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Art vs Content

As part of the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA), Darwin and Sydney were linked for a week through a project called The Portals featuring five telematic artworks.

I went to the Darwin base of the synchronous Sydney/Darwin launch and got a copy of the Portals program. One sentence about the artwork “Distributed Empire” by artists Justin Clemens, Christopher Dodds and Adam Nash has been resonating with me ever since:

“In the age of global networked data, nearly everyone in the developed world has signed away their rights to privacy in exchange for the privilege of tirelessly working, for free, to produce content for a handful of massive global data-capitalist corporations.”

An expanded version of this taken from the ISEA website reads:

“In this age of global networked data, nearly everyone in the developed world has signed away their rights to privacy … to produce content for a handful of massive global data-capitalist corporations – who delete none of it, ever, presenting nothing but the right-now, erasing history and context and replacing them with an endless parade of banal distraction. Our experience is presented back to us in a networked digital simulation so comprehensively distracting that it actually becomes our experience, an endless now without context, pure representation, the perfect visual medium for advertising nothing but itself; promising self-empowerment, this perfect simulation delivers nothing but … a need to produce more content for itself.”

Distributed Empire

The work itself takes data of participants’ faces (uploaded by partipicants) and mashes these together to form an endlessly morphing, network-generated image of a fuzzy, distorted “face”, symbolic of the de-personalising effect of contributing personal “content” to the data-stream. Aesthetically, it is not that exciting but conceptually, it really makes you think…

The exchange of content that is “pure representation…advertising nothing but itself” is the post-modern phenomenon Jean Baudrillard dubbed “simulation” (in Simulacra and Simulation, 1981) in which signs are circulated endlessly without any particular meaning or purpose but for this endless exchange.

This got me thinking about today’s seemingly fertile “art” scene – about how content is invariably being celebrated, often in the absence of what McLuhan would call “art”. Seduction of the audience (a nod, again, to Baudrillard) has apparently become the artist’s primary role in this global economy of “content” – thus the revival of burlesque (the art of seduction) and the sexiness/shock value of many contemporary artistic statements.

It may be harder than ever today, hacking through the forests of content proliferating on social media and data sharing/streaming sites, to remember the real purpose of the artist in the McLuhanist sense: to stay attuned to fluctuations in the media-environment and effectively awaken the public to these changes to enable clearer perception and control of that environment.

In this, the Portals artists have been most effective. I encourage you to check out their work at the ISEA site.

(Revised 27/06/13.)

A tetrad for 3D Printing

Australia’s ABC News reported yesterday on the possibility of making soft tissue organs such as hearts and livers “within 10 years” using 3D printing technology.

This medical leap forward has shades of William Gibson’s Neuromancer – a world where when you wear out one body part, you simply go buy a new one (if you can afford it) … How long before everything of a certain scale can be “printed” – food, babies ..? How long before we can print, say, a dinosaur egg, or one of the fantastical beasts of our imagination (white unicorn)?

A tetrad for 3D printing might be:

Extends: 2D printing

Obsolesces: organ transplant

Retrieves: the cyborg (part human, part machine…)

Reverses into: cloning

Love to hear your thoughts.

Review: The Mechanical Bride (centennial edition)

Duckworth Publishers' new Mechanical Bride

Duckworth Publishers have brought out a new paperback edition of The Mechanical Bride to celebrate the McLuhan centenary.

With an iconic new cover in black, white and red, and an updated textual layout, it is slightly smaller and noticeably lighter than the original hardcover (great as a coffee table book, or for students) while still remaining true to the spirit of the original publication and (thankfully!) preserving the page numbering of the original.

First published in 1951, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man was Marshall McLuhan’s first book and remains one of the most important for understanding his work. (In fact this was the only book he published as ‘Herbert Marshall McLuhan’, however the new edition drops the ‘Herbert’.) The most pessimistic of his books, it anticipates only War and Peace in the Global Village (1968 – also a post-war book!) in its intent concern with the darker side of human nature.

