“The goal of science and the arts and of education for the next generation must be to decipher not the genetic but the perceptual code. In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer-finding is of no avail: one is surrounded by answers, millions of them, moving and mutating at electric speed. Survival and control will depend on the ability to probe and to question in the proper way and place. As the information that constitutes the environment is perpetually in flux, so the need is not for fixed concepts but rather for the ancient skill of reading that book, for navigating through an ever uncharted and uncharitable milieu. Else we will have no more control of this technology and environment than we have of the wind and the tides.”
“Media Poetics” in Laws of Media, McLuhan and McLuhan
As far back as the Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan (1962) was interested in the manner in which technologies represented extensions of the human body, new organs through which we perceived the world. Much of his critique of literacy focused on how visual space (as structured by the phonetic alphabet, Euclidean geometry and accelerated by print technology) biased the eye and, with this bias, lead to a reconfiguration of human sense ratios. Thus outered into the eye, the other senses were necessarily reconfigured, leading to a new balance, one that locked the eye on lines of perspective that ran deeply into the horizon of progress. What was lost when the visual became a closed system unto itself was a previous state of interplay between the senses, a synesthetic correspondence that involved all of the senses that McLuhan associated with acoustic space. This same issue comes up in Laws of Media, where McLuhan (1964) states that “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (p. 57). What started as an outering of one organ, the eye, now becomes an outering of all of our organs through electronic media. McLuhan sees quite important (and great risks) associated with this situation:
By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls – all such extensions of our bodies, including cities – will be translated into information systems.(p. 57)
There is a key difference here for McLuhan. Whereas previous media fragmented and isolated our senses, electronic media by allowing for the extension of our nervous system itself, has the potential of returning us to a more acoustic state of interplay.
Thirteen years later, in his essay “Laws of Media” McLuhan (1977) once more focuses on the idea of technologies as extensions of human organs and technologies as metaphors. The play on Robert Browning returns (from Understanding Media), “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor” (p. 7). With this aphorism, McLuhan points to the idea that metaphors, through their bridging of one thing across to another, create a resonating gap, an interval that has characteristics of tactility:
Each “side” of the resonating interval is an area of “touch,” and in the sensory experience of “touch” there is never a connection but always a gap or an interval. Between the wheel and the axle, the interval (and not the connection) is “where the action is.” That is to say, there is a large acoustic factor in touch and in metaphor alike – the audile-tactile” (p. 7)
The audile-tactile space, the gap between things created by technologies (by metaphors or by words – the outerances and utterances of ourselves) defines nature for McLuhan. Living at the speed of light requires us to think where the action is, to maintain the resonating interval, the gap between two sides that actually defines touch. It is much like McLuhan suggests concerning the goal of science, arts and education to decipher the perceptual code, i.e., the information system that we receive via our outered senses. In the book Laws of Media published after McLuhan’s death that grew out of his essay, McLuhan and McLuhan (1988) emphasize the significance of the audile-tactile space that we now inhabit due to electronic media and the interplay of our extended nervous system:
Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of coexistence among out technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience that demands that they become collectively conscious….Now, sight and sound and touch and movement are simultaneous and global in extent. A ratio of interplay among these extensions of our human functions is now necessary collectively as it has always been for private and personal rationality. (p. 226)
We’ve moved beyond the isolated extensions of individual senses, to a total system, one that is global and moving at the speed of light. Such a state certainly demands a new science, one that is capable of responding to the variation in the organs of perception.
McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
McLuhan, M. (1974). “The Laws of Media” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound. Eds. Eric McLuhan & W. Terrence Gordon. Corte Madre, CA: Gingko Press.
McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.