Kenneth Boulding

Unlike most of the authors and investigators McLuhan studied in his crucial 1958-1962 period (such as Adolf HildebrandHeinrich WölfflinWilliam IvinsGeorg von Békésy and Tobias Dantzig), Kenneth Boulding’s work continued to be cited by McLuhan into the 1970s. Furthermore, he had come to know of Boulding’s work earlier than these others — Boulding contributed ‘The Information Concept’ to Explorations 5 in 1955.

Media Alchemy in Art and Society, 1958

Kenneth Boulding’s The Image [1956] is an important event in advancing our knowledge of alchemical change in all types of structure. And we achieve this advance by seeing every kind of structure, from the botanical to the animal and human, as a knowledge structure subject to information in-put. The structure is the image: “We must distinguish carefully between the image and the messages that reach it. The messages consist of information in the sense that they are structured experiences. The meaning of the message is the change which it produces in the image.” Boulding is disposed to regard some information as neutral (“We may imagine that the message is going straight through without hitting it.”). Such neutral messages bombarding the inattentive image or structure have tended in our time to be cut down almost to zero. Modern psychology is here in accord with the arts in thinking that subliminally received messages (what used to be called cultural conditioning) are much the most effective as shaping powers. Massive achievements like Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Archiitecture or his Mechanization Takes Command offer as it were a vivisectional awareness of the living inter-relational current of forms and information.

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, June 5, 1959

Ken B is going to be one of my earliest approaches. (…) Look Harry, the first big miracle has occurred [= the funding of the Understanding Media project].  Those that follow will be easier and bigger but more natural as it were.  Let’s keep in mind that events and actualities are all on our side.  The opposition has to be by-passed not clobbered.  Ours must by mobile war not positional, if we are to salvage an appreciable proportion of our establishment, educational and political.  We must waste no time or strength in opposition or diatribe.  People love to fight but don’t want to be left out of main trend!

McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 19601

At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For in each subject concerned with method and creative insight tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being. For example, Ken Boulding in The Organizational Revolution, on p. 66, mentions that “the idea that a theory of organization is possible is one of the important ideas of our time“. Notice that if information moves so fast that the causes and effects of any action are felt almost together — then it becomes indispensable to have a theory of organization, but it also becomes possible. It is the telescoping of actions and consequences which makes understanding of principles easier. Another way of putting this, Claude, is to say that control is only possible through acceleration of change. A ship that is moving at the same speed as the current has no steerageway. What is ordinarily called planning is, in effect, acceleration. In the same way, the greatly increased speed of action and reaction, because of electronic information movement, compels organizations to assume an ethical character in the sense of having inclusive rather than exclusive purposes. Specialized lines of development are intolerable, when every line crosses every line. That is to say, that the dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves, and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work. Should be able to get the Meier paper to you late on Monday. Between him and Boulding2, you should be able to manage very well indeed with the Manufacturers’ Association. By the way Ken Boulding’s book. The Image, 1959, is small and richly nourished. It has lots of economic tie-ins.

Understanding Media, 1964

Kenneth Boulding put this matter in The Image by saying, “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image.” Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement. (26)

…in any medium or structure there is what Kenneth Boulding calls a “break boundary at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes“… (38)3

Take Today, 1972

NOTHING EXCEEDS LIKE EXCESS. Writing on the “Failures and Successes of Economics” (THINK, May- June, 1965), Kenneth E. Boulding cites “Phillips Curve” to the effect that beyond a certain point “the more employment the more inflation”. Boulding, in The Image, was one of the first to note that the gist of economic life had moved into the information or “software” orbit. Political economy had, in fact, become economic politics. The trend to what he calls THE GRANTS ECONOMY is a reversal of an age-old and opposite trend of the separation of work and residence. The increase of “software” and information as industries become knowledge-oriented can have only one terminal, namely, the restoration of the decentralized “cottage economy”. So far this development has been called “moonlighting” and “starlighting.” “Do-it-yourself” now permits use of the total environment as a private resource. Earlier, it had been an elite that exploited the “public benefits for private vices.” Now it is everybody who gets in on the act. This, naturally, via Hertz Law of Complementarity brings the flip or reversal of effect. In Boulding’s words, “grants may be made out of fear rather than out of love.” The grant as tribute, levied on a puzzled public, becomes a feature of the “threat system,” as in Speenhamland. (81-82)

  1.  Letters 273
  2. “Between him (Meier) and Boulding” —  at this time Richard Meier and Boulding were colleagues at the University of Michigan.
  3. This passage from Understanding Media is cited in Laws of Media, 107.