Some context: the book was compiled from press-clippings (comics, editorials, ads, etc.) McLuhan had collected while teaching undergraduate classes in English criticism, a pedagogical strategy inspired by one of McLuhan’s own mentors, British critic F.R. Leavis. Presenting 59 ‘exhibits’, each consisting of a press clipping and accompanying text, McLuhan ironically reveals to us the ‘mechanical’ culture of industrialized nations, where the ruling paradigm is the ‘assembly line’ of ‘replaceable parts’; where men and women, alienated from their human qualities, interact instead as mechanical, ‘exchangable’ components; and where (sadomasochistic) enjoyment is derived not through sex but through the consumption of violent movies/news and the possession of sexualized, mass-produced items – cars, clothes, coffins – all betraying the same infatuation with the slick, soulless machine world. A humanist ethic informs the book, McLuhan asserting that to inhabit this toxic culture demands ‘greater exertions of intelligence and a much higher level of personal and social integrity than have existed previously.’

There are few precedents for this curiously put together book, but one of its foremost influences was Siegfried Giedion, whose Space, Time and Architecture (1941) McLuhan took as the model for his own project to reveal the hidden ‘patterns’ (or structures) in society. What Giedion does for architecture, McLuhan repeats for the ‘folklore of industrial man’ – the ads and images for consumer products whose fantasies, he says, operate upon us ’subliminally’. There is a decidedly psychoanalytic quality to McLuhan’s reading of ’subliminal’ patterns in the societal psyche, and several scholars have read The Mechanical Bride as a reply to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930 – again, a post-war book), both texts questioning the future of a species intent upon the pursuit of technological ‘extensions’ that threaten to subsume us and make us over in their image.

I must have read this book at least twenty times, but each time I am struck anew by the crystalline quality of its prose, and by the force of the ideas crammed within its paragraphs and pages. You can’t just read passively; you are forced to work at it, to think. McLuhan, as ever, is teaching us to become both critics of our environment and artists in responding with awareness to it.

Thank you to Duckworth Publishers for the opportunity to review this book.


Why the workplace is going to look a lot like Facebook

A strange beast, Facebook, isn’t it??!

A never-ending news feed by our friends and friends’ friends… Facebook extends the social gathering, where you go to find out all the on-dits of the day… it obsolesces email… and retrieves the newspaper with its ‘discontinuous’ juxtaposition of news items and ads (q.v. ‘Front Page’ in The Mechanical Bride).

Invented by and for University students (as you can read about on Wikipedia), Facebook remains incredibly individualist, as does contemporary University culture. Initially a kind of shopfront for organizing your social life, it’s now to a great extent become social life, replacing or at least supplementing ‘real’, ‘face-to-face’ social interaction … Its frustrations (irritations)? Its triviality, the fact that most of its ‘news’ is personal advertising from people you barely know, the sheer volume of irrelevant (to me) information… As Facebook struggles to find its purpose, with constant experiments in form (e.g. the new ‘Timeline’ function), I think it’s safe to say it is probably on the brink of obsolescence.

Meanwhile, ‘going to work’ remains an intensely social experience … at the end of the day we flop on the couch at home, regroup with our family, and catch up with friends online (via Facebook). As our working lives shift from fixed office spaces to fluid ‘connected’ workspaces (home, aeroplane, cafe, or wherever one happens to be, at hours convenient to oneself), there is going to be a flip (reversal): from workplace as ‘real’ social network to workplace as ‘virtual’ social network, and with this a rediscovery of ‘going out’, ‘getting out of the house’, interacting with people ‘face to face’ (or possibly, some real/virtual hybrid – there I think Skype is going to give Facebook a run for its money). The obsolescent Facebook reveals its true potential as workplace interface, where we go to peruse the status of current projects … like the stock broker scanning the business pages of the newspaper, we check in daily at least … via Facebook we promote our newest ventures, our project/product launches, our events…

(Visit Facebook’s business interface at Facebook for Business.)


Stay tuned (blog as radio?!)…

Life has got busy all of a sudden. We are gigging again, Uni has started again (I’m studying psychology!) and it’s not long before I go back to work…

I’ve been writing a lot for this blog as well, which I hope to share over the next month or so… a tetrad for Facebook… some notes on McLuhan and Jung… thoughts on B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel Waldon Two and McLuhan’s concept of the programmed environment (I’m still reading Waldon Two! for some reason I never got to this during my doctoral research)… something on crowdfunding… and, really excitingly, a review of the centennial edition of The Mechanical Bride recently published by Duckworth.

So… please stay tuned!

Again, thank you for reading and I always welcome your thoughts – contact me at alice [at] lightthroughmcluhan [dot] org.

