Would Marshall McLuhan, the patron saint of the digital generation, have been a fan of SMS? We will never know. Still, the late media philosopher’s provocative ideas can give us important insights into the impact of mobile communication technologies on society. No one on the planet is better qualified to extend, and deepen, McLuhanesque thinking than Derrick de Kerckhove.
De Kerckhove is the director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto – the same chair McLuhan occupied before his death in 1980. He has worked tirelessly to build a community of academics, artists and student to explore the impact of technology, art and media on society. Often the effects are transforming, says de Kerckhove, who believes for example that the telecommunications and computer revolutions led inextricably to the end of the cold war.
His mastery of the convergence of culture, technology and art is profound. He has described the retribalizing effect of the Web in books like “Connected Intelligence: The Arrival of the Web Society,” fretted about our drift toward cultural fragmentation in “The Skin of Culture,” and elucidated the influence of the alphabet in “The Alphabet and the Brain,” a book he co-edited.
De Kerckhove is a driving force behind the development of media and telecommunications installations aimed at instilling global consciousness. A current project involves building huge video screens to connect shopping malls in Naples and Toronto. He lectures and consults worldwide, was a member of several Canadian telecommunications taskforces, advises the French media giant Vivendi on business strategies for new technologies and is currently organizing a conference on wireless culture for this fall in Seoul. We began by asking him an obvious question – what would McLuhan have thought?
TheFeature: What would Marshall McLuhan have thought of the mobile phone?
Derrick de Kerckhove: McLuhan would have enjoyed the paradox that, on the one hand, mobile telephony provides us with fantastic freedom while, on the other hand, we’re completely a prisoner of a system where we are in touch all the time. McLuhan said that electricity has a tendency to invade us through and through and that television, for example, is a kind of electronic straightjacket. When you are interviewed on television you are forced to fit into a very fixed space with all kinds of rules. He would have said that the mobile phone is the most imprisoning medium of all. Your movements are totally free, but there is no point where you can’t be contacted. I’m wondering if in the future there might be a NoPhoneLand, a place people will go where they can’t be reached.
TF: McLuhan also said that language was a kind of technology. Isn’t SMS-speak a kind of evolving language tied to a technology?
De Kerckhove: We think of writing as something that turns auditory language into a visual sequence of signs that are clear to everyone. SMS isn’t clear or natural. It creates an inner language environment in which most of the vowels are removed. It’s not natural to learn to read SMS – you have to master the rest of the language and the full alphabet first. I’ve found that it’s almost a Phoenician type of writing, semi-ideographic, a type of code. SMS is a living graffiti.
TF: You once wrote that we are on the brink of fragmentation or globalization. Does the mobile phone nudge us one way or the other?
De Kerckhove: If there’s one thing that globalizes anybody, it’s the mobile phone. The mobile phone quite literally puts the whole world in your pocket. At the same time, it allows you to roam into the space of that world like no other medium. I’m very interested in the dynamics of people’s movements in space. I call GPS “The Mecca.” The Mecca is the place in the Islamic heart to which you always turn, the one place on the planet that always gives you a reference, at least at the symbolic level. The mobile phone is a permanent reference – with or without GPS. McLuhan said the planet’s electric grid was an extension of the nervous system. The mobile phone returns the grid into the body. You hold the planet in your hand when you grasp a mobile phone because you have access to all of it and all of it has access to you.
TF: What will be the key societal impact of mobile telephony/Internet?
De Kerckhove: Acceleration. Mobile telephony and Internet is accelerating society in at least two ways: Vastly increasing the volume of human transactions, and reducing the time delay between transactions.
The result is that the transfer, production and storage of knowledge in private communications, science, education, health, politics, and entertainment are hugely increased. This phenomenon is comparable, but with a thousand-fold larger effects, to the increase of content production after the printing press was invented.
The difference between today’s accumulation of knowledge and connectivity and that of the Renaissance is qualitative as well as quantitative. While the printing press distributed knowledge in different places and different formats with comparatively slow access routes, the mobile Internet gives access to all of that information and infinitely more of it anywhere, anytime. Ever more efficient search engines are making that access not just merely pertinent but “hypertinent” which is the logic of the memory in our brains. Every time we think, we summon the most pertinent information available in our mind. Imagine having the same kind of access to the contents of everybody else’s mind at once. It’s quite literally mind-boggling.
TF: Is there anything about the rise of the mobile phone that concerns you?
De Kerckhove: I’m extremely concerned about the issue of privacy and our continued autonomy and independence. The first case illustrating the danger and drama of the mobile phone is what happened to Djokhar Dudayev. Dudayev was the head of the Chechen rebels and the heart and soul of a successful rebellion against Russia. The Russians found the coordinates of his mobile phone, trained a rocket with that information and killed him. It’s an exaggerated example, but shows the dangers of the mobile phone in terms of the privacy of information.
TF: Terrorists involved in the events of September 11 used the mobile phone to coordinate their activities. Isn’t a loss of privacy inevitable?
De Kerckhove: Good arguments can be made for allowing others to have access to us – especially after September 11. The mobile phone has enormous power to do wrong things. But making people accountable for everything – whether it’s a spouse tracing a partner’s moves or the government monitoring your activities – there’s the fear that we go back to the all-pervasive God of the Middle Ages.
My approach to autonomy is the study of religion and the private subject. Nobody was safe from God in the Middle Ages. His eyes peered into your heart and always knew what you were doing at any time. This is the vision of the collective consciousness society. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance there has been a hard-won independence of mind from the Church and State, a painful transformation from the collective to the private mind. Are we going to lose it to the mobile phone?
TF: What do you think the future of the mobile Internet will be like?
I’m really a “presentist,” not a futurist. In that I follow Marshall McLuhan’s recommendation that “To be a good prophet, I never predict anything that hasn’t already happened.” There is one prediction I made back in the early nineties that I can see becoming a very real possibility. It is the possibility of entertaining a kind of tactile connection with the state of the world. I had imagined in the Skin of Culture that in order to keep abreast of all the world news at once and experience their pertinence, we could only do so in a tactile medium that would respond to variables of pressures and textures.
Today discreet vibrating systems in your mobile phone alert you to an incoming call or message. Tomorrow, they may signify the emergence of world problems, or, at the very least, provide you with tactile data that concern you personally.
John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon," a book about the online entertainment business, and writes about mobile wireless developments from Los Angeles.