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  • Bernadette Bowen

Response to McLuhan "On Automation"

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

The following is a discussion board post I made for a Media Ecology course in response to this prompt:

In the concluding chapter of Understanding Media, McLuhan states, "Automation is information and it not only ends jobs in the world of work, it ends subjects in the world of learning" (p. 300, 2nd Ed). In a succinct paragraph or two, respond to the following:

  • What do you believe he means here?

  • Do you see this unfolding in contemporary higher education?

  • What are some potential benefits and/or drawbacks to this aspect of automation as environment?


(For anyone who is searching, this quote is on page 346 in the 30th anniversary edition.)


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As I kept reading, I understood this quote as in conversation with McLuhan's description of the electric age as an extension of our nervous systems, "constitut[ing] a single unified field of experience" or an, "interacting place where all kinds of impressions and experiences can be exchanged and translated; enabling us to react to the world as a whole" (pg. 348).


Moreover, later on in this chapter he explained that automation is as much a way of thinking (information) as it is a way of [increasingly specialized] doing (information-gathering). McLuhan juxtaposed this electric implosion with what I would stereotypically think of as "manly man" mechanical or materially-based means of employment, typically involving more physical exertion and/or mass production, which then transitioned into industrial automation. As he traced out, "all that we had previously achieved mechanically by great exertion and coordination can now be done electrically without effort" (pg. 357).


In summary, I believe McLuhan meant that if information gathering can be done anywhere, with increasingly less effort, maybe even a robot could do it. It may or may not be a real robot. I just mean that if a person has been taught to increasingly think and do as a robot would, the system can (and will) replace them with one.


To answer the subquestion in short: Yes. And this quote of his reminded me of our conversation (if you all can remember back to the day when we still met in-person in a physical classroom) in class about how people don't consider being a professor a "real job". Outside of the (understandably elitist) academic stigma, what I think the public is typically lesser keen to is the increasingly corporatized aspect of education in both K-12 and contemporary higher ed. Although it was nowhere near what it is now at the time of his writing, McLuhan spoke to how this electrically charged corporate shift in education has breed instantaneous interdependence and interprocess; overtaking production in our socio-economic worlds:


"Markets and education designed to cope with the products of servile toil and mechanical production are no longer adequate. Our education has long ago acquired the fragmentary and piece-meal character of mechanism. It is now under increasing pressure to acquire the depth and interrelation that are dispensable in the all-at-once world of electric organization" (pg. 357).


For sake of space, one benefit and one drawback of automation as environment is that we are then, "threatened with a liberation that taxes our inner resources of self-employment and imaginative participation in society" (pg. 358). In other words: two birds; one liberation. In other other bird's words: on one hand, we could all become artists (yay!)...But, on the other hand, we would ALL Become Artists (ugh...and, also, now what?). Beyond that there's also, of course, the looming ability for the transnational global capitalist class to eliminate us all much more easily in our artistic expendability. 

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