Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Marshall McLuhan

For those of you who've read the Scan, you'll know we lead off with a quote from Mark Federman, who is Chief Strategist and head of McLuhan Management Studies at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. The quote is from a key note speech he gave at the 2003 Information Highways conference in which Federman encouraged delegates to apply Marshall McLuhan's laws of media to challenge and change conventional concepts in knowledge-based enterprises. McLuhan wrote his most influential works in the 60s and died in 1980 long before the ubiquitous Internet and the Web. So, it is amazing to me to re-read bits and pieces of McLuhan's writing and see how prophetic he was.

Now, if you're like most people, even if you own any of McLuhan's books, you probably haven't read them, just as most of us haven't really read Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, or anything by Jacques Derrida (I was an English grad student once--my pal Rick Martin always managed to sound incredibly 'up' on Derrida to the envy of the rest of us wretches in whatever postmodern lit course we were taking. Over beer once, Rick told us his secret: read the first and last ten pages or so. No one else has read more--probably not even the professor--and, voila, erudition!) because it's hard, epigrammatic, arcane, punny stuff. But, such is McLuhan's influence that many of his aphorisms are part of our cultural language. I found this today and was stunned to see "Information overload equals pattern recognition."

A sampling of McLuhan's favorite aphorisms suggest his rich, playful mind.
  • The medium is the message.
  • The greatest propaganda in the world is our mother tongue.
  • Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.
  • Violence is a lust for compensatory feedback.
  • War is compulsory education. Education is war.
  • Discovery comes from dialogue that begins with the sharing of ignorance.
  • Information overload equals pattern recognition.
  • Artists are the antennae of the race.
  • Electronics turns the earth into a global village.
  • We don't know who discovered water but we're pretty sure it wasn't the fish.
  • If you don't like these ideas, I've got others.

I did a bit of hunting around Google-space and found several references to this, although not a good bibliographic one. It was sometimes expressed as "data overload..." and one reference said McLuhan himself said he'd got it from IBM; another said it came from the Artificial Intelligence community.

Whatevah! The aspect of this that I find so bemuse-worthy is that we called the Scan "Pattern Recognition" in recognition of William Gibson's book of the same name as well as the branch of artificial intelligence research concerned with the classification or description of observations.. There are fans of Gibson's books among those of us involved in creating the Scan, and we thought the whole notion relevant to our goal. And Federman's article, that contained the phrase we now use a lot "what haven't you noticed lately", helped clarify my thinking as I wrestled with setting the stage for the Scan in the Overview. But, I did not know that McLuhan had also used "pattern recognition" and in such a way as to fit right in with the sense of our title.

I love serendipity.

Addendum (added July 21) : I forgot to include this yesterday. It's an interview with Marshall McLuhan, published in Playboy in 1969 (they really did have good interviews--and some people really did buy the magazine for these, not the pictures!) As the intro to the interview notes, "The result [the interview] has considerably more lucidity and clarity than McLuhan's readers are accustomed to--perhaps because the Q. and A. format serves to pin him down by counteracting his habit of mercurially changing the subject in mid-stream of consciousness." Have to agree.







3 comments:

Mark said...

"Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern-recognition." Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1969, p. 132

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Anonymous said...

i originally came across this particular mcluhan quote in an television debate he had with Norman Mailer in 1968......here is the link..... http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-931331993788973594#