Most everyone thinks that media technologies are neutral, meaning that they are mere carriers or conduits for the content. In other words, we mostly assume that the media technologies are the “form” through which we receive the “content,” such as the information, the images, the messages, and so on. Yet, as in the history of art, the form shapes the content and overall meaning of the artwork, from Polykleitos to Picasso to Pollock.
The same is true in science and human consciousness — the media technology shapes the content and its meaning. For example, the more powerful the telescope, the larger the universe we have discovered, from Galileo to Hubble to Hawking and many others. Just as Galileo needed his baseball bat sized telescope, Hubble needed the Hooker telescope, and cosmologists today need the Hubble Space Telescope, the WMAP, the Kepler, and beyond.
If it is true that (technological) form shapes content for art and science, then it would seem to be true for human consciousness and destiny. That’s why we should realize that media technology is not neutral — as it increases and expands in power, it transforms our view of the cosmos and our place in it, as individuals and as a species. Like art, science, and philosophy, media technology is central to human destiny.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE/MASSAGE
When Marshall McLuhan stated that “the medium is the message” and the “medium is the massage,” he meant that each media technology is an extension of human consciousness and perception and thus functions to shape how we think and understand the world. This means that media technologies have deep and profound effects on human consciousness, above and apart from the various messages (shows, ads, movies, etc.) that are transmitted by any particular media technology or industry (television, magazines, Hollywood, etc.). In other words, the media technology has a greater effect than its content because the technology “massages” our consciousness into modes of thinking and viewing the world.
ELECTRIC LIGHT AND TELESCOPES
Perhaps the most overlooked media technology of the past few centuries have been the electric light and the telescope. We take electric light for granted, as a neutral technology that illuminates the darkness, but with little or no effect on how we think or view the world or our place in it.
In Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan wrote that electric light was “pure information” and the only medium without a message. However, with the hindsight of five decades, we can see the medium of light has a message, too. Of course, powering the light bulbs requires energy, and energy creation and consumption is the key issue in global warming. Yet, in illuminating the night, the electric light has reshaped civilization and unintentionally countered the effects of the telescope.
Humanity’s most existentially radical media technology has been the telescope, which removed us from the center of the universe and revealed a vast cosmos in space and time. The telescope has utterly revolutionized cosmology and how we understand the universe and our place in it, in space and time:
• Space: We are not the center of the universe.
• Time: We are not the center of time; the past and future are subject to reinterpretation.
But what does this cosmology mean for living on Spaceship Earth? Our philosophies and cultural theories barely (or only remotely) address our true existential conditions in the cosmos, as first revealed Galileo’s telescope and now the Hubble space telescope and the billions of galaxies it shows to exist.
Meanwhile, when dark arrives, we flip the light switch and the light bulb immediately glows in our homes, as if we have our own personal star to illuminate the darkness. With electric light, we are the center of the nighttime universe. Electric light not only illuminates the dark, but it has produced a 24/7 nonstop civilization that replaces the Milky Way at night with a galaxy of light bulbs, floor lamps, streetlights, neon signs, LED lights, and proliferating electronic screens. When the sun goes down, the lights come on and the Milky Way disappears in the glow of our electric and electronic galaxies. In our metropolises, who looks at the night sky with awe and wonder? We are much more likely to turn on our electric lights and electronic screens.
Electric light has — in effect — returned us to “the center of the universe,” a vast and expanding media universe that has become the night time destiny for people living in our metropolises, large and small. Not only have our industrial cities largely removed us from nature, but our electric lights and electronic screens have made the cosmos almost disappear in the everyday lives of humanity. After all, isn’t that the deepest message of cyberspace and hypertext: both are compensation for us not being the center of the material universe? At least that is the idea demonstrated in this essay By Barry Vacker and Genevieve Gillespie: Yearning to be the Center of Everything When We are the Center of Nothing.
SOME MESSAGES OF MASS MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES
• Printing press and books: Essentially the order of the modern world; the spread of many worldviews and modes of living: art and science, individualism and nationalism, mechanization and mass production, sacred texts and secular revolutions, critical thinking and free speech, mass society in the forms of socialism and communism, democracy and capitalism, and so on.
• Television: Viewing is doing; the society of spectacle (Debord) and triumph of image; the cultures of hype, celebrity, consumerism, sports, surveillance, voyeurism, televisual politics, shrinking attention spans, sound-bite thinking, lack of exercise, declining book reading, and so on. Enlightenment may appear on television, but it must obey the law of TV: entertainment. Meaning: television is the first social media.
• Electronic media: Re-tribalization of peoples in the global village, the site for on-screen collisions of tribes and cultures; we have encircled the planet within a electronic consciousness that erodes borders, collapses space and time into instant communication, globalizes the stock markets into a 24/7 network, and accelerates events toward “real time” mediation in a world of “now, now, now,” and so on. Total surveillance and the end of privacy, at least as we understand it for now. The expanding power to replicate memes instantly on a global scale: the possibility for mass enlightenment and mass delusion. And, let’s not forget McLuhan’s profound insight that electronic media, especially, television and the electronic screen reverse the vanishing point in representation, in how we orient ourselves in space and time.
