The New Science Via Marshall McLuhan

Communications 801 – Communications Theory
Christopher J. Snider
May 1993

Purpose and Overview

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the school of thought associated with the New Science. Primarily, the school has derived its scholarly basis from Francis Bacon and Giambattista Vico. The New Science approaches human communication from a cultural and societal point of view. It is a generalist’s perspective, seeking to examine the parts and the whole as a complete system. This position is different from traditional research, in that there is not an emphasis on the content of communication. The New Science takes a broader approach by analyzing the cultural biases which impact on communications. Marshall McLuhan is the major proponent of this century. His main contribution is to bring more attention to the school through his unconventional style of research.

Analysis and Interpretation

The New Science proposes that human nature is in a constant state of flux, determined by all factors of socio-cultural interaction. “Until Vico, it had generally been assumed that human nature was the same everywhere and at all times. Vico, on the contrary, asserted that human nature had changed in the course of time in quite fundamental ways…” (Burke, 1985, p. 54) Vico sought to improve upon the foundations laid by the ancient Greeks and Francis Bacon.(Manson, 1969, p.49) In his preface to The New Organon, Bacon (1960, p. 34) states: “But the mental operation which follows the act of sense, I for the most part reject; and instead of it I lay out a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting directly from the simple sensuous perception.” Bacon believed that the logical processes of the mind if left unassisted by “force of instruments” led to “fixing errors rather than disclosing truth.” (Bacon, 1960, p.34) Vico “was making the point that gods and heroes express abstract ideas in concrete form. They are products of popular traditions, and not as Bacon and others had thought, the creations of philosophers.” (Burke, 1985, p.45) “What interested him was the study of major shifts in values and in modes of thought”(Burke, 1985, p.58) “He was concerned with changes in people’s minds-and this is one of his great strengths. He believed in the `necessary harmony’ of human institutions, in other words the necessary link between particular forms of culture and particular forms of society, a view which would later be described in terms of the `spirit of the age’.” (Burke, 1985, p.60)

The influence of Bacon and Vico upon McLuhan, is summed up best by his son Eric in Laws of Media (McLuhan, 1988, p. x) published posthumously:

Vico in particular targeted `the modification of our own human minds’ as the crucial area, while he cast about for a way to read and write the `mental dictionary.’ Then the relation between Bacon’s Idols and Vico’s axioms surfaced – bias of perception – and the job was near done. Bacon called his book the Novum Organum (or Novum Organon, as a swat at Aristotle’s followers), the New Science; Vico called his the Science Nuova, the New Science, On reflection, I am tempted to make that the title and Laws of Media the subtitle, for it should stand as volume three of work begun by Sir Francis Bacon and carried forward a century later by Giambattista Vico.”

McLuhan did not hesitate to quote Bacon or Vico in many of his books, but a more influential figure to McLuhan is Harold Innis. Innis was a scholar of economic history and elder contemporary of McLuhan. Innis observed “the dynamic impact of communication and transport technologies as well as production and distribution”. (Norica, 1990, p.335) Innis put forth the proposition that these technologies are space and time binding. An analysis of the prevalent technologies of a culture discloses the time and space binding biases. “As McLuhan himself noted in The Gutenberg Galaxy, arguably his most important book `Harold Innis was the first person to hit upon the process of change as implicit in the forms of media technology. The present book is a footnote of explanation to his work'” (Cooper, 1981, p.154)

Innis’ works were written with “scholarly caution, care, and correctness,” while McLuhan was of the rhetorical tradition. “He seeks, to shock, awaken, and stimulate.” (Cooper, 1981, pp.55-56) This is most notable in McLuhan’s book Counterblast. This book most resembles current electronic hypertext media, found in the digital world of computers. It is a book that can be opened at any page, allowing the reader to gain information in a random manner. It is very unconventional in its typographic approach. The book contains a multitude of typefaces, upside down text, text that conforms to shapes and spirals. This is an extreme example of McLuhan’s style, it is meant to question the norm. McLuhan’s more traditional text however, are of a rhetorical montage style. In The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan suggests that the invention of the Gutenberg press and propagation of the mass produced book brought about a shift in the mode of thought. McLuhan’s intention in writing in an unconventional style was to contrast the traditional method. “McLuhan’s hypothesis was that writing, including print, biased the `sense’ rations toward the visual sense modality and thereby produced its effects.” (Olson, 1981, p.140) According to McLuhan the effects are linear thought and a left brain bias.

