves it unchanged. Integrating new info is expensive.

Usually the argument pro-digital social networks is that it's just the same as before: the same happened to radio, TV, etc. But is it really the same? Did we ever had such an immediate, quantified, ubiquitous, and global feedback mechanism that kept us constantly aware (and self-conscious) of every single thing we say or do? Is it really natural to micro-manage your life based on the amount of likes you are going to get from people who are (more often than not) not even a part of your life? They say that a metric stops being useful when it becomes the goal, and I feel like we reached the ultimate instance of that problem.

Those who want (and wanted) to did. There are however still many people who not only live their lives as they please but also say and display whatever silliness or ugliness they like on social networks, craving the attention perhaps but also gloating in the offense they cause. Others just don't care either way. The feedback mechanism may be there now like never before in history, but the human responses to feedback are largely the same they've been in many other times or places.

"When you don't have a physical body, you're a discarnate being"

As a video creator[1], the greatest irony about the above quote is that filming is substantially involved with the physical reality of the world in front of the camera. You cannot create an image unless the object exists in front of the lens. That is why filmmaking is material-intensive, and to that extent, capital-intensive. Visual elements like objects, composition, lighting do not happen by accident. And in the metaphysical realm, elements like stories, characters, emotions do not just occur in an optimal sequence without considerable premeditation.

[1] https://youtu.be/Z_pH0RMxa_E

To continue McLuhan's quote: "You have a very different relation of the world around you."

This is also true with making intangible products like videos. A video file is just a sequence of bytes that had sampled the audio-visual stimuli. This is then re-manifested into our perception by the manipulation of light on the screen and of soundwaves on the speaker.

The intangible nature of video is both a blessing and a curse to filmmakers. Being immaterial makes it effortless to distribute the material once already created. But the audience will not see the challenges in manifesting an idea into the physical realm for the camera. Furthermore, with the inundation of video content online, appreciation for such crafts evaporates.

As McLuhan postulated, entities are treated differently when manifested without physicality. I would say that being physical evokes more empathy. His conversation referenced the erosion of privacy, on the principle that discarnate beings are treated as being less. I wonder if more "things" will be treated less with their further digitization.

> You cannot create an image unless the object exists in front of the lens.

CGI would like to have a word with you

Sure, you can place objects in front of a virtual lens.

But to make it look right is a significant effort in itself. A purely synthetic object takes an army of artists to create, an another more for compositing (blending in and adjusting to the optical conditions of existing footage). Such tremendous effort seem discounted by audiences nowadays with the abundance of CGI.

I just read about McLuhan in 1Q84 today. He coined the expression, "the medium is the message," talking about how we tend to focus on the content of media, and disregard the media itself. I feel like most people are wrong about most things, most of the time, but that's near prophetic for 1964.

It talks also about the creator, not only the viewer. By being disembodied, the content creators themselves are disconnected from the context of their audiences. That’s the kind of relationship that is only possible via exacerbated prejudices and oversimplified pseudofacts that can be transmitted (and sound good) to a large amount / variety of different people. If this relationship was one of open dialogue where the individuals could argue and discuss, it wouldn’t last a minute.

Legit genius, there's still so much to mine from that.

I would love word2vec for arbitrary media. The interpolating ML algos are half there, like the one that interps between musical genres, or the music video image generator one.

There has to be some part of the brain that thinks TV is real.

McLuhan came up with the term "Global Village". I remember that term being bandied about a lot in the early days of the internet, which was going to turn us into a global village: one big happy worldwide community in open communication. I rolled my eyes at the idea then.

But at some point...I came across what he'd actually written (or anyway, a summary of it). It was not a cheesy Disney "It's a Small World" vision, at all.

His point was that a world centered on books is different than one centered on speech--direct or online. There's a sense of truth: it's that thing resting on the shelves in your public library. There's only so much room there, and there's a competition to contribute to it. Each field had a few recognized authorities, and then a handful of dissidents (who were in a direct debate with the authorities). The bar to joining those groups was high, and there were a whole slew of gatekeepers. And we knew what an authority looked like: they wore glasses and tweed suits and you saw them being interviewed on TV (or, earlier, you read their editorials in the paper). If you met a guy on the street who had figured it all out, you could roll your eyes and tell them to get writing: if and when you read their book, you could consider taking them seriously.