SOME MESSAGES OF COSMIC MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES
We have also extended this televisual and electronic consciousness deep into our cells (microcopes) and deep into space (Hubble and Kepler), and even physically beyond the solar system (the Voyager and Pioneer probes).
• Telescopes: We are not the center of the universe; the universe is evolving and not static. Message: we are not the center of space or time.
• Space telescopes: Not only are we not the center, but we exist in a vast cosmos of immense scales in space and time (Hubble telescope); there may be 50 billion planets in the Milky Way, with 500 million planets in habitable zones (Kepler telescope). There exist vast voids in deep space and deep time. Message: there are vast voids in what this means for humanity.
• Radio Telescopes: many of the same messages of the space telescope, plus the SETI program: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Combined with the Kepler findings, the message: not only are we not the center, but we are likely not alone.
• Microscopes: DNA, genetics, and the verification of the evolutionary process theorized by Darwin; atoms, electrons, and the science of quantum mechanics. Vast voids of emptiness inside the atomic structure of everything, including the atoms in our cells. Message: we are not the center of time or life.
• Satellites: The concepts of “Spaceship Earth” and the “Gaia hypothesis.” Meaning: we exist in the thin biosphere of a planet floating in a vast cosmos. The technology of Google Earth and placing the entire planet under surveillance. Message: the end of privacy and solitude?
• Computers: Extension of human consciousness; real-time access to global data (memory) banks; cyberspace, in which we map outer space and real space on Earth; hypertext, the internet, artificial intelligence, and much more. Message: an electronic brain and memory space.
• Hypertext: Central to social media because reverses the effect of the telescope, by putting us at the center of: television’s electronic screen, cyberspace, the network, and the expanding media universe. All of this helps explain the emergence of Facebook and Twitter. Message: we are the center everything, at least everything in the media universe.
• Internet: The convergence of all previous media; a 24/7 neural network that spans the planet and provides enlightenment and entertainment. Message: a global brain and/or a cognitive theme park. Or is it the nonstop replication of memes among the trillions of links in a hive mind of ever-shrinking attentions spans? The global brain potential of Google, Wikipedia, and WikiLeaks; the TV theme park of YouTube, and the hive-mind of Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
And, it is all pointing toward the end of personal solitude … precisely as we learn our planet exists in the solitude of vast cosmic voids. Yet, we may not be alone, given the thousands of planets discovered in the Milky Way, a total which may eventually reach billions of planets. In that vast universe, humans have learned to situate themselves at the center of everything, at the vanishing point, the zero point.
IPAD AND IPHONE — THE ZERO POINT IN SPACE AND TIME
Electronic media re-orient humans within space and time. If cosmic media technologies look outward to situate humans in a vast universe, other electronic media technologies — such electronic screens, hypertext, and social media — situate humans at the center of the universe. Though this may seem abstract, perfect examples can be found in the iPad, iPhone, and Facebook.
Of all the paeans to the power and elegance of the Apple iPad and iPhone, it is unlikely that any commentators have carefully considered the possible deeper meanings in the icons on the screen, which include Safari, Mail, YouTube, Stocks, Weather, Maps, Notes, Text, Calendar, Calculator, Clock, Camera, Photos, iTunes, and iPods.
When one icon is touched by the user’s finger, the remaining icons quickly disappear, moving off the edge of the screen, not unlike galaxies moving beyond the horizons of the expanding universe. As the unselected icons move off the screen, the realm signified by the selected icon — say Safari, the Apple Web browser — instantly emerges from the center of the screen, directly from the vanishing point to encompass the entire screen, as if emerging from the singularity to become the universe on the screen. In this elegant imagery Apple has expressed the existential condition of the electronic big bang, the expanding media universe existing alongside the expanding material universe, the two worlds we humans inhabit on Earth.
There is yet more subtle meaning in the iPad screen. When users are finished navigating a realm of the media universe, they hit the “Home” button and the realm that is open immediately recedes into the vanishing point and all the other icons return from beyond the edge of the screen. On the iPad screen, users interface with cyberspace, with the virtual universe emerging from and receding into the vanishing point, the nexus point for the global electronic consciousness. The iPad screen alludes to the conditions of representation effected by electronic media, or what Marshall McLuhan explained as the “reversal” of the vanishing points.
Vanishing Points in Space and Time
Extending to the horizons of space and time, the trajectories of modernity were always toward the vanishing points of the new world, toward those single points — the zero that contains the rest of the world and the end of the world — that shaped the destiny of the modern world in both space and time.
