We assume that communication and harmony go hand in hand, like a pair of flower children on a garden path. If only we all could share our thoughts and feelings with everyone else all the time, we’d overcome our distrust and fear and live together peaceably. We’d see that we are all one. Facebook and other social media disabuse us of this notion. To be “all one” is to be dissolved — and for many people that is a threat that requires a reaction.
Eamonn Fitzgerald points to a recently uploaded video of a Canadian TV interview with Marshall McLuhan that aired in 1977. By the mid-seventies, a decade after his allotted minutes of fame, McLuhan had come to be dismissed as a mumbo-jumbo-spewing charlatan by the intelligentsia. What the intelligentsia found particularly irritating was that the mumbo jumbo McLuhan spewed fit no piety and often hit uncomfortably close to the mark.
Early on in the clip, the interviewer notes that McLuhan had long ago predicted that electronic communication systems would turn the world into a global village. Most of McLuhan’s early readers had taken this as a utopian prophecy. “But it seems,” the interviewer says, with surprise, “that this tribal world is not very friendly.” McLuhan responds:
The closer you get together, the more you like each other? There is no evidence of that in any situation that we have ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savage and impatient with each other. [Man’s] tolerance is tested in those narrow circumstances very much. Village people are not that much in love with each other. The global village is a place of a very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.
Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends:
Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers — these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.
That’s simplistic — to a man with a media theory, everything looks like a media effect — but it’s not wrong.
People in all times have been this way. In our time, when things happen very quickly, there’s very little time to adjust to new situations at the speed of light. There is little time to get accustomed to anything.
With perfect communication comes perfect surveillance, McLuhan goes on to say, and that, too, tends to dissolve private identity:
We now have the means to keep everybody under surveillance. No matter what part of the world they are in, we can put them under surveillance. This has become one of the main occupations of mankind, just watching other people and keeping a record of their goings on. … Everybody has become porous. The light and the message go right through us.
At this moment, we are on the air. We do not have any physical body. When you’re on the telephone or on radio or on T.V., you don’t have a physical body — you’re just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body, you’re a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. I think this has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people really of their identity.
Anticipating Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, McLuhan also ties the dissolution of personal identity to culture’s turn toward nostalgia:
By the way, one of the big parts of the loss of identity is nostalgia. So there are revivals in every phase of life today. Revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything. We live by the revival. It tells us who we are or were.
Everyone needs to be someone, for better or worse.