It is the charge of McLuhan and his predecessor that those who analyze our culture and society are so biased by linear thought that they do not attempt to distance themselves or their research from this bias. Only with a recognition of this bias could one attempt to analyze the content of communications. McLuhan states in several of his books: “The fish knows nothing of water.”(McLuhan, 1969, p.75) The book is a tool and as such is something that is foreign to man’s nature. The unique history of the book format has placed it as tool taken for granted and assumed to be natural. It is actually a “highly specialized form of technology”(McLuhan, 1969, p.75). As the fish are oblivious to water because it is not alien, users of books are oblivious to the alien nature of linear thought. “When nations observe foreign things which they cannot explain with certainty in their native vocabulary, they must of necessity make use of foreign terms.”(Vico, 1968, p.291) The book has ceased to be a foreign technology but, the technologies of electricity have not.

McLuhan, Vico and Bacon are proponents of non-linear thinking. That which most sets McLuhan out from the others, is his place in history. McLuhan’s work is witness to a change in the mode of thought and values. The rise of electrical technologies “will reshape human civilization even more quickly and more thoroughly than did the printing press. Gutenberg’s invention, which so empowered Jefferson and his colleagues in their fight for democracy, seem to pale before the rise of electronic communications and innovations, from the telegraph to television, to the microprocessor and the emergence of a new computerized world-an information age.” (Gore, 1991, p.150) The emergence and dominance of the television on our culture lead McLuhan to make many relevant probes into the area communication technologies.

The three phrases most associated with, McLuhan are: “The medium is the message, hot and cold media and Global Village.” (McLuhan, 1964) The first is drawn from the argument of bias. It is with this statement that many have charged McLuhan with a materialistic approach, one that is technological determinism. “In Gutenberg Galaxy, particularly, McLuhan is adapting to his own use what one can call a social theory of communication determinism, a theory wherein human institutions are depicted as determined by the predominating media of communication.” (Gronbeck, 1981, p.120) The New Science, particularly Vico, argue that imagination, or non-linear thought is essential to a balanced mind and society. “In Vico’s thought, images are not images of something; they are themselves manifestations of an original power of spirit which gives fundamental form to mind and life.” (Verene, 1981, p.33) This leads McLuhan to draw the conclusion that technologies are of extensions of man himself. This is significant to Film and Television particularly, these are extensions of the imaginations. Some critics say “that a technological reversal through electric media will make man aware of himself as a being as a whole is tantamount to saying that the automated machine can produce an autonomous man. This is in essence material determinism, no matter how much McLuhan may try to spiritualize his new medium.” (Kohanski, 1977, p.72) McLuhan does not believe that the meaning of experience is within an individuals control, “but is determined by the structure of a particular (in this case, technological) system.”(Grossberg, 1979, p.62)

The second quote is relevant to all technologies but “hot and cool media” was applied to television and film by McLuhan. Hot and cool relate to the degree to which a person is the audience or participant. It attempts to define the degree of interaction. The degree of interaction is based on the degree of the medium’s definition. The television is a cool medium, low in definition and high in participation. The film is a hot medium, high in definition and low in participation. The film has an audience the television a participant. McLuhan suggest that the television is high in participation because the viewer must put together the images on the screen from the multitude of red blue and green dots.(McLuhan, 1964, pp.22-32) Jonathan Miller (1971, p.122), one of McLuhan’s most out spoken critics, believes that; “This is an absurd suggestion and it deserves to be destroyed forthwith. The type of psychological transaction which takes place while `filling in’ the information gaps contained in poor image has no bearing upon the sense of conscious involvement.” McLuhan is not wrong, nor absurd, there must be some physiological occurrence. To what degree this sort of participation should determine interactivity is a valid question. The physiological occurrence appears to be, on the surface, an inherent zombifying effect of television. This may be remedied by first distinguishing between conscious participation and physiological participation; and second, by a graduated scale of participation/interaction.

The third most quotable quote is “Global Village”. McLuhan coined the phrase in a book called War and Peace in the Global Village. Published posthumously, The Global Village addressed some of the more common criticisms of McLuhan’s work. The Global Village is the interconnected planet of earth. It is a world which is smaller and more familiar. The phrase is quoted often and usually without an awareness of its origination. Wilson Dizard (1982, p.93) believes it to be a “folksy creation” much the same as the United States western frontier and that it only appeal to our desire to comprehend smaller proportions. Several scholars such as Teilhard de Chardin and R. Buckminster Fuller have similar concepts to the Global Village. R. Buckminster Fuller, an engineer, developed the concept of `Spaceship Earth’, and that all peoples of the earth are all passenger on the same ship. It is a very ecologically aware approach. Teilhard de Chardin’s approach is that of a theologian. He proposed the “`noosphere’- a kind of global brain, the collective repository of all nongenetically transmitted information.”(Wright, 1988, p.269)