The concept of the vanishing point helps us visualize a different perspective on the trajectories of modernity — modernity in space and time, past and future, matter and media. The vanishing point appeared with Filippo Brunelleschi’s three-dimensional perspective and Isaac Newton’s clockwork cosmos, both of which extended space and time along linear gradients, from a single perspective and a single moment, beyond the horizons of distance (space) and future (time). Brunelleschi’s vanishing point permitted artists to represent three spatial dimensions on a two-dimensional canvas, with the eye extending toward the vanishing point in space. In that single point existed the rest of the universe, the cosmos condensed to a point in space, the infinite to zero, a world within nothingness. In that single vanishing point lies not only the rest of the world, but also the end of the world, that last visible realm, the end, or the edge between that world and a possible next world, be it the new world of tomorrow or the lost world of yesterday.
Newton extended the mind’s eye toward the vanishing point in time, the cosmic destiny in a scientific equation, beyond which was the infinite future, all of the tomorrows to come. In that vanishing point was the rest of time, not necessarily the end of time, but perhaps the edge of time, the endless edges between today and tomorrow, between the present and the future.
Simply put, the vanishing point in space and time transformed art and science, and thus the entire nature of how humans visualized and represented their understanding of the surrounding world — humans were utterly reoriented within the horizons of space and time, the empirical world extending outward in all dimensions and the future world extending forward in a single direction. Beyond the vanishing points in space and time were the rest of the world and the rest of time, the end of the world and the edge of the world, the edge of time between today and tomorrow.
The Electronic Reversal of the Vanishing Points
In Through the Vanishing Point, Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker theorized the electronic media as effecting a reversal of the vanishing point in the history of Western representation. According to McLuhan and Parker, tribal cultures lived in “total” perceptual environments, centered around oral and symbolic communication, requiring the simultaneous use of all their senses to perceive and understand the world. Beginning with the invention of the printing press, the modern world has become dominated by perceptual specialization, especially the visual sense, which tends to structure space-time as a continuous, connected, uniform, and standardized realm extending from the eye in all directions (not unlike the continual rows of text on the pages of print media). According to McLuhan and Parker, the arrival of electronic media signaled the overthrow of modernity’s perceptual specialization, thus returning human perceptual experience to “total environments.”
Eliminating three-dimensional space and the dimension of time as constraints on representation and communication, television and computers collapse space-time through the instantaneous retrieval of image and information. This collapse effects a reversal of the vanishing point, now situated in the circuits, screens, and eyes, all situated upon the trajectory toward the consciousness of the subject. McLuhan viewed natural light and electric light as pure information, with the light shining on the objects of the world, on the pages of the book, and on the canvases of paintings. Cinema shares in the vanishing point pioneered by Brunelleschi, for movies represented three-dimensional worlds on the two-dimensional surface of the screen. Cinema deploys light shining on a surface. In contrast, television and computers deploy light shining through the electronic screens, shining upon our faces, in effect making our eyes the screen and consciousness the vanishing point. The light shining through is seductive, beckoning us toward something beyond, be it beyond television screens or computer screens or iPhone screens.
Rather than representing a world that extends toward a point on the distant horizon, television and computers simulate the normal vanishing point — precisely as the retrieved images of the world implode toward us — on the instant horizons of the circuits, screens, and our eyes, all on a trajectory toward our consciousness.
For McLuhan and Parker, electronic media have reversed the vanishing point of representation, thus effecting a media implosion of the world, experienced in a total environment. The media implosion has only been amplified by computers and digitization, with electronic screens and a collapsed realm of total implosion, total perception, ordered as ones and zeros in the code and circuitry. Modernity is crashing into the new future of electronic screens, into the vanishing points, not situated upon the distant horizons, but rather in the neural networks of cyberspace and consciousness, made possible by the expanding media universe now featured on the iPhone.
If the vanishing point is the “zero that contains the rest of the world and the end of the world” and it is reversed with electronic media, then the zero point lies nowhere other than in human consciousness. The screen is the electronic retina, with the neurons the final circuits in the implosion of space-time. It’s as if the iPhone and iPad have fulfilled Kant’s (deeply delusional) “Copernican Revolution” are continuing the project of placing humans at the center of the universe, precisely as we are the center of nothing. The full effects of this reversal and revolution are yet to be felt, though some of the effects can be seen in iPhone, IPad, Facebook and the all-too-human desire to be the center of everything, the zero point in space and time.
The above examples are just the briefest summaries of the messages of these technologies. To all these messages, we can combine Ray Kurzweil’s “law of accelerating returns” with Susan Blackmore’s theory of “memes” to realize we face a future filled with promise, peril, and sheer strangeness.
The challenge is to develop “cosmic media theory” along with new memes that embrace the concept of our planet floating amidst a vast cosmos. If our electronic media functions as an electronic consciousness, then perhaps the glow of “Earth at Night” signals that some stardust has become self-aware on a planet known as Spaceship Earth.