But with the onslaught of new media, we're moving to something like a global village. A real village, recognizable to someone who grew up in one: a place with gossips and busybodies, a tribal place where rumors spread wildly and every 'fact' is he-said-vs-she-said. There's a cacophony of voices and perspectives. The people who talk the most and the loudest are the authorities. An authority is just a talking head on a screen, being shouted at by other talking heads--and anybody can get a camera and become one on YouTube.

Note that the older, book-oriented world isn't correct. It can be wrong, and resistant to change, and the authorities can all be stuffy old white guys propagating their specific idea of the world. But it does give most of society a sense of structure. There is the general sense that there's some bedrock truth down there under all the the noise and debate.

Not so in a global village. Truth is just what we decide it is, today, and tomorrow (if a different set of busybodies and gossips gain the upper hand) it may be different. Your truth might not be the same as my truth--and maybe we ought not to be talking with each other anyway, since we're from different 'truth' camps. If we're in a debate, there is no authority we can reference: no library, no expert, no foundational text. It's just your word versus mine, or your friends vs my friends. How do you even go about establishing that sort of central authority in a system based on transient, immediate interactions? Truth and authority are temporary, and communal. There is no center.

I remember thinking, back in ~2009: "This guy's got a point." And now...?

Very thought provoking. I guess people heard Global Village and though of Our Town instead of Salem, or The Lottery.

This is very well-said, thank you. I think that's just right.

McLuhan's idea of being discorporeal, or without a body, being only a representation or a symbol pretty much sums up the culture right now. As neutrally as I can manage, that sums up the divide that makes political differences so irreconcilable. More than just being reduced to symbols to each other, the polarization is between people who believe symbols and the represented are the real, and those who believe there exists a real independent of the represented or experienced. We're in the power vacuum created by this discorporeal existence McLuhan predicted, and filling that vaccum is the source of the conflict.

I'd take it a step further where the conservative mind is defined by belief in a real (the real) where pursuit and alignment to truth is the highest good, and whereas the progressive understanding is that the real is whatever one represents or experiences it to be over the substrate of a power struggle. They're right about the power struggle, but only because to them everything is a power struggle and we all just happen to be in one caused by this discorporeality from tech. Sort of a stopped-clock waiting for a Marxist moment. Personally, I think it's a materialist understanding that has no belief at all, and it substitutes a system of criticism for the physical experience that produces a sustainable morality. However, while I don't expect them to care, I am very interested in the problem of how to diffuse these conflicts I believe are the roots of the kind of cyclical and generational genocial wars for which our species seems about due.

McLuhan was right about a lot of things, and probably was more concrete and useful than the more fashionable ideas of Baudrillard and the other post modernists. McLuhan was also a fairly devout catholic, which might explain how he could riff on the same broad critical themes as the atheistic critical theorists, but with a more right handedness instead of left hand perspective. His conservatism is probably what ultimately caused him to fall out of academic fashion, not unlike Rene Girard, where they both had an almost scientific level of predictive power, but the post-hoc explanatory power of the marxist theorists was ultimately more seductive to undergrad minds. These latter ones asked, "who needs all these other abstract things like good, truth, stability, freedom, when you can just seize the power?" And so we have a generation of politically activated adults who are organizing to rule over the ashes of civilization.

A bit abstract for HN, but you post Marshall McLuhan, this is about par. I have a book of his essays on my shelf I thought about revisiting, but it's a bit like reading an engineering manual after the ship has struck the iceberg, where if you're only reading it now, it's probably too late. :)

> They're right about the power struggle, but only because to them everything is a power struggle and we all just happen to be in one caused by this discorporeality from tech.

I don't know if I believe that. The problem with the post-modernistic lens of power struggle is that it has a tendency to discount totally the evolutionary basis of how we perceive things and how the preservation and/or pursuit of power is geared toward spreading ones genes. Most postmodernist just go and say that it is societal construction that originate and persist power structures without a component of biology. Humans have the possibility to transcend ones biology but only when we have the resources to do so, which is not known to most postmodernists what I've seen.

[Citation needed]

For instance, Foucault's claim is that we have moved from sovereign power that takes life (and its proceeds) away to one which takes control of it in order to optimize production. With a backing of experts-diffused scientific norms rather than based on law.

And biology itself is of course also suspicious, having been corrupted by power.

