The hijacked world

From a March 8, 1971 McLuhan letter to Jim Davey in the Prime Minister’s Office:

Realizing that the very nature of hi-jacking is related to new services and environments. I asked a New York tycoon whether there were any parallels to hi-jacking in business. He replied at once that the bigger the business, the easier it is to hi-jack it. He said that the biggest banks in the world today are being sued by their own share-holders for misallocation of funds [ie, for allowing themselves to be hi-jacked like Wells Fargo at this very moment in 2017]. The Penn Central [RR] discovered that its entire funds had been appropriated for non-transportation uses. This is done in the bookkeeping division of the firm, unbeknownst to the rest of the operation. It is almost impossible to check. Hence, the larger the operation, the less it knows about whether it is going “to land” [at its intended destination]. Cities are hi-jacked every day by developers who simply pressure the bureaucracy into “landing” in areas favorable to the developers. Countries can be hi-jacked as readily as a big business.
(…) This raises the problem of swinging blocks of votes as a form of hi-jacking. Historically, the creation of the CPR could be considered under the aspect of hi-jacking our country. Pollution is another form of taking over an entire service environment, whether of land, water or air, perverting its uses. If some private enterprise in fact uses land, water or air [for its own profit, like a billboard], it is that enterprise that becomes the content of the environment in question, just as the hold-up man on the plane, by assuming the use of the plane for himself, becomes the content of the plane by usurping the role of all the other passengers.
Since t
he user as content is not a figure of speech but a basic dynamic (…) I suggest that it can be the basis of a complete restatement of political and economic realities in the information age of the wired planet. (Letters 428)1

A contemporary article took up the same theme:

The hijacker of a plane does not presume to operate the craft. He merely decides where it is to put down. So it is today with the very largest organizations. The larger the enterprise, the easier it is to shape its patterns and destinies, unknown to the occupants and ‘owners’. (‘The Hijacking of Cities, Nations, Planets in the Age of Spaceship Earth’, Explorations [insert in University of Toronto’s Varsity Graduate], Number 30, p.110, Spring, 1971)

McLuhan saw 50 years ago what is happening today in spades — but with little enough notice. We have all been hi-jacked, but fail to register that the various components of our ‘identity’ — ‘world-order’, ‘country’, ‘tradition’, ‘individuality’, ‘privacy’ and so on — have all been taken over for uses we don’t know, never approved and certainly don’t control.

In a further letter to Davey six months later (Sept 29, 1971), McLuhan commented on this general obliviousness:

What has happened is a complete collapse of community awareness via specialism of function. As long as an operation or process is divided into sufficiently small [isolated] segments [such as ‘departments’ in government or business], nobody feels any responsibility for anything. Communal awareness has no chance to come into play. (…) The really devastating programming is the destruction of perception and sensitivity by the creation of vast environments far exceeding human scale. The King Kong fantasies are direct expressions of the feeling most people have in their environments which have become monsters. Yet, the best intentioned bureaucrats in all governments are busily engaged in creating bigger and blacker King Kongs every day of the week. (Letters 441)

30 years before in The Mechanical Bride he had already commented on this phenomenon:

One unintended effect of trying to dragoon everybody into a single monster book club has been to splinter the public into numerous fragments. Each club trying to corner the whole public has, by its particular bill of fare, witlessly caused an anti-club segment to be formed. And the more the clubs have tried telepathically to find and control the window to the public subconscious, the more they have created blind spots and indifference. (26)

  1. In a letter two weeks later, again to Davey, McLuhan suggested that “you may be specially interested in my letter on hijacking a city, a business, a country, etc. Hijacking is a process made possible by high speed travel or high speed information movement. Conglomerates are probably a form of hijacking” (McLuhan to J.M. Davey, March 22, 1971).