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Skype – very cool indeed

So, Skype

I wrote three previous posts on Skype but didn’t feel like I really captured its essence. These posts have been deleted, the content expanded upon for this new post (great thing about blogging… you can delete it when you don’t get it right! I won’t do this in general, though…)

So, starting over:

I was given a webcam for Xmas (along with a Kindle – how twenty-first century!) … so we have been Skyping for the past few weeks, both with the band that Kim and I play in and with Sophie’s grandparents.

This (predictably!) got me thinking about how Skype is and isn’t like its clear predecessor, the telephone.

I read on Wikipedia that Skype has ‘663 million registered users as of September 2011… The volume of international traffic routed via Skype is significant. It has become the largest international voice carrier (by minutes of calls)’.

I also hadn’t realized that Skype was bought out by Microsoft in 2011 (and originally invented in Estonia). Very interesting.

Like the telephone, Skype enables people in far-flung locations to converse in intimate fashion; however with Skype, communication is via the Internet and in a variety of modes: text, audio, video (as well as file sharing). You can Skype from anywhere you have Internet connection – your computer, TV, mobile phone, iPad; as well as calling other Skype users, you can call landlines and mobile telephones, or – if you like – ‘you can chat and video call your Facebook friends directly from Skype’ (Skype homepage).

Like Facebook (and to some extent, Twitter), Skype is a (virtual) place where you can hang out and catch up, checking in whenever is convenient. There is something impromptu about the Skype meeting, just like the telephone call …

Unlike the very public Twitter (audience = everyone) and more private Facebook (audience = your friends and their friends), Skype positions itself as a social medium for directed, personal communication. Where telephone data is routed by local telephone exchanges, Skype ‘Unlike most V[oice] o[ver] I[nternet] P[rotocol] services … is a hybrid peer-to-peer and client–server system, and makes use of background processing on computers running Skype software; the original name proposed – Sky peer-to-peer – reflects this.’ (Wikipedia) Skype is the (global village) home visit, ‘getting together’, ‘dropping in’, also the untranslatable German Stammtisch, the regular table where a group of friends meet to drink and socialize …

Watching Sophie watching my parents on the computer screen I had an insight so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier: Skype retrieves television.

Television, telephone: both are what McLuhan calls ‘cool‘ media, i.e. low in definition, high in participation or ‘filling in’ of information by the audience. Telephone (McLuhan says) is an extension of speech; while television, he says in Understanding Media, extends ‘the sense of touch or of sense interplay that even more intimately involves the entire sensorium‘.

Isn’t Skype even cooler than the telephone, even cooler than TV (i.e. lower in definition, higher in participation)? Where the telephone facilitates the tete-a-tete, Skype facilitates multiple users, in fact multiple groups of users in multiple locations. Families, friends, business associates can audio/video conference; people can wander in and out of earshot/frame, joining the conversation at will…

A possible tetrad for Skype?

Extends: ‘getting together’, ‘dropping in’
Retrieves: television
Obsolesces: telephone
Reverses into: ‘dropping out’?

I initially imagined Skype might reverse into a ‘virtual reality’ shared space (conference room? bar? cafe?) where people participate in real-time with discarnate colleagues, family, friends … but then realized this is happening now, Skype is already the virtual meeting space. Suddenly my loungeroom opens right out to your loungeroom (with the kids playing in the background), or your office desk, or the bar/cafe where you happen to be sitting, having a coffee… Thinking of Skype as a place where you ‘drop in’ is the best clue to its ‘reversal’: speed-up would be the irritation of people constantly contacting, visiting your house (literally, an invasion of your personal space!), so reversal must mean a technology for ‘dropping out’, going AWOL…

(McLuhan used the term ‘drop out’ in Take Today: The Executive as Drop-Out (1972) to describe the retribalization process … so he would perhaps see the Skype ‘drop-in’ as a form of ‘dropping out’!)

One last thing. The Skype website tells us that ‘Skype is not a replacement for your ordinary telephone and can’t be used for emergency calling’. How long will this last, do you think?!

