Marshall McLuhan popped into my mind at JFK as I watched the boarding call for my flight to Cairo on Egypt Air. The effects of media on human behavior: I remembered a passage where McLuhan says a print-based culture tends to produce linear, sequenced, and generally ordered thought. (Because letters, one after another in precise arrangement, have to be organized like an army–I think McLuhan called these the seeds of Cadmus. Look it up.) There was no linear thought behind the boarding process for Egypt Air. And since I’ve been in Cairo, whether at supermarkets, at train stations, or museums, I’ve noticed a repulsion from, an absolute aborrence for, the concept of a queue. Buses do not always stop on the street to pick passengers up. They slow down to 15 maybe 10 miles an hour. Then passengers have to break into a sprint and make a last minute leap onto the bus as it pulls away.
McLuhan believed that certain non-linear behaviors tend to flourish when the pervasive media is audio-visual. I was not surprised to hear my host say that, aside from reading the Koran, Egyptians prefer other media to the book. They listen to the radio, watch television, and gossip in the cafe. Five times a day, all throughout the city, a call to prayer sings over thousands of bull horns. What is this but “the tribal drum,” to use McLuhan’s phrase?
A bit of a McLuhan revival is bubbling up. (Yes, I know there was already one in the ’90s.) Anytime a reporter asks Tom Wolfe what he thinks about the new media, he slips into McLuhanese, talking about its reliance on rumor and the tribal mind. Wired has an interesting Clive Thompson piece on the evolving visual media on the Web. And just this morning I find an op-ed by Douglas Coupland suggesting that McLuhan’s theories may help us identify the underlying mechanisms behind the financial panic of ’08:
Marshall McLuhan tells us that “terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it, everything affects everything all the time.” What he perhaps didn’t foresee was that terror didn’t turn out to be Winston Smith’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Terror turned out to be a friend’s grandmother bingeing on conspiracy websites during a late-night browsing jag, triggering days of pension freak-out e-mails with her daughter, Sarah, down in Human Resources, who then installs a real-time Dow Jones ticker widget in the top right-hand corner of her work screen…
The evolving thinking is that electronics extend our central nervous systems, and that economic news in particular has hit the point of speed and saturation that our microeconomic daily freak-outs are becoming the new macroeconomics.
Oh yeah, Coupland is writing a McLuhan biography.