McLuhan’s passage about Napoleon’s acute understanding of media and communications technologies struck me as analogous to Trump’s understanding of the American media landscape–namely his use of TV and twitter. National leaders acknowledge the important effects of broadcast media and journalism on their ability to lead, and of course this is one of the reasons a free press is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Cardinal Newman said of Napoleon, “He understood the grammar of gunpowder.” Napoleon had paid some attention to other media as well, especially the semaphore telegraph that gave him a great advantage over his enemies. He is on record for saying that “Three hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
The comparison of hostile newspapers to bayonets seems to refer to a leader’s internal legitimacy, but beyond this, information wars are also waged across borders. We’re witnessing an increased the weaponization of the internet and mounting evidence of the ways it was used to sway the U.S. election. McLuhan’s forceful statement that, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot,” ignores that media might be mis/used as a result of poorly thought out design. I don’t think twitter, facebook, or google sought to make Trump and fake news go viral, but rather, that they failed to see the repercussions of their design choices.
Despite this, I actually agree with McLuhan and would further argue that investment in any media represents an economic and moral choice that should be scrutinized. The things we produce as a society are a reflection of our values. This is why it’s rude to text on play video games on your phone when you’re hanging out IRL, and why Jason Pontin wrote, regarding automation and drone warfare, “The development of drones should remind us that technological advances are not the same as progress (a fact often forgotten, at least by technologists).” This point is made poignantly by Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon.
Is this scrutiny the role of artists? McLuhan writes, “In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists,” but this does not preclude the vigilance of everyone else, “…for any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary.”
The discussion of how “the new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics” paired (deliberately?) cohesively with Clark and Chalmer’s The Extended Mind. The idea of a “sense-ratio” seemed supported by the cognitive thought experiments and changes they discuss–the outsourcing of particular tasks result in real changes to cognitive load. The rapid incorporation of new media clearly has profound effects on us as individuals but McLuhan’s focus on the collective also made me think back to the drones and automated warfare. We’ve so drastically changed our engagement with state-sponsored violence (I wonder if this is how the Russians feel).