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  • Bernadette Bowen

Response to McLuhan "On the Telegraph"

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

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


On page 223 (2nd ed) of Understanding Media, McLuhan says of the telegraph that:


"The electric gives powerful voices to the weak and suffering, and sweeps aside the bureaucratic specialisms and job descriptions of the mind tied to a manual of instructions. The "human interest" dimension is simply that of immediacy of participation in the experience of others that occurs with instant information. People become instant, too, in their response of pity or of fury when they must share the common extension of the central nervous system with the whole of [hu]mankind."


In a succinct paragraph or so, compare/contrast his "probe" here with that of the current digital media landscape. Are there similarities? examples? What happens when digital media are pushed to their extremes and they "flip" into their opposite?

Although McLuhan is talking about the electric age, my guess is his description here, whether it be regarding specialization, immediacy, instantaneity, and/or extension of our nervous systems are similar to (and have only been further exacerbated in) our digital age.


For example, this quote could have been put to good use for the Leftbook article as more fodder for participatory cultures and their potential usefulness in fostering subtle consciousness raising; transitioning into increasingly radical learned empowerment of ostracized Leftist comrades. I do think he brings up an especially interesting frustration here in regards to the, "sharing of common extensions". Another example that comes to mind is siblings who are being forced to share a room, and they end up hating each other. The cliche of if one crosses over the tape line one of them laid in the middle of the room, or if their little brother touched their stuff.


I do think there's an inevitability to human beings in close proximity to hate each other (or in the least get on each others nerves) for extended periods of time. This is evidenced by people making jokes lately about how this quarantine is going to cause so many divorces, and/or about how there's going to be a new generation of quaranTEENs but only from couples who don't already (because they're being driven crazy right now by their own young children right now).


With the government sanctioned physical isolation from general society  we're all now experiencing, I think there's a pretty good argument that we could be pushing limits of digital media to their extremes. Plenty of articles have been published documenting an elitist flip into "anti-screen" (think: high brow) culture, due in part to the increased accessibility of technologies to a wider socioeconomic audience. Much like a technological "White flight", this has caused upper-middle class and even more exceptionally affluent people to annex off; avoiding screen-usage and attempting to raise their children to do the same.


Clearly there's been a lot of hoopla and debate around what jobs "could have always been online" and which really really can't be. To blend the Ong threads this week into the McLuhan ones, I've personally been struggling this week with how much print I am expected to maintain within the digital realms. Whether it be for teaching [restructuring the entirety of my production-oriented lecture/lab curriculum format of my own classes], moderating discussion boards for them now, grading all the scripted text, consuming at least two books a week [printed, audiobook, or digital versions], posting and replying to all my own discussion boards for coursework and now handling almost all "social reaction" through text or video-chatting [which I hate] this has all converged into what I would personally consider work. McLuhan defined "work to be done" as, "the transformation of one kind of material energy into some new form" (pg. 263), but I would extend that into emotional labor (which, although downplayed, does very much produce physical evidence [cortisol from stress, etc.] if one would like to seek it out). EVERYTHING is work now, and McLuhan spoke to that when quoting Northcote Parkinson's law: "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" (McLuhan, pg. 262). It's exhausting [personally and professionally], alongside also already being exhausted enough as a graduate student and human person. And now this legally enforced self-isolation, for Goddess knows how long, has been pushing me to my absolute work limits; textually, and in all spherical ways that our expedited digital world has to efficiently offer [read: torment] us. 

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