(Note that it isn't that much of a big deal in the postmodernist view of science, where we consider that it cannot be taken as Truth, only as a good enough paradigm that could be falsified tomorrow.)

What do you need citation for? Why can't my observation about the discussion from adherents of post modern philosophy today be basis for discussion on hacker news? Or do your thought need citation for your thoughts?

Sure my thoughts are derived from someone else. For example Donald Hoffmans - The case against reality ... Do I need to cite it to make my disbelief that it is only power structures and there is no evolutionary basis for our power structures.

For your claims about the so called "adherents of post modern philosophy" ?

And Donald Hoffman seems to be a pretty good example of them ?

"Evolution literally hides the truth from us on purpose."


(Thanks by the way, I have been dabbling in visual sciences myself, will have to get his books now.)

Well he might be a post modernist in the literal sense but as the entry point to this discussion is about power structures on how they might have gotten it right. But what I see is people having things backwards with e.g. the corruption of biology by the power structures, it is backwards the powerful abuse our biology against us with e.g. compulsion loops that are proven by neorology with dopamnine system. The power structures didn't create the dopamnine system an its role in creating addictions, but the power structures uses and/or abuses that knowledge.

For example we have the post modern field of "fat studies" where they blame society for having power structures against their body size. Which is exactly the wrong way. The powerstructure is there to make them unhealthy because they make a profit of using humans evolutionary craving for high-caloric foods against them. That view point is totally discounted that the whole "healthy at every size" plays right in the hands of the powerful not the powerless.

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”

McLuhan is still the most important thinker of the 21st century.

One of the most, for sure

I love a lot of Marshall McLuhan but also a lot of what he says is very metaphorical and spiritual which doesn’t always make sense to me. He is sort of a weird guy that way. Smart but goes weird into unprovable allegories often.

I mean a lot about the media is how it affects us, how it influences our very being, how it influences our fabric of the world and what the world means to us. Just looking at this in a rational or numeric fashion is certainly interesting, but also a guarantueed way to fail to recognize the bigger picture and make sense of it.

Theorists like McLuhan in that sense are more about raising questions in their readers than about providing statements of facts or prooving points. Sure some proof and some facts are needed, but if the theory is compelling it can become one of many available lenses through which we can examine the world around us.

We can perfectly understand the atmospheric light scattering and absorbtion that produces the colors of a beautiful sunset, but all of these facts will not help you make sense what it feels like to see it, what it means to those looking at it and how it influences their lives.

I don't want to say those who just look at the optical physics are somehow wrong in doing so, quite the opposite — but there can also be value in looking at the meaning of things in a different, more open way.

On your light anecdote: magenta and pink do not exist as physical photons in reality.

I have yet to be convinced McLuhan had anything to add to the discussion.

> Show business had been one way of establishing identity by just put-ons. And without the put-on, you're a nobody.

It always felt disingenuous to "smile for the camera" when really my life circumstances were plainly miserable at the time. However, by refusing to participate in fraudulent representations of your identity, you now become a nobody; a digital vampire, without a reflection in the black mirror.

> Role-playing has become the normal mode of survival in the business world.

You adopt an alter-ego. In the modern information age and WFH era, this is a non-corporeal identity whose representation is purely digital.

> When you're on the air, you're a discarnate being.

It may or may not have any correlation to your "actual" (read: corporeal) identity.

> Everybody tends to merge his identity with other people at the speed of light.

In modern censorious culture, the boundaries of your non-corporeal identity are being violated without consent - in order to have an identity (read: participate in most mainstream social media on the Web), you must adopt the ethics of the Moderator class and the masses of Users that uphold the group identity.

Failure to accept the group ethos and install it into your non-corporeal identity leads to a deprivation of that non-corporeal identity; whether you were banned or merely refused to sign up on principle, the effect is the same - you are a ghost without a digital representation.

> [...] and this, I think, has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people, really, of their private identity.

What makes this uniquely more dystopian in the COVID era is that identity has progressed to Baudrillard's third order simulacrum: "it masks the absence of a profound reality." Whereas the distinction between one's non-corporeal (digital) identity was clear in decades prior, due to, e.g. low megapixel cameras; low video resolutions & bitrates; historical groundings in BBS, mailing lists, and fora; etc.

