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iPad’s real message: Resistance is futile

April 5, 2010

Marshall McLuhan: "We become what we behold."

Yes, only three days into the iPad era (or should we call it the post-Guttenberg age?), and already I’m referencing Star Trek: The Next Generation and its scariest aliens, the Borg. While most observers are arguing whether Apple’s new device will save newspapers, or unseat Amazon’s Kindle, I’m thinking more along the lines of: The Human Race Is Doomed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a satisfied customer of Apple computers–my idea of Hell on Earth is having to use a PC again– and should I ever purchase an electronic reader or tablet computer, it will almost certainly come from Cupertino, Cal. But as I read an almost unbelievably naive column by Anna Quindlen in the most recent Newsweek, I cannot not help wondering: Have all these people forgotten Marshall McLuhan?

Quindlen, a novelist as well as a journalist, is one of those pie-in-the-sky optimists who believes it doesn’t matter how a text is conveyed: a book is a book. “Is Jane Austen somehow less perceptive or entertaining when the words ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ appear onscreen?” she demands, rhetorically.

And: “[W]ell, what is a book, really? Is it its body, or its soul? Would Dickens have recognized a paperback of A Christmas Carol, or, for that matter, a Braille version? Even on a cell-phone screen, Tiny Tim can God-bless us, every one.”

Ah, God bless you, too, Anna Quindlen, one of the dumbest smart people in the contemporary mediaverse. She’s my least favorite liberal commentator on politics, too: That innate drive to optimism and even-handedness blunts what is clearly a sharp mind and softens a sophisticated writing style, sometimes into complete mush.

In concluding that “the future of reading is backlit and bright,” Quindlen is conveniently neglecting Marshall McLuhan, a mid-century Canadian philosopher who, with only television and advertising to alarm him, foresaw our current and future reality with unnerving clarity. He coined such phrases as “the global village,” and, more to the point: “The medium is the message.”

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” McLuhan said. A theoretical genius, and a true intellectual celebrity of the ’60s and ’70s, he has apparently fallen out of our collective consciousness. Too bad for us. “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

It is ridiculous for Quindlen or anyone else to assume that a book on an iPad or Kindle reads and is perceived the same as a printed book. The electronic delivery system is, as McLuhan saw, the true message, far more important than the ostensible “content.”

Those who expect the iPad — a better mousetrap than the Kindle — to save newspapers, magazines or books miss the point entirely. And what is the point, Prof. McLuhan? “In the name of ‘progress’, our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”

That’s what Quindlen, and Rupert Murdoch, and The New York Times, and the big big publishers are doing, and in the short run they may experience some benefit, as people use the iPad to access books, newspapers and magazines. But in the long run, the iPad will remake us in its own image and books and magazines and newspapers will come to seem as antiquated as clay tablets.

“Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious,” writes Mark Federman at the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. “In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time.”

Could an apter description of the iPad be found? Everyone knows that, like the iPhone, thousands of “aps” will be created for the new device, creating uses that are unimaginable now but which will quickly come to seem indispensable. New modes of communication will evolve, which in turn will mold us in ways we can’t imagine. Books, magazines and newspapers –possibly text itself! — will become extinct. Bookstores, too, more’s the pity.

I’m not lamenting these developments, though to a reader of my age and background they are certainly lamentable. On the contrary, I’m doing all I can to catch up and keep up with advances in the brave new digital world.  The alternative is irrelevance. At best.

At worst, my Roomba might turn itself on, wheel over and vacuum me into oblivion…

Here’s what I think will happen: The iPad will ease the way to ever smaller and more sophisticated technologies, until our machines become implants, and we become cyborgs. After which we will no longer be human. The human race will be extinct, the human experiment at an end. Like the iPad, we will be “on” all the time. Individual consciousness will give way to “hive mind,” just like Star Trek‘s Borg.

This state of affairs — unhappy to me, but not to everyone; see Ray Kurzweil, also in Newsweek — is inevitable.  And with the rapid pace of digital progress, I have no doubt there are people alive today who will live to be assimilated.

A devout Catholic, McLuhan probably would not be as pessimistic as I am, were he still alive (he died in 1980). He certainly believed that humanity could learn to guide its own technological development.

For example, Federman writes that McLuhan believed that comprehending “the medium is the message” could enable us to discover the unseen message, the subtle underlying “structural changes,” of any new medium. “And if we discover that the new medium brings along effects that might be detrimental to our society or culture, we have the opportunity to influence the development and evolution of the new innovation before the effects become pervasive.”

Am I suggesting we should put the brakes on digital technology? No — even if that were possible, the answer would still be no. But if McLuhan is right, maybe we can advance into this new sci-fi age with our eyes open, fully aware of what we are getting into.

“Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it. Anticipation gives the power to deflect and control force.”

McLuhan wrote those words in 1964, in his most famous book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. They are far more relevant now than they were then.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 5, 2010 11:30 am

    While the iPad (still think the name is horrible) may help in the evolution of new modes of communication, I fear it will do more to further isolation. These devices limit human interaction, well at least, real human interaction. The article you posted the other day about the true cost of the absence of book covers in the world of electronic readers is a good example, and just one.

    Maybe your fears about implants is prophetic. Part of me says, we’ll still be human but better. (Humans ver. 2, Like Americans are British ver. 2) Though another part says we will be worse, much worse. Unrecognizable as humans.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 5, 2010 12:06 pm

      Tommy, thanks for that thoughtful response. While I did not have time or space to include all my apocalyptic notions in this one blog (even though it’s three times the usual length), consider this: Once digital miniaturization reaches the point that our cell phones can be implanted in our heads, the human race will be effectively telephathic. Then consider this: Digital technology speeds up and fragments human attention — what’s known now as “multitasking,” but soon enough will be known simply as “life.” Then consider the “always on” principle of iPad and similar devices, considered a great advance by techies. Add these three things together — always on, wireless telepathy, fragmented attention — and voila! You have the Borg from Star Trek, human-machine hybrids controlled by the hive mind with no sense of individual existence. This is our future, unless we make a McLuhanian decision to avoid it. And find the will to make it so.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 5, 2010 3:24 pm

        Realism tells me the future of mankind lies somewhere between your pessimism and Quinlan’s optimism. I am hoping, even against the evidence, that people will remember technology is our tool and not the other way round, before it’s too late.

        I couldn’t agree more with the aphorism “The medium is the message”. I might go one step further and say the medium is also the experience.

  2. rachel permalink
    April 5, 2010 11:33 am

    Oh my goodness. Quindlen is so wrong, in a book is its body and soul. You take away it’s body and you take away bits, or large chunks, of its soul.

    I love McLuhan’s “The medium is the message.” How appallingly true.

    I refuse to believe that resistance is futile. I refuse to imagine a world without bookstores and people sitting around in bookstores, and cafes, and library’s and parks and trains, reading real books that they hold in their hand. No no, I think resistance is necessary. Just last night someone tried to make me look at and touch their brand new iPad, but I looked at another rebel and we raised our hands in the name of resistance.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 5, 2010 3:40 pm

      Tommy, I think McLuhan would probably agree with you about the medium being the experience. Actually, that’s just a different way of saying the same thing. McLuhan believed, and this was perhaps his main point, that technology is an extension of the human mind and body (hence the subtitle of his most famous book), beginning with speech and continuing through writing, the printing press, television, advertising and now on into our digital future.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 5, 2010 9:27 pm

        Let’s all pray that technology remains the extension of the mind and body and not the extinction.

        I also must come clean, I have been developing an “App” for the iPad/iPhone family of devices. I hope that these apps will be user content generated, educational, entertaining and financially lucrative. If the Luddites bring me up on charges will you be my Advocate, Chauncey?

        I see one major problem with Apple’s mobile devices and computers in general; their fanatical urge to have all their software remain proprietary. Apple’s refusal to accept Free Open Source Software, while understandable from a quality control viewpoint, will I believe lead to their ultimate demise as a corporation.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      April 5, 2010 4:55 pm

      I am positive that your resistance was noticed, and therefore not futile.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 5, 2010 12:14 pm

    Rachel, yes, of course Quindlen is wrong, though you say it so well. It amazes and amuses me that someone so obviously smart can be so clearly wrong. Optimism, as Peter D. Kramer pointed out in Listening to Prozac, is not always a good thing.

    As for McLuhan, when I was a college boy and young adult, he was a big deal, like Timothy Leary or Andy Warhol — a major figure of the zeitgeist who coined a terrific phrase and forced us all to think differently about things we suddenly realized we didn’t quite understand. Indeed, I think “the medium is the message” ranks with “we will all be famous for 15 minutes” as the two smartest things said in the past 60 years. But I suspected today’s young people may not have even heard of this incredibly important thinker and philosopher. Educate yourselves, children. And how to do that? By reading. It is the only way to avoid chains.

  4. April 5, 2010 12:54 pm

    Chauncey, very good article. Not only are we also on now, but these devices are driving us further apart from society. Instead of sharing the communal experience of a movie in a theater, we’re moving more towards sitting alone in isolation and watching our tablets by ourselves. Instead of shopping in a bookstore (or shopping in any stores), that experience is also being lost. Btw. I had the same reaction you did reading Quindlen’s article.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 5, 2010 1:26 pm

      Thanks, Dave. Yes, paradoxically, digital devices are isolating us and driving us apart, even as they soften us up for entry into the hive mind and the end of individuality. Privacy will go first. Oh, wait. It already has.

