Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


The Commodious Space of Digital Media

McLuhan put his faith in Christ and was deeply committed to a holistic sense of "all-at-onceness." Herein lay his optimism about the digital medium: Everything everywhere happens simultaneously. There is no clear order or sequence. This sudden collapse of space into a single unified field dethrones the visual sense. This is what the concept of the global village means to its inventor: "we are all within reach of a single voice or the sound of tribal drums." For McLuhan this future held a profound risk of mass terror and sudden panic but he found great promise in the powers of digital communications and compares the mystical unification of humanity (the global village) to the Christian Pentecost. He saw in digital media the potential to "breakdown and breakthrough" the immuring "lineality" of the printed text, and the detached, hyperrational mind of the reader of print. In Understanding Media he trumpets:

Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as benefits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must serve his electronc technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs. But there is this difference, that previous technologies were partial and fragmentary, and the electric is total and inclusive... No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier. (84)

Although McLuhan saw that this electric speed and interconnectedness could bring all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion --- that an aspiration for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is "a natural adjunct to electronic technology" --- he by no means discounted the advantages of Gutenberg's brainchild.

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Despite McLuhan's insistence that print and digital technologies have such radically different impacts on the user---and on culture in general, I shall examine the evidence that the two mediums had remarkably similar receptions into the public sphere: a mad flurry of literary expression on a widespread, individual level. It's almost impossible for us today, in our world of xerox and fax machines and laser printers --- to imagine how revolutionary the opportunity to duplicate and disseminate one's opinions in a public sphere was in the mid-seventeenth century. The beliefs of a private individual had heretofore been weightless, silent, and for all intensive purposes, nonexistent. We members of the late twentieth century, on the other hand, have been enjoying the liberties of print--- that is, the freedom to duplicate and give substance to our opinions --- for decades, even before the digital medium extended them.

But the liberties of unmitigated pamphlet production were felt only temporarily. Democratized expression could not endure in a society which privileged rational, linear modes of operation. McLuhan's analysis of media not only as translators but sculptors of information --- is especially useful when addressing the fate of certain forms of expression. As we will see with regard to the pamphleteers, the dominant cultural voice perched at the top of a rigid hierarchy eventually reclaimed its authority with the restoration of monarch Charles II to the throne. De Tocqueville explained that British civilization was volatile, prone to destabilization because the influences of oral tradition remained in place even after the impact of print. The desire for the free flow of expression that oral culture accommodated was therefore in place, latent, and probably impatient to achieve fruition. But if the medium is an architect of space --- and print was the dominant architect of the time --- that space will permit only a certain configuration of expression. I will be looking at the space that digital technologies are creating today, and what personal, social, and political configurations this space will permit.

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