James Carey(1989, p.114) best summarizes this particular aspect of the New Science:

An increasing prevalent and popular brand of the futurist ethos, one that identifies electricity and electrical power, electronics and cybernetics, computers and information with a new birth of community, decentralization, ecological balance, and social harmony. This set of notions has been most readily associated with Marshall McLuhan, but his position is one in a school of thought that has been articulated and reiterated over many decades and has many spokespersons in our time. The notion of an electronic revolution is supported by diverse consensus that includes designer R. Buckminster Fuller, musicologist John Cage, futurologist Alan Toffler, policy scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, elements of the New Left, theologians inspired by Teilhard de Chardin and computerologists such as Edward Feigenbaum.

Teilhard de Chardin’s approach is a metaphysical one which influenced McLuhan in this direction. The position espoused by Fuller, McLuhan, Teilhard and others is a positivist approach to technology. They believe that the technology resulting from the discovery of electricity will liberate and free the mind. Balancing the mind will rectify the ills of society.

There are those who are critics of the New Science and those who constructively argue the points. Among those who contribute to this body of knowledge are Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, they both take a generalist perspective. The scope of communication studies is the same for Ellul and McLuhan. “Ellul’s impact on the study of media has been restricted by his refusal to write of communication media as isolated phenomena. For him the mass media combined with education, religion, law, politics, economics, and human relations in holding together technological society.” (Christians & Real, 1979, p.84) Ellul, however, does not approach technology with as much enthusiasm as McLuhan, Teilhard or Fuller. He feels all communication is propaganda and is not free from manipulation. Technology perpetuates this propagandizing of society. “He laments the erosion of democracy which propaganda makes `as totalitarian, authoritarian, and exclusive as dictatorship.'”(Christians & Real, 1979, p.86)

Lewis Mumford also refutes the positive aspects of technology and warns of its dangers. Mumford and McLuhan address and cite each other often in their works. They were “debating the consequences of electrical technology, in particular, electrical communications for contemporary culture and society.” (Carey, 1981, p.163) Mumford view of the information/electronic age as “ugliness, exploitation, and disarray of the old world of mechanics.” (Carey, 1981, p.171) “What ever its early promise, he declared, the new technologies were being used to magnify and vulgarize the dominant components of the power structure, making it easier for a small elite to dominate large populations” (Dizard,1982, p.24)

James Carey, one of the more balanced critics of McLuhan’s work, expresses the opinion that McLuhan shrouds the topic of technology in metaphysics. He states that electricity is dressed in a “cloak of mystery” and develops from the “hand of providence”. “Finally, McLuhan’s penchant for religious metaphors leads to a characterization of electricity as Divine Force.” (Carey, 1989, p.116) An article by Carey (1981, p.163) analyzing McLuhan and Mumford best summarized their assumptions about print in a lengthy sentence:

…printing centralized political power in the state and culture power in the metropolis; intensified a spatial bias in communication favoring `remote control’ and gave a differential advantage to long-distance communication over short-distance or proximate communication; transformed the word, the primordial symbol, from an event in the human world to a record for bureaucracies; demystified the symbol as a fiduciary relation among persons and transformed it into an analytic tool of thought; eroded the public sphere of discourse and led to the decline of `public’ man; transformed speaking publics into passive audiences; privatized and mobilized the basic transactions of communication; led to an emergence of psychological man an the sciences devoted to understanding him; lent to life a visual intensity and aesthetic preference for sight over sound; secularized knowledge and installed science as the major arbiter of truth and authority; created a tradition of the new or a bias toward the future; displaced corporate and communal forms of life with a world bifurcated between the state and the self; created a particular form of nationalism, at first parliamentary and linguistic, eventually imperial; and installed in cultural and political power the class championing most of these developments, the middle class.

Carey believes these assumptions are a problem with the New Science. McLuhan left those debates to others and only sought to “explore, not explain.” (Cooper, 1981, p.161) A difficulty arises in summarizing McLuhan because of the span of his career and the many areas he chose to explore. Another difficulty is the breadth of his scope. In an attempt to create a New Science McLuhan has crafted a large body of interwoven concepts, hypothesis and theories. These are written in an “opaque, almost epigrammatic style, his maddening unwillingness to unpack in narrative form many of his key illustrations, and his unconquerable prose form…”(Gronbeck, 1981, p.118)