  5. Connie permalink
    April 5, 2010 5:25 pm

    I truly want to make an intelligent comment on this, Chauncey, but your pessimism has infected me to such a degree that all I can do is weep openly onto my keyboard. Being shockingly susceptible to Apple advertising (though I have so far resisted the iPhone)I would love to get my hands on an iPad. But I dread the day we have no more bookstores to wander around in.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 5, 2010 11:10 pm

      Oh, Connie — I did not mean to make you cry (although I have to admit the picture caused me to laugh out loud. Sorry). Did you read Listening to Prozac, you know, a book that came out sometime in the last century? Dr. Peter Kramer (a very good writer, by the way), pointed out that clinical experiments proved that while optimistic people are much, much happier than pessimistic ones, with more friends and greater success in life, pessimistic people were far better at accurately predicting future outcomes. Enjoy the bookstores while you can, sugar. Like the honeybee, they could start disappearing all at once. That said, I’m not completely immune to Apple and its wiles. I’m not hankering for an iPad, but my next phone will probably be an iPhone.

      But before running out to buy an iPad, read this:;_ylt=AqD_aIC3LRl0XeraKDTqCuFzfNdF

  6. John Karwacki permalink
    April 5, 2010 10:35 pm

    Borg, really? You’re inner geek is showing. I believe humanity’s demise is being greatly exaggerated. I too love the musty smell of a used book store. I remember being a child in Baltimore City’s Enoch Pratt Library, feeling safe and overwhelmed at the same time by the sheer magnitude and multitude of books surrounding me. That feeling I still capture when reading a book, a paper and ink extension of the author’s creativity. Today’s quote – “For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.” Alice Kahn. Thanks Chauncey, you make me want to write.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 5, 2010 11:28 pm

    Borg, really.

    People like Ray Kurzweil, who thinks with the help of genetics, digital technology and supplements he can live forever, cannot wait to become post-human machine hybrids. He’s written several books about it. A sadder and more childish desire I cannot imagine. If you are religious, then it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment. If you’re scientific, then death is the engine of evolution, the secret to our survival as a species. Either way, death commands respect. It’s the terminal phase of a noble cycle.

    Oops. My irritation with Kurzweil has led me slightly astray. Let me say, Mr. K., that nothing would please me more than to turn out to be wrong on this matter. But I don’t expect that will be the case. The future belongs to the machines and the cyborgs. There will be no place for the human. And that future is not far off in the deep Stapledonian future, but right around the corner. Truly, many alive today, as I said, will see assimilation.

    In the meantime, though, it was a lovely spring day in Fort Lauderdale. My coffee was savory, I enjoyed a trip to the gym, my dinner salad gave me great satisfaction, and I am loving the book I’m currently reading, The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter.

    And I’ll have you know, Mr. K., that my inner geek is a source of great pride!

  8. John Karwacki permalink
    April 5, 2010 11:40 pm

    As well it should be Mr. M. I too enjoyed my humanity on this fine Spring day. Here’s to life, death and the eternal cycle of our universe.

  9. alexis permalink
    April 6, 2010 4:38 pm

    I remember the episode of Buffy where Giles says that he hates computers because of the smell. And then the other person says, “there is no smell.” And he says, “exactly,” and goes on to explain that books are so great because they do have a smell and the strongest human sense is smell so it’s wonderful to tie it to the reading experience. I mean, I don’t know from experience, but I don’t imagine the ipad has a smell.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2010 11:17 pm

      The tactile pleasures of reading –touch, smell, even the sound of turning pages, or the thump of a book hitting the floor — are keen indeed. In fact, it’s part of the message of this particular medium. Thanks for bringing it up.

  10. Connie permalink
    April 6, 2010 5:05 pm

    I feel better about everything today. I am far too cheap to buy an iPad, and if I live a long and healthy life I’ll never finish all the unread books already in my house. It’s all good.

    Yo, Alexis, excellent Buffy reference!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2010 11:18 pm

      I’m glad you came to your senses, Connie. I, too, have a house full of books I’ll never get around to reading.

  11. Candice permalink
    April 6, 2010 7:58 pm

    I love Anna Quindlin and I prefer optimism. Even so, I find your prediction of the future, Mr. Chauncey Mabe, very interesting.

    Still, as an optimist, I think the good ole human being will always win out and save the day from ipads or whatever evil lurks in the wild blue yonder, seeking to destroy mankind.

    Now, can someone please alert Will Smith?

  12. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 6, 2010 11:20 pm

    Humans are primates, and as such we can never resist the shiny new toy.

  13. Candice permalink
    April 7, 2010 8:18 am

    Yes we can!


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