ESP: What if McLuhan was . . . . ?--The Human Computer Interface and Language Transformations
In Graphesis: Visualizing Data (2014), Johanna Drucker examines how the way we observe, record, and analyze the world is going through a period of transformation as we abandon our dependence on textual and mathematical systems of notation and instead explore the affordances of the screened and networked media for information visualization. She posits that these new media change not only how we produce, store and consume information, but provide “structuring regimes” (177) that affect broader areas such as human values and thought patterns:
If the armature of print, now much imitated in electronic environments, has organized argument to accord with its conceptual capacities, then what will the emerging features of networked digitally supported interpretation be like? How will they differ from those that have instructed our pattern of thought for millennia? . . . Will we think differently because of the ways interpretation takes shape across networked contingencies? ( 180-81; 19)
She is adamant that with so much at stake, we need human intervention in the design process, so that it is not left to unfold as a technological and scientific undertaking.
In my presentation, I will demonstrate how her central arguments about the powerful and ranging impacts of visual forms of knowledge production resemble those developed and explored by McLuhan almost 50 years earlier to explain the transformative power of communication media. He is generally well-known for popularizing the idea that media in past ages such as the alphabet and print changed both culture and psyche--our inner and outer worlds. Yet, he also proffered many speculative considerations about how our unfolding move to electric immediacy and information would change our world, lives and values. He also dedicated many probes and passages to arguing the need for humanistic presence and agency in the technological undertaking of “programming” a new environment.
Let me gloss here some of the arresting correspondences—areas of overlap I’ll consider more fully in my presentation. Both Drucker and McLuhan argue, for example, that the mediated environment structures how we live. Here is Drucker’s argument that ontology is ideology, although seldom recognized as such: “Ontologies are ideologies through and through, as naming, ordering, and parametering are interpretive acts that enact their view of knowledge, reality and experience and give it form” (178). She identifies all “data as capta” (130)--only ever subjectively formed and always open to further interpretation. This recuperates and in some ways extends McLuhan’s similar observations. For example, he sees truth as forming and processual, developed in creative acts of making that are becoming increasingly communal and interactive, not as fact for consolidation. He sees language as an invisible environment that operates like propaganda, especially because we are unaware of its capacity to shape and model how and what we know : language acts like propaganda, he argues in “The Invisible Environment” because it provokes action that are “total and invisible and invincible” (np).
Alike, Drucker and McLuhan advocate for humanism to curve and “gentle” scientism, making design choices more responsive to human users. Drucker advocates for the cultivation of “humanist computer languages, interpretive interfaces, and information systems” so that “the humanist dialogue with digital environments will have at the very least advanced beyond complete submission “ to create instead “an interface that is meant to expose and support the activity of interpretation, rather than display finished forms” (178, 180). She says, “We have to have a way to talk about what it is we are doing, and how, and to reflect critically and imaginatively if tools of the new era are to be means to think with, rather than instruments of a vastly engineered ideological apparatus that merely has its way with us” (194). McLuhan likewise passionately advocates for human presence in developing technological systems, often arguing that technological development should be led by imaginative artists, yet involve all of us, for the “making and shaping of consciousness from moment to moment is the supreme artistic task of all individuals.. . .[and] the inherent potential of each new technology” (“Emperor’s Old Clothes” 95). He makes a plea similar to Drucker’s for human intervention and mastery over technologies that otherwise threaten our will, energy, and way of life, captured colorfully in a passage from the Playboy interview when he recommends we “charge straight ahead and kick [electric technologies] in the electrodes” so technologies become “servants rather than masters” by our exercising our power “to act without reaction” ( 22).
Looking forward futuristically, both anticipate the possibility of humans becoming less dependent on language-based and verbal communication and relying instead on computer-generated forms of rhetoric, optimistic that this signals positive human growth. Drucker imagines advances in “graphic grammar” increasing our capacity “to express ourselves in those forms and formats,” so that we will no longer rely on language “to translate grids, outlines, schematic patterns and configured fields into verbal language” ( 196). She imagines “graphical rhetoric” shaping communication in ways “that print could only hint at,” using “new conventions of legibility that structure and organize expression and communication” (197). McLuhan is perhaps less linguistically adept at wording his speculations, relying on the term ESP (which now has hoary/hoaky afterglow associations). Yet the lines of confluence are there when he speaks of imagining “ the prospect of the forthcoming demise of the spoken language and its replacement with global consciousness. . . .We will develop an awareness that transcends conventional boundaries of time and space. . .[in a] “magical world of ESP” ( Playboy interview, 17).
McLuhan ends the Playboy interview imagining humankind “on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family” and consciousness can be “freed to roam the cosmos” (17 ). Drucker soars to similar heights in furnishing an enthusiastic vision of the computer as interface for our collective mind, acting like “a cog engine engaged with the collective life of the embodied mind” (197).
Like many contemporary theorists exploring current media developments, Drucker overlooks how her work is connected to McLuhan’s. My efforts to situate her argument as a continuation of McLuhan’s helps to distinguish both. It provides an historic context for Drucker’s observations, one that establishes precedent for the changes she is observing and predicting. Equally, reading McLuhan into Drucker increases the power of his probes and ideas. First, some of McLuhan’s more hapless phrases can benefit from keeping updated company (for example, his “electric world” come into sharper focus when we think about Drucker’s digital world of screens and networks). Perhaps more interesting, Drucker mounts a traditional, fully connected and referenced argument, using a form McLuhan himself abjured in his push for connectivity and visualization. Interestingly , without specific reference to McLuhan, Drucker alludes to avant garde writers who attempted to accommodate the imaginative possibilities of such features as “constellationary writing, graphic interpretation and diagrammatic writing” (183). Her description reads like a gloss of McLuhan’s innovative mosaic style: he increasingly moved to collaborative model of production and juxtaposed short aphoristic text with visual images, fonts and text, presenting discontinuous elements as a rhetorical strategy to invite reader participation. He was attempting to change the scholarly conventions established by years of print literacy, and was thus engaged in the work that Drucker calls for in our day –work she says is still “in the incunabula period”(176).
I will conclude by making interdisciplinary connections in line with the conference theme, addressing the implications of the Drucker /McLuhan arguments about structural changes deriving from changing human computer interface. If we move-- as they speculate we will--toward an expanded and shared consciousness and become ever less reliant on language—if language is no longer a trusted representational/referential system—then what happens to codified systems in the areas of law, policy and government? We might note here that McLuhan often imagines a world without borders, governments, and politics--all slated for dissolution--and notes several times that pity for perpetrators as outsiders may replace our current expectation that crime deserves punishment.