1911-2011: Marshall McLuhan’s Century


Guest Speaker: Derrick De Kerckhove

Speaker Bio: Derrick De Kerckhove is the author of The Skin of Culture and Connected Intelligence and has worked with Marshall McLuhan as a translator and co-author. He was also the Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology from 1983 to 2008. Besides his interest in questions concerning communication, he supports new artistic developments that combine art, technology and emerged media communication. He is currently a professor at the University of Toronto.

On Thursday, December 1st Derrick De Kerckhove began his lecture by showing the audience how Marshall McLuhan’s descriptions of communication, made in the 1960s, can still be proven true today. One of his more famous arguments is “the medium is the message.” This was the television during McLuhan’s time, but now TV networks have been replaced with­ the Internet, and the likes of YouTube. “YouTube is the new art form of television.” Using Wikipedia as an example, he said the Internet also offers an encyclopedia in a way that “everyone can contribute to everyone else’s knowledge.”

Professor Kerckhove went on to describe the root of modern communication, which is language and the alphabet. The alphabet, he said, determines how we think. He gave an example of a rectangle with a line going diagonally from opposite corners and asked which line is going up or down. He then explained that it depends on which way you read the alphabet, right to left or left to right. This reorients how people perceive the world. He gave the example of how in film the action tends to move from left to right, the same direction we read.

People depend on dialogue and for 350 generations of mankind, only the last 25 were dependent on print. In print, you can internalize your consciousness and make it become your own, because there is no privacy in oral culture. This is the first generation where language can travel at the speed of light, and because of this to what extent do we have privacy or a private conscious? Professor Kerckhove joked that mankind is developing new technologies to connect people so well that it is almost better to never meet them in person. But on a more serious note, he argued there are two serious effects of this lightning-quick form of communication: terrorism and social movements.

Professor Kerckhove explained another McLuhan theory: when a new medium takes over an old one, the old one becomes an art form. He gave the example of a horse and buggy becoming obsolete after the invention of the automobile. But now, there is a new appreciation for the old medium, such as when it becomes a tourist attraction, or is used in weddings. The new medium enhances our minds and extends some part of our bodies. Going back to the car example, the wheel extends our foot and we are able to move faster. There can also be a reversal of mind and body; such as if there is a traffic jam and we become paralyzed.

Technology dispels all unconscious aspects and takes over all human artifacts. In 1965, McLuhan said that for humans, the environment is an artifact. This means something different in today’s world of instant communication. The issue of responsibility has to be addressed. Now since everyone has access to information, everyone is in charge of his/her own destiny and we must come to own it. We must now relate ourselves to everything and everyone, which describes the politics of today.

Derrick De Kerckhove spoke of Marshall McLuhan

Derrick De Kerckhove spoke of Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan said that electricity would wipe out identity. Professor Kerckhove said that he argued with him on this point because today we build our identity and publish it instead of having it internalized. This changes the ground of identity and relationships. A new type of unconsciousness exists besides Sigmund Freud’s private and Carl Jung’s collective unconscious: the digital unconsciousness. An example would be Google, which is able to track your patterns of research and show different search results for different people even if they search the same topic. Electricity makes information transparent, such as Wikileaks.

Professor Kerckhove ended his presentation by specifying the important role of the artist in communication and technology. Art is the bridge of psychology and technology over what Professor Kerckhove called the “volcanic gap.” This is the generational gap that is demonstrated by different kinds of music, ways of thinking, style etc. It is the artists that cause this explosion of the volcano that takes over the old norm. At first it terrifies the old generation, but then, like lava, it cools and pacifies it. Artists are able to recognize the importance of the present and are aware of what’s next. This is exactly what Marshall McLuhan did, because he did not have a linear mind, but a critical one that could see the dynamic interrelationship between technology and communication.

Professor Kerckhove then hosted a question and answer session.

Question: (Before Professor Kerckhove showed a radar heat image of the world). Communications Professor Lopez asked about the earth image as a new psychological experiment and whether it could raise consciousness about sustainability and the environment.

Answer: When man landed on the moon in 1969 and the first image of the earth appeared, man established a greater connection to the world. He quoted Henry James saying, “Consciousness is evolution.” In this way, mankind is progressing from continentalism, to nationalism to a globalized consciousness.

Question: A student asked Professor Kerckhove if Wikipedia would ever be a good academic source.

Answer: Professor Kerckhove politely answered no. Academics are very resistant and are in control of language and information. In some cases Wikipedia can possess a lot of depth, but the information is not verified. Academics would need to establish a new relationship with it based on trust and consensus.

Question: John Cabot University professor Michele Infante asked, how is education changing? He sometimes finds it difficult to communicate with his students because they are always electronically connected to a world outside the classroom.

Answer: Professor Kerckhove says you have to keep track of it and adapt to it. From his personal experience in Toronto, he has seen teaching styles evolve, changing from a strict lecture style to the professor becoming more tangible and sociable. With today’s wealth of information readily available, the professor needs to guide the students in the right direction more than ever, but the students are in a position to guide the professor as well. Professor Kerckhove admits that he thinks he has benefited more from his students than the students have benefited from him. Teachers should have students work together in small groups and collaborate. If you multiply minds by minds, each mind becomes more cultivated. This fundamental aspect of sharing is overlooked by many universities and should change.