Literary Review

“McLuhan has not had the impact on the social sciences that his ideas warrant partly because he did not establish a research tradition of the sort developed by Levi-Strauss, Piaget, or Chomsky.” (Olson, 1981, p.140) Laws of Media and The Global Village, both published posthumously, attempt to address this criticism. The Global Village address the left-right brain assumption by including nineteen pages in the endnotes dedicated to this criticism. It was Jonathan Miller who suggested that McLuhan made up this science. (Cooper, 1991, p.240) Bruce Powers, along time collaborator of McLuhan, crafted the arrangement of material in The Global Village. He included 38 pages of Dissatisfactions of Global Robotism in an attempt to address those issues raised by Ellul and Mumford. Both books offer a model for systematic analysis called a tetrad. The tetrad is a four part model for analyzing the impact of technology. A technology can enhance, reverse into, retrieve or obsolesce. In Laws of Media a chapter lists various tetrads and it states that they are tentative and open to modification. The four elements of the tetrad operate simultaneously. McLuhan describes the tetrads as an “all at onceness” experience. In 1968 the Apollo crew set up video cameras aimed at earth. Those on earth saw a picture of themselves. McLuhan says that we “outered” and “innered” at the same time. We were simultaneously at two places at once, both on earth and in space. This is a most dramatic example of a resonance level.(McLuhan, 1989, p.4) McLuhan by using this particular example seeks to demonstrate that even a trip to outer space leaves us looking at ourselves. “We’er in an age of implosion after 3000 years of explosion”(McLuhan, 1969, p.35). Human development up to creation of electric technologies has been one of creating extensions of physical being. Since the development of electronic technologies humankind has begun the exploration of non-linear thought or the imagination. McLuhan when speaking of the “Electronic Man” states that: “His information environment is his own nervous system.”(McLuhan, 1969, p.36)

John Perry Barlow is a major proponent of computer freedom and one of the co-founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF is a lobbying group in Washington D.C. He defends constitutional right as applicable to the Internet, the international computer network, through his writings and efforts with EFF. In one of his electronic writings from EFFector Online he professes:

Earlier in this century, the French philosopher and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin wrote that evolution was an ascent toward what he called “The Omega Point,” when all consciousness would converge into unity, creating the collective organism of Mind. When I first encountered the Net, I had forgotten my college dash through Teilhard’s Phenomenon of Man. It took me a while to remember where I’d first encountered the idea of this immense and gathering organism. Whether or not it represents Teilhard’s vision, it seems clear we are about some Great Work here…the physical wiring of collective human consciousness. (Barlow, 1992)

The doctrines and writings of EFF were created under the assumptions of the New Science.

Individuals carrying on McLuhan’s research appear to be more numerous outside the traditional scholastic field. The most recent addition is the magazine WIRED. Not only does the style of this magazine appear to follow McLuhan’s montage format, but the content does to. The most obvious clue to this is when one looks at the list of contributors and reads: Patron Saint:Marshall McLuhan. The cover begins with: “The Medium… , the rest of the quote is continued across six pages. The Magazine’s contributors are respected columnists and authors in the information business, such as faculty from MIT’s media lab, a senior scientist at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, columnists from New York Times, The Economist and other publications. The magazine claims to avoid the typical “PCInfoComputingCorporateWorld iteration of its ad sales formula cum parts catalog to discuss the meaning or context of social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.” (Rossetto [Ed.], 1993, p.11)

The premier issue contianed an interview with Camille Paglia, a “bad girl of feminism, has a knack for outraging listeners one moment, and then having them nod their heads in agreement the next.” Paglia questions why the French structuralist such as Lacan or Foucault, or the School of Saussure are used to analyzed the media. She believes that they have no reference to media, especially when placed against a figure such as McLuhan. “Our culture is a pop culture. Americans are the ones who have to be interpreting the pop culture reality.”(Rossetto [Ed.], 1993, p.53) WIRED’s premier issue also offers an alternative to McLuhan’s hot and cold medium, a graphic charting various technologies according to vividness and interactivity.

While WIRED takes its mission seriously, MONDO 2000 does not. MONDO 2000 is a tongue-in-cheek sarcastic publication writing about fringe science and technology. In MONDO 2000 A User’s Guide to the Edge there is a page describing McLuhan’s contributions, with a picture of him on the opposite page. “McLuhan is speaking of the transition from the industrial (hardware) age, to the information (software) age, in terms that the rest of us wouldn’t start using until the mid-eighties. This guy was way ahead of his time. Read everything by him that you can find!”(Rucker [Ed.], 1992, p.166)

Virtual Reality provides acoustic and visual perceptions to a user to create a new reality. It is currently a technology in it’s infancy. A user dawns a helmet which provides sensory data, a suit provides information about body position. Jaron Lanier is the name most associated with virtual reality. He was the founder of a multi-million dollar company which has developed some of the technology. John Barlow interviewed Jaron Lanier in an issue of MONDO 2000 (1991, p.44-51). Lanier on virtual reality:

It’s the hottest. In fact, it gets out of the hot-cold continuum entirely. It’s not even a medium. It’s a new reality. I don’t think you can talk about it in McLuhan’s terms for that reason. Virtual Reality is not going to be the television of the future. It’s going to be the telephone of the future. And that’s the key thing. Common wisdom would say that television’s brought us the world and created a Global Village. But actually it separates us from the actual experience of the world. Instead, it gives us instead a little denatured version, and one that we’re not in control of…so we lose our activity. That’s where we really lose the world, because activity is everything. Virtual Reality is the first medium to come along that doesn’t narrow the human spirit. That’s the most important thing about it.

McLuhan would appreciate Lanier’s views, but McLuhan laid the foundation in which one can discuss virtual reality. Without McLuhan’s contribution it would be most difficult to analyze technologies.

Many of the criticisms of McLuhan’s during the early 1980’s suggest that his work was not in favors among scholars and was on the decline, due to his lack of a theoretical basis. This course seems to have changed in the 1990’s, one cannot say whether it is due to the Laws of Media and The Global Village, or to Marshall McLuhan’s relevance in today’s digital world.

I propose that McLuhan’s work can be understood as a series of more or less successful attempts to explain a reality that had only partially come into existence even at the time of his death in 1980 and that therefore eluded a clear description even by a wordsmith with McLuhan’s talents. McLuhan most frequently referred to this reality as `acoustic space.’ Today, we call it `cyberspace’-the `place’ we enter when we talk on the phone, listen to the radio, watch television, or communicate in immediate and lasting ways via computer networks.(Levinson, 1990, p.170)

Cyberspace is a term coined by the Science Fiction writer William Gibson. It would probably not surprise Marshall McLuhan that pop culture has adopted his theory more readily than the scholastic community. Donald F. Theall a Professor at Trent University notes the similarities between Gibson’s writing and McLuhanism:

All the data in the world stacked up like one big neon city, so you could cruise around and have a kind of grip on it, visually anyway, because if you didn’t, it was too complicated, trying to find your way to the particular piece of data you needed. Iconics, Gentry called that. (Gibson, 1989, p.16)

“McLuhan’s hieroglyphics certainly more than anticipated Gibson’s iconics and McLuhan’s particular use of hieroglyph or iconology, like that of mosaic primarily derives from Joyce and Giambattista Vico.”(Theall, 1992, p.2) Science fiction writers are not the only ones to embrace this notion of cyberspace. The researchers at MIT’s Media Lab develop VR(virtual reality) and have conceived “of a VR composed, like the tribal and collective `global village’, of `tactile, haptic, proprioceptive and acoustic space involvements.'” (Theall, 1992, pg.3) “Cyberspace is a medium that gives people feeling they have been transported, bodily, from the ordinary physical world to worlds purely of imagination. Although artists can use any medium to evoke imaginary worlds, cyberspace carries the worlds themselves.”(Rucker [Ed.], 1992, p.264)

John Naisbitt, in the chapter Industrial Society to Information Society from Megatrends, attributes the satellite with creating the global village not the television. Although the style and methodical approach are different, Naisbitt reaffirms the shift from hardware to software through a variety of sources.(Naisbitt, 1982, p.13) Mark Poster using a poststructuralist perspective feels that McLuhan does not go far enough with “the medium is the message”. He seems to push the entire issue to an extreme destabilization of all the variables (Poster, 1990, p.15) In Technoploly, The Surrender of the Culture to Technolgy, Neil Postman picks up were Ellul and Mumford left off warning of the dangers of technology. Postman asserts “that it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either, but this-and-that.”(Postman, 1992, p.4)


McLuhan is a foil for many such as Mumford, and a foundation for others. McLuhan would probably not be surprised by the path which the New Science has taken. His is a contribution of discovery not justification. It is up to those who follow his research, to justify, and substantiate his theories. The cyberspace of the digital age was barely in it’s infancy when McLuhan died. He would have lived to see many of his forecasts about the Global Village come true. The emergence of new technologies such as High Definition Television(HDTV) would certainly have modified his hot-cold medium assertion about television. Digital phone lines, cellular phones, pagers and video phones are all technologies, which are only now becoming standard consumer products that further link the Global Village. It is evident that Marshall McLuhan’s work cannot be ignored nor glossed over. For it has stood the test of time, and proved itself useful in exploring communications technologies, effects and biases.


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