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A bit of background

I thought I would write a bit of background on myself and this website – I won’t do it all at once but here’s a start… My path to McLuhan went something like this: after going back and forth between Humanities and Music at the University of Adelaide for several years, I finally found a spiritual home for myself in the Politics Department (now School of History & Politics) where I studied, among other things, a subject on Anarchism and Libertarianism with Prof. Paul Nursey-Bray. Paul was an inspiring mentor to me, as he was to many, and he supervised my Honours thesis on McLuhan in 1999 (and later, my doctoral research). Initially proposing a study of anarchist education, I put it to Paul that ‘the Internet will lead us all to anarchism’ – he asked how? – I said, struggling to articulate it, ‘it will make us think like anarchists, it will change our thinking’ (this is ‘anarchy’ in the political sense, i.e. a State-less society). Paul – who had once written an article on McLuhan’s ‘retribalization’ thesis and modernization in tribal Africa – said to me ‘That sounds like McLuhan’. The first book by McLuhan I read was The Medium is the Massage and my first thought was – ‘an academic book with pictures? Brilliant!!!’ I was hooked.

More soon, thanks for reading :)

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A tetrad for blogging

I was thinking about blogging and the list I made about the various media that blogging ‘retrieves’, when I realised I forgot a really obvious one – the manuscript.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan describes in detail the acoustic qualities of the manuscript contrasted with the visual qualities of the printed book; how in the medieval University, teachers and students would copy, annotate and add to other manuscripts in their pursuit of knowledge; how authorship of an integral text was not the purpose of writing as it is with the printed book. Doesn’t this sound a little like the blog, with its pedagogical and dialogic qualities?

A tetrad for blogging might then look something like this-

Extends: pedagogy (or, learning through dialogue)
Retrieves: the manuscript
Obsolesces: the textbook
Reverses into: the programmed environment?

McLuhan circa 1960’s says that the computer is “admirably suited to the artistic programming of [the] environment, of taking over the task of programming the environment itself as a work of art, instead of programming the content as a work of art” (EM 224) so that “we can include the learning process in the environment itself” (UB 20, pp.10-11). (q.v. ‘Art‘ – ‘Environment as a Work of Art’.)

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Kindle postscript

Or – still thinking about the Kindle – does the intensification of the visual (and reduction of tactile sensation) provide the perfect environment for ’skim reading’ – reversal of high-definition visual into low-definition tactile..?

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Kindle – more book than the book?

I was given a Kindle for Xmas (thank you to my sister Julia!) and I read my first Kindle book – Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey – over a week while on holiday in Tasmania.

McLuhan says that when a new medium (e.g. the Kindle) takes older media (i.e. books) as its content, the new form changes the form of the older media, just as TV changed the film medium when film became the content of TV. Yet – reading the Kindle was so much like reading a ‘real book’ that it left me wondering just how exactly (or if!) the Kindle changes the book and the act of reading.

Probably its most dramatic function is as a storage device for digitized content (just as the iPod is for music) – content which is available at free or very low cost, a great thing for avid readers like myself!

Turning pages is also easier, being accomplished with the click of a button, and it’s very light in the hand – so much better for reading long books (three of the first books I downloaded, which I’ve been meaning to read for years – Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov – I am sure I would never be motivated to read otherwise) – or for reading with only one hand free (such as if you are on an aeroplane with a baby asleep in your other arm!).

Yet in all other respects the Kindle is eerily like reading a book. I guess I hadn’t expected this; ‘kindling’, after all, is what one uses to start a fire, the inference being that we can now ‘burn the books’. I now understand that this is not meant metaphorically (reading a Kindle is just like reading a book, so the Kindle does not burn, i.e. destroy, the book medium at all) but literally (we can now burn all the paper books because we have digitized the text).

Interestingly, the Kindle, like the book, is light on, not (like TV/computer) light through. It uses what is called ‘electronic paper‘ which apparently is not “backlit” like TV/computer but “reflect[s] light like ordinary paper” and “can hold static text and images indefinitely without using electricity…”

Could this be why the Kindle feels very industrial-age, rather than electronic-age? As with other ‘hot‘ (high definition) media such as book and film, ‘the user is the camera, not the screen’ (as McLuhan would say)… Actually I would argue that the Kindle reduces the tactile experience of reading, that is of holding a real, paper book in your hands, so as to intensify the visual experience, making it even ‘hotter‘ than the book.

I wonder if our media-environment today has become so cooled (with Internet and associated technologies) that we now choose for our escapist entertainments a hotter, rather than cooler, environment – our fantasies presented to us in super high definition???

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