...it is now becoming easier - tacitly assumed, even - to conflate one's digital identity for the "real person" (discussions of what a "real person" is notwithstanding). Indeed, for many people we encounter, our only interactions with them will be digital; especially during that time where in-person interaction was in fact forbidden, for reasons of public health. Thus, failure to assimilate into the group identity and uphold its manner of thought feels much closer to a direct assault on one's personal, corporeal identity.

This is the best comment thread I’ve ever seen on a McLuhan clip. Guess I need to pay attention to HN.

McLuhan is interesting and provocative, but also has a strong tendency to spout statements and assertions with little basis in fact. I'm not saying "ignore him", he'd managed to suggest far too many interesting observations for that. But read or listen with discernment, and note that apparent throwaway comments are often false.

Standouts here, based on the full interview (<https://yewtu.be/watch?v=xtsTB3U8AeE>):

"The literate man can carry his liquor, the tribal man cannot." This fails to stand to even slight examination: history is replete with drunken authors (Dylan Thomas comes to mind, whoever he was, as S&G noted), and the correlation is far more with populations which had a long-standing relationship with alcohol and hence evolved both tolerance and moderation. Indian and Chinese populations are highly literate but notably less alcohol-tolerant than Europeans.

"You cannot propagandise a native." That is, literate populations are singularly susceptible to propaganda. This is ... interesting, but again, fails to stand to examination. Tribal cultures are subject to Big Man narratives, and propaganda seems most effective among the less literate and educated members of a population. In part this is because propaganda is a large-group mechanism, that is, its very influence is largely based on its ability to move a large portion of the population, and even amongst literate cultures, there are limits to how much of the population is highly literate. That the highly-literate and educated are subject to different sorts of propaganda and influence I've no doubt, but that illiterate populations aren't subject to cargo-culting, mythology, and daemonisation of the other ... fails basic historical tests.

"Electronic people lose their religion very easily." Again, evidence suggests otherwise. The history here of the Second Great Awakening, of the Burned Over Districts (of upstate New York), of Holy Rollers, of Father Coughlin, and of the recent co-option of the American Evangelical movements ... all suggest that religion and electric / electronic media can in fact coexist, though again in different forms.

There are others.

Again: don't ignore McLuhan, but be well aware that he is very much the showman --- that is, somewhat ironically, quite the creature of television, at least of his time --- mid-length interviews (this one runs ~28 minutes), fairly common in the 1960s and 1970s --- and often goes for immediate impact rather than deep truths. The penumbra of people who influenced and were influenced by McLuhan is worth examination: Harold Innes (mentioned in the interview, though again claims made in the interview are questionable), Walter Ong, Neil Postman, and Elizabeth Eisenstein amongst them.

McLuhan cameo in Annie Hall (1977)


"The scene encapsulates McLuhan's theory rather neatly. McLuhan is famous for the claim that the medium is the message. What he meant by this is that the way in which radios, TVs, or phones address us is more important than what they say when they do. In this case, Allen is alluding to the fact that film is an interactive medium: we are being addressed not as a remote community, as in a radio broadcast, but instead as direct visual witnesses. Before turning to McLuhan, Allen's character has already made his case, that the guy behind him is a nuisance, across the fourth wall to us filmgoers.

The scene in Annie Hall epitomizes how readily available McLuhan's ideas were in the 1960s and 70s. Unless you were an Oscar-winning filmmaker, you couldn't pluck the literal McLuhan out of thin air, of course. But you could certainly invoke his ideas with about as much (apparent) ease. Its safe to say laypeople are less familiar with McLuhan's ideas today than they were then, and its also safe to say that many who regurgitated his theories, like the gentleman in Annie Hall, didnt actually understand them all that well. And given the line the actual McLuhan speaks in the scene, we, the viewers, will likely fear we're misunderstanding him as well.

Did that mean his whole fallacy was wrong? In a way, no, since knowing to invoke McLuhan was perhaps a better proof of his theories than actually understanding those theories. Maybe that is also why Allen left McLuhan's odd line in the final version of the script and the final cut of the film. After all, the point of the scene is that Allen is able to pull the actual McLuhan from behind the standee and have him settle a dispute directly -- not what McLuhan actually says, which in no way resolves the dispute. And this was true in the sixties already: invoking McLuhan was a way to show you were switched on, tuned in, vibing, or whatever other media metaphor you want to use to show you've grasped what's happening. You got it, and if you couldn't quite say what it was, that mattered less than that you got it."

- Daub, What Tech Calls Thinking (2020)

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact