Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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1063 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

iPad’s real message: Resistance is futile

Chauncey Mabe

Marshall McLuhan: “We become what we behold.”

Yes, only three days into the iPad era (or should we call it the post-Gutenberg 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 “apps” 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.

—From Open Page (5 April 2010)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury