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The Brave New World of Internet Culture

Gwendal Ugden

Eric McLuhan - published on 01/02/14

As each new medium penetrates the world wide net, it transforms the world. Any new medium is a new culture looking for a host.

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
—W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

Over the last few decades, we have immersed Western culture, indeed all the civilizations of the world, in a new kind of culture, a culture of disembodied hunters—of information. When information was simply content of an environment, the expert information-gatherer was master; now, with information our global environment, gathering is pointless. All of it is instantly available everywhere. Navigation and hunting are principal skills of nomads. Like their Paleolithic ancestors, our neo-nomads go, in electric form, where the game is to be found. The electric information environment takes the entire Neolithic age as its content and turns us all into nomadic hunters and huntresses.

The Church has always held the doctrine of individual souls and private salvation, which presupposes a ground of private identity and individual responsibility. But the Western world has latterly taken a turn in a different direction, due entirely to the effects of new media. Private individual identity can no longer be taken for granted in the high-participation world of the Internet and interactive technologies. In this situation, even the idea of private salvation loses much of its meaning and interest.

During the early twentieth century, Elias Canetti discovered that there are only two types of crowds, open and closed. He announced that the two modes of crowds are the same everywhere, regardless of culture or language or era.

The open crowd, the natural crowd, is everywhere spontaneous, he maintained. It is programmed with a need to grow, and it has a terror of stagnating or growing smaller.

"As soon as it exists at all, it wants to consist of more people: the urge to grow is the first and supreme attribute of the [open] crowd." (Crowds and Power, Trans., Carol Stewart (Victor Gollancz, 1962; Viking, 1963).

The open crowd is inherently unstable. The closed crowd, on the other hand, is characterized by stability: “The closed crowd renounces growth and puts the stress on permanence,” says Canetti. Broadly speaking, the West typifies the open crowd; the East appears a mosaic of closed crowds. Any cult is a closed crowd. These are physical crowds, in physical space.

Today, at least a third of the world’s population routinely participates in metaphysical crowds. You cannot understand this new situation by using any of the familiar reference points such as classification, or population-sampling or nose-counting or comparing locations, etc. Only formal cause will serve to elucidate how environments operate. Electric media profoundly challenge the very foundations of individual identity each time they transform us into mass audiences (electric crowds). The base of private identity is rapidly becoming irrelevant to contemporary experience throughout the West.

The new electric crowd has eight major characteristics.

1. The electric crowd (or mass audience) is invisible, composed as it is of de facto intelligences with no bodies. The average person daily uses interactive media from telephone to Internet, by being transformed into bits of electric information. This disembodiment parodies the condition of angels, and it contributes to the disorientation that people feel in the material world.

Keep reading on the next page

2. Minus the physical body, the user of electric media can be in two or two dozen or two million places simultaneously. On the Internet one is simultaneously everywhere the Internet reaches. The electric crowd lives as if already dead (a traditional Japanese technique for those attempting to achieve perfection in their art or endeavours)—consequently, it finds nihilism natural. Death as a way of life has a familiar ring to those who follow the news.

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