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The Brave New World of Internet Culture

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.

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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.

The ground, the enabling environment, for the electric crowd is the totality of electric media present and operating, via broadcast, network or satellite, etc. So there is the radio crowd, the TV crowd … All of these are as it were dialects of the mass audience.

3. The electric crowd, composed of new nomads who haunt the metaphysical world, cannot have distant goals or directions or objectives. Those matters pertain to becoming and the nomad is involved rather with being. Being is not an objective or a goal. With no outer physical body, the mass audience shifts its focus inward. For example, for over forty years youth have consistently rejected long-range goals and objectives as irrelevant. This move inward also appears disguised as narcissism. But it is the narcissism or the selfishness of one without a self, rather different from the selfishness that attends private individualism. Fixed goals and becoming belong to incarnate existence. The electrified nomad is rapt in the ecstasies of sheer being, bereft of all traditional ties to the natural world and to natural law. In other words, we are floundering, disoriented. Unlike mechanical media such as the press or the gasoline engine, each electric medium does not so much extend the body and senses as it extends a parody of the central nervous system and makes of it a global environment. Each new technology represents one or another modulation of our humanity.

4.  People without physical bodies use participational imagery to generate the emotion and the aesthetics of being—the only reality left after leaving the physical world behind. Advertisers a generation ago shifted their attention from product to image, from hard-selling to participative forms such as lifestyle ads. These provide life fantasies and group identities for all.

The mass audience is not characterized by rationality, though individual members may be rational.

Online or on the air, minus your physical bodies, you put on the corporate body: you wear all mankind as your skin. Under these conditions, a private sensibility would be a huge liability.

5. The quality of image adjusts the degree of participation. A “good” image allows a lot of participation in depth by a big, diverse mass. For this, it must be virtually devoid of content. The aesthetic of these circumstances derives from manipulations of being. Each new electric medium brings with it a new mode of group being, a new WE. Hybrid energies give the biggest kicks of all, and it is in the nature of electric media to hybridize endlessly. Each new medium collects older ones as “features” even as it becomes included in the others as a feature—a process that will continue until all have become features of each other. Their future is features. Gadgetry. Narcissism for the self-less.

6. The crowd of electrified nomads has no natural boundaries: it o’erleaps all natural and physical limitations. It is exempt from natural law.

7. The term “Mass Audience” was coined to denote broadcast crowds. Sheer speed makes the mass, not numbers. At electric speed, there is no to or fro: the user just manifests there, having left the body behind. “There” might be the other side of the world or the other side of town, or both: it’s all the same. You function in more than one place at once. Cyberspace foreshadowed. “On the air” you can “be” in thousands or millions of places simultaneously. Physical laws no longer apply once you leave the physical body: there is nothing on which to base them. You become information, an environmental image.

Not long ago, as these things go, the networked world supplanted the broadcast world. That is, the networked world now has taken over, among other services, the world of broadcast media as content. Every aspect of our networked world is global: there is no more local. “On” the net means automatically global. The user merges into the global information environment, reconstituted into data and image. And the global theatre brooks no spectators; only actors allowed.

Anyone who goes on-line becomes thereby a de facto node of the world-wide network. This is not an unfamiliar form: our worldwide net, then, has its centre everywhere and its margin nowhere. (Another parody: recall the medieval notion of God as having being everywhere, and as being nowhere circumscribed.) The world wide network presents a state of complete equality, an equality of nobodies. There is no owner; nobody is in charge; there is no head office. And every user can say, with all fidelity, “I am every man.” “I am legion.”

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The Internet is total and global and nomadic. We used to think of outer space as exotic, a Final Frontier. That’s just kid stuff. How much more exotic it is to live and work and play outside of space itself and time. Like the Church, cyberspa
ce is far bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The simple omnipresence of everyone on the worldwide net has some curious consequences. Of a sudden, every culture on earth finds itself present in every country and nation: every culture becomes multinational. And for the same reasons the reciprocal also applies: every nation instantly becomes multicultural, despite any and every effort to the contrary. Not everyone responds favourably to being invaded by foreign cultures and mores. The Islamic terrorists clearly regard it as a form of toxic pollution of their cultures and of their spirits. Obviously, terrorism is a media-ecological concern. As is well known, violence is always a factor in establishing, sustaining, or retrieving an identity. (See, for example, War and Peace in the Global Village, by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore. Gingko Press.)

8. The last characteristic concerns the impact on identities. The Church teaches that each of us is endowed with an individual soul since conception, and the concomitant, an individual conscience. The private individual with a private self is also charged with private responsibility for his or her own actions, and quests for private salvation. The alphabet literally paved the way for these matters. These are New-Testament times; the Old Testament, for example, had declared the Jews a chosen people—group salvation.

Saint Thomas gives us the formula for individuation: he frequently observes that the principle of individuation is matter, necessitating a material body. To separate the mind or soul from the body is to mime death. (It is generally accepted that any separation of the two, of mind and body, results in death.)

Electric media disturb the natural union of mind and body at the deepest level. They take the user out of nature in a pantomime of death. The new sensibility brings a new fascination with death and the hereafter (increasingly often seen as here now), and encourages the growth of nihilism and amorality. Doesn’t this illuminate somewhat our culture’s present infatuation with euthanasia and abortion? A generation ago, we awoke to a new awareness of the body: it had suddenly transformed into a programmable machine with replaceable parts, an art form to be shaped and molded and enjoyed at will. The new reality, which we all accept without question, is this: on the air, on the telephone, on the Internet, you are in many places simultaneously. These “out-of-body” experiences are casual, utterly unremarkable features of everybody’s experience, and they pull the rug out from under individualism. Cyberspace is the home of the group, not the individual; its natural mode is the hive.

Look at the ease with which the kids put on and shed personas, in video games as easily as on YouTube and MySpace and Facebook and the rest. They can revel in role playing because their senses of identity are very fluid and supple. Role playing is 1st nature to them. This is a very right-brain pattern of preference.

Individualism, which results from the intellectual separation of knower from known, is a specific function of the phonetic alphabet. The alphabet—and words and language and utterance—works through the left hemisphere. Individualism, too, is a function of the left hemisphere and comes from the phonetic alphabet. No other form of writing, syllabary or pictogram, has the fragmenting power of the Western phonetic alphabet. Its message of objectivity and detachment laid the ground for private individual awareness several centuries before the Church had need of it. Now, that ground has been supplanted by one that does nothing to encourage or to sustain individualism. We know that you can’t simply add a new medium to an existing situation: in the nature of formal cause, the new medium simply engulfs the existing situation and reshapes it from top to bottom. Media are not additive but transformative. Today, as each new medium penetrates the world wide net, it transforms the world. Any new medium is a new culture looking for a host.

Eric McLuhan is an internationally-known and award-winning lecturer on communication and media, with over 40 years teaching experience in subjects ranging from high-speed reading techniques to literature, communication theory, media, culture, and Egyptology. In addition to co-authoring Laws of Media in 1988 and working closely for many years with his father, the late Marshall McLuhan, he has also been deeply involved in exploring media ecology, a field that owes its name to the term he coined in February 1968.

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