I am using a concept of Marshall McLuhan’s here – when he wrote how printing and television were extensions of us. I prefer to use the word technologies. His big breakthrough came when he said The Medium is the Message - the subliminal effects of television were far more important than its content.
Television was changing what people were. A process of which the people themselves were completely unaware. They had lost their powers of self-awareness long before – and had become something we cannot comprehend, and have no words for.
Note in that last sentence I was referring to two types of people – the mass of people, and those who are trying to understand them – a much smaller number – and a completely unsuccessful bunch, it seems to me. We have been clobbered by a change so vast we cannot begin to understand it – and don’t really want to.
Part of the problem was the amount of time involved in this change. Its gradual onset coincided with the beginning of the Modern World. A sea-change so vast, so subtle, and so huge that even now – six centuries later, it overwhelms us to think about it.
We should begin by admitting just that – that the coming of the Modern World was something so huge we have great difficulty comprehending it. And then take it from there.
Instead, we ignore the whole subject – and concentrate on smaller pieces of the puzzle – such as the development of Industry. But even here, we drop the ball and succumb to platitudes.
We might as well admit that we have been overwhelmed by something – but don’t really know what it is. Humility is one of the finer virtues – and we should exercise it more vigorously.
But one thing we should not be too humble about is our uniquely human skill – our consciousness. We are self-aware – to a degree no other species can approach. Probably due to our large brain.
And we are also aware of our surroundings in a way that other species are not. We can analyze it – take it apart and put it back together in new ways. No doubt some of you will object “How about the chimps that use sticks to fish out termites?” I can only reply “How about the primatologists that are watching them do this?”
I am not one to idealize the human race – we have faults that are astonishing. But at least we have some awareness of them – or used to. One of our biggest problems now is our lack of awareness of our built-in limitations. Or to put this another way – our astonishing lack of Wisdom. This is a problem, if there ever was one – we have become stupid.
This brings me back to my original question “How did we get this way?” We didn’t set out to become stupid – how did we end up this way? My answer, in a nutshell, is – because we outsmarted ourselves. This took some doing – and we need to give it some thought.
One way to look at this – is to look at our use of energy. For thousands of years this was provided by human and animal muscle power. Which was based on agriculture. Wealth was land – the more you had (and the more slaves you had) the richer you were.
Then we discovered wind power and the first Industrial technology – the Sailing Ship. A wind-powered machine. And we discovered a new source of wealth – trading. In the European South, this amounted to nothing more that using slaves to mine Gold and Silver in the New World.
But the North developed differently – and became much richer, based on different kinds of exploitation. Based on new kinds of energy – originally Coal. And the invention of workers to run the all the machinery that now became more and more important
Note the appearance of two things – machines and the workers to run them. I will not go into the background – things like banking and its creation of capital that made Capitalism possible. Needless to say, they were important too.
What I want to concentrate on is the ever-growing importance of machines. And how we were becoming machine-people. This brings me up to my paternal grandfather’s time – the early 20th Century – and the Railroads. When we were also becoming car-people – as my father certainly was.
Then things really went crazy – right after WWII – right when I graduated from college as an Electronic Engineer in 1959. Electronics was something we were totally unprepared for because it was so different from anything that had gone on before it. We were sucked into it – and never came out of it.
Electronics produced Television that turned us into couch-potatoes. This is where McLuhan came in. But he could not begin to cope with the Next Big Event – the Computer.
The perfect machine – but we did not see it as that. But as the perfect extension of ourselves – it made us super-people – we thought. Not noticing that it had reduced us to serving it. And the few people that it has empowered.