Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, the fringe newsletter I misspell 100% of the time on the first try. We’re here to talk about one goddamn line from McLuhan because it gave me some goddamn thoughts.
Alright, so the line, which we mentioned yesterday, is:
“The Environment as a processor of information is propaganda. Propaganda ends where dialogue begins. You must talk to the media, not to the programmer. To talk to the programmer is like complaining to a hot dog vendor at a ballpark how badly your favorite team is playing.”
It’s pretty clear that McLuhan means human-created environments here. Natural environments also process information, but they don’t do so in the same ways or with the same priorities.
Sand dunes in a desert are kind of a map of weather displaced in time, the Jungle is a riot of updates on the biochemical status of the whole ecosystem, and the barren landscape of the dwarf planet Pluto shows us more of what’s absent on its surface than what’s there.
But human-created spaces are different. Seeing what happens when nobody does any planning has caused a slew of related planning disciplines to pop up over the centuries. From Architecture and Engineering through urban planning and more recently, Wayfinding.
Wayfinding is the one that interests me the most because learning about it showed a bunch of stuff I’d experienced in a new light. As a kid, I spent a lot of time being shuffled around various east coast airports, mostly Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Chattanooga. Even now I can clearly picture their layouts and the various bits of them that annoyed me.
Imagine my surprise that the reason airports have so much weird art is intentional: Giving big, obvious landmarks for people trying to find each other in what may be extremely busy circumstances.
Wayfinding, which I discovered in a delightful book whose title I can’t remember about high skill, low visibility jobs. It was a fascinating peek into a lot of jobs like the soundcheck guy for a major band or a UN translator.
So, Wayfinding is the art and science of developing spaces that humans find legible. So if you want to get someplace, the space will tell you how to get there without needing to ask someone.
This includes obvious stuff like signs and maps and way more subtle details like the layout and how different places within the space are arranged. Literally, it’s processing the space so it can be easily read by people. It’s used in all kinds of public spaces from the concept of a Main Street where all the important businesses in a small town are all the way up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
If you don’t have to ask anyone for directions, you’re not using up attention that may be more needed elsewhere.
Wayfinding has, arguably, its purest expression in video game design.
Gamifying The World
And in a sense, turning natural spaces into the kind of highly contextual, deep refined spaces you see in AAA video games is what McLuhan means by propaganda.
Artificial spaces are defined by human intent trying to accomplish some kind of desire, be it to create a welcoming home or an imposing corporate boardroom.
The space tells you who belongs and who doesn’t and even something about how things should be done there.
And as Mcluhan pointed out, this kind of propaganda is a one-way street. You can’t speak to the architect of the cathedral to tell them how you feel about their decisions.
This is all fine if you’re living day to day and mostly following the script laid out for you by society. But if we get to the level of metacognition where we’re able to look at those scripts and decide if we want to follow them and how we’ll do so, it these spaces begin to be oppressive.
Now, we can’t mention oppressive architecture without at least a mention of Brutalism.
When you walk down the steps to the City Hall Plaza, you discover to your shock and horror that this goddamn brick of a building doesn’t just feel more substantial than the slick glass skyscrapers which are literally taller than it, but it all but looms over you.
It’s a building that makes an impression. And that impression is the naked display of power. These skyscrapers, many 2-3x taller up to 7x taller, are nothing. You are nothing.
Part of the effect is the cement, part is the way it tapers up at the top, and the fact you go down two half flights of stairs to get into the plaza adds to it as well.
Point is, you don’t need to read anything to know exactly what this building is for.
I know that because I literally accidentally wandered into the plaza while wandering downtown Boston one day and looking at my phone and only really looked up from the bottom of the plaza.
I won’t forget the feeling of being looked down on any time soon. And a quick glance to nearby signage told me it was city hall and I thought, “No shit it’s city hall.”
But all of this about Wayfinding and the impression this one building is getting to the side of the point: The arrangement of physical space itself processes information for us, and any kind of mediation creates hidden assumptions and thus propaganda.
The Wicked Problem of Mediation
When I look back on my manic early 20s scraping to be completely cut off from cultural consensus, I can see that what I was looking to do was not to remove any sense of connection with other people but to remove any kind of middle man between me and knowledge.
Unfortunately, physics makes the kind of mediation-free relationship with the world nearly impossible in practice. The linear flow of time, increasing entropy, my limited lifespan, and so on mean I don’t have the time to gather all the information I want myself.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s define Mediation first: Mediation is external information processing. If I get all my news from facebook, my understanding of the world must go through several levels of mediation. First, is unknowable levels of facebook algorithm black box decisions. Second, are the behavior patterns of my friends. And Third, whatever of my behavior patterns facebook registers.
There are other levels as well: The writer, their editors, their institution, and their sources. And the cognitive processes of everyone involved.
It’s commonly understood that the mainstream news misleads people, but the full extent of it is very hard to see because most of the journalists who color outside the lines (not all for noble reasons) usually lose their audiences.
So much of my manner of thinking is about finding these kinds of filters and gates and looking for other information to fill in the gaps.
The American fighter Pilot and military strategies John Boyd synthesized much of the same information I have into the OODA loop. Which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
To put it another way: Discover information, Understand what it means, Choose what to do about it, do that thing, repeat.
As a military strategy, it’s obvious implication is that if you can go through the loop faster than your opponent you’ll be able to control the fight and win it. Disrupting an opponent’s loop becomes key. See: Shock and Awe in the first two months of the illegal American invasion of Iraq vs the remaining years of the occupation.
Why is Mediation Bad?
It’s not. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
But it might be.
See, when you assume you make an ass out of u and me.
And mediation makes it much harder (sometimes impossible) to see the work that lead to the final answer.
Remember showing your work in math class? It’s vital to rigorous thinking to have a clear chain of reasoning that you or anyone else can attack or defend from various angles.
Every filter you put information through adds a black box you may or may not understand, and so you may add assumptions to your calculations. The more assumptions you don’t understand within your thinking, the thinner ground you’re probably on.
Well, if it’s that bad why is it so common? Well, mediated information is easier to digest and understand than general info. it’s more focused.
An example: If you want to learn calculus, should you read a textbook or start with Issac Newton’s Principia Mathematica? (Let’s ignore the possibility of him cribbing notes from other people)
Well, the textbook is almost certainly a more direct example of what you want. It’ll do the job and not bug you with other information. But Newton’s Principia doesn’t just show you Calculus, it shows you how a genius organizes a book on mathematics and physics.
So if you’re looking for depth, you’ll want to get that extra stuff too because it might matter. Now, if you go the second route, you’ve got a problem to address. We’ve gone way beyond Newton in Calculus. You need to figure out what to read after it so you can absorb the refinements and additions into the system.
Meanwhile, the textbook condenses that 500 years of thought into something designed to be digested by students.
You get the end result, but you miss out on the context of the problems Newton developed Calculus to solve.
Does that matter? Depends on what you want. I’d argue someone who wants to understand how to think better should pick the part with all the context. Because if you learn the method and the context you’ll be much better at applying it to a wider array of real world situations and theoretical problems than if you just learned a formula.
Anyway, I’m digressing hard and need to get some client work done. Hope this was interesting.
We’ll see you tomorrow.