Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter where we take a deep dive into various fringe ideas.
Today I want to step back from McLuhan precisely and address a larger theoretical concern, one without a real solution.
To do that we need to define a word we’ve been throwing around a lot in the last day: Determinism. Simply put, it’s the idea that forces outside human will shape humanity instead of human will.
Like all the biggest theoretical questions, there’s not really any hard line to draw. We know *many* forces other than human will affects us at different levels. From raw physics, which determines our shape and the way our bodies function, to pollution, to social forces, and a dozen other variations. Perhaps metaphysics as well, should that be real.
And all that’s before we examine how much of an individual’s psyche is beyond will.
So, there’s undoubtedly *some* determinism. You don’t get a vote if your heart decides to stop beating.
Most religions posit a universe where human choices can impact the result of some grand narrative, even if only for an individual. Whether that’s just how long a soul spends reincarnating or the fate of the battle of good vs evil.
The simple option is to just side with determinism: Free will is an illusion and things will happen as they must for whatever reason.
The interesting thing about this approach is most people find it demoralizing. It changes their behavior and affect.
Which seems like it shouldn’t do if their behaviors are preordained, right?
So we have these little candles-in-darkness of conscious thought and choice and part of our job as sentient beings is to find the best choices for whatever scale we want to find.
So determinism is less an industrial machine and more like sailing: You’ve got water and air doing their things, and sometimes other living things, and it’s up to you to figure out how to combine those with the sails and rudder of your ship to get where you want to be.
This leads to the question of where you want to go and if that isn’t also predetermined.
Bringing us back to our exploration: where does McLuhan fit into this?
His ideas are a hardening of determinism by adding that technology doesn’t merely add new choices, but reorganizes how we experience the world.
He claims that before print media, we couldn’t really develop a public. That print’s standardization allowed for more people to think the same thoughts than ever before and this creates a qualitative difference in the kind of society with access to printing.
This is dangerous ground as many literate people have used this as an excuse to dismiss and justify violence against nonliterate people throughout history. But the question of what cognitive effects learning literacy has is quite interesting.
There’s been quite a bit of research on this but I haven’t touched it since college. The most interesting detail I recall is a study on abstract associations in African tribal people.
What I remember of the study had the participants being shown a small number of familiar objects and asked them to categorize them.
The participants paired their tools with what they’d use the tools with, rather than in some abstract category like tool. Which the researchers found to be backwards when compared with abstract categories they expected.
I kinda wonder if this kind of difference in cognitive style is responsible for the distinction between street smarts and book smarts. But I digress.
We’ll get back into the details of McLuhan’s theories on how media distort and extend our senses next week.
Tomorrow’s email might come a bit late but it’ll be there.
Talk to you then.