Richard L Meier and “substitutability”

I would like to draw attention to the fine paper of Richard L. Meier on “Information, Resource Use, and Economic Growth,” (read at Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 1960). Not only does he point to the media of communication as staples or natural resources, and to our senses as the climate of information, but [also to the fact that] the natural effect of the electric is to substitute  information movement for transportation of things. As information movement increases, “machines can be designed which normally make for [far?] fewer mistakes than humans.” That is, as information moves into very high level phases there occurs (…) reversal and substitution of forms (…). Above all, information movement at electric speeds results in a society “capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others“. “Now, however, it is impossible to specify any set of resources which are crucial”. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘General Introduction to Charts’)

McLuhan heard Meier’s paper at a conference on Natural Resources and Economic Growth held at Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 7-9, 1960.1 Apparently on account of its ontological implications, McLuhan immediately began to discuss Meier’s notion in his correspondence and papers: 

I want to mention some aspects of the Richard Meier script which came to mind yesterday. A propos of his theme of substitutability, notice that when information flow reaches a sufficient level almost any resource material can be substituted for any other, then the situation closely resembles the activity of the sensus communis in translating one sense into another. (…) I am exceedingly grateful to Richard Meier, but I understand what he is saying so much better than he does that I am really in some doubt as to what sort of credit to hand him when these things come to publication. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, Letters 270-272, May 5, 1960)

Now, from your point of view, it seems to me that some of these points directly concern the university. The principle, that at very high levels of information movement  substitutability  occurs, (this by the way applies also to our own sense lives in which each sense typically translates itself into each of the other five senses) applies to the studies of the university. When stress moves from product to process, all of the subjects in the university also become substitutable for one another. At the very high level of information movement in which to-day we are involved, we find ourselves less in a university of subjects [or disciplines] than in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. For (…) method and creative insight [today] tends to bring each subject directly into the mode of contemplation of its relation to Being. (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960, Letters 273)

Richard Meier, in a paper given at Ann Arbor this past April, formulated a natural law for media when he pointed out that increased levels of information flow result in substitutability: “With the elaboration of electrical engineering, and the fusing of many strands of chemical knowledge, a field that was evolving rapidly in a mainstream of its own that led from mass reactions to molecular, to atomic, and most recently to nuclear reactions, the possibility of a flexible, quick-acting, autonomous economy emerged. It is capable of substituting one set of raw materials by others so as to meet virtually all foreseeable emergencies which reduce or cut off supplies. (…) The task that remains is one of redesigning social institutions so that they are consonant with the revealed potentials of resource availability and technological efficiency.” (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

information theory is able to reveal in the person and the paper of Richard Meier that “the degree of substitutability of one resource for another increases when either the stock of knowledge or the flow of communications increases.” (…) Meier, in the paper already referred to, notes: “We are forced to conclude that natural resources have an informational aspect, in addition to the bulk and utility features mentioned earlier.” But if media as extensions of our senses offer ready access to our inmost lives, putting the lever of Archimedes in the hands of bureaucrat and entrepreneur alike, natural resources can also be seen as media of communication. (…) To put it in Meier’s terms again, with the rise of information levels and speeds, war may cease to be the exchange of bulk or heavy goods, and may become an information exchange before a global public. If adjustment (economic, social, or personal) to information movement at electronic speeds is quite impossible, we can always change our models and metaphors of organization, and escape into sheer understanding. Sequential analysis and adjustment natural to low speed information movement becomes irrelevant and useless even at telegraph speed. But as speed increases, the understanding of process in all kinds of structures and situations becomes relatively simple. We can literally escape into understanding when the patterns of process become manifest. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)

The theme appears a few years later in Understanding Media as follows:

Our new concern with education follows upon the changeover to an interrelation in knowledge, where before the separate subjects of the curriculum had stood apart from each other. Departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed. (Understanding Media, 35–36)

McLuhan wrote to Walter Ong:

A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build. (McLuhan to Walter Ong. Nov. 18, 1960? 1961?, Letters 281)

Meier’s principle of the substitutability of “one set of raw materials by others” seemed to give him a concrete illustration of the objectivity of the sensus communis. As he wrote to Muller-Thym in the letter from May 5, 1960 already cited above:

when information flow reaches a sufficient level almost any resource material can be substituted for any other, then the [external] situation closely resembles the activity of the [internal] sensus communis in translating one sense into another. 

And as he wrote the next day to Claude Bissell:

today (…), we find ourselves (…) in what Meister Eckhart called the university of being. (…) dialogue now characterizes the interplay of things themselves… (McLuhan to Claude Bissell, May 6, 1960, Letters 273)2

Indeed, two years before, in 1958, he had already seen that some kind of “knowledge structure subject to information in-put” was characteristic not only of the human mind but of everything in nature:

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. (Media Alchemy in Art and Society)

  1. The papers presented at the conference, including Meier’s, were published in 1961 in Natural Resources and Economic Growth, ed J.J. Spengler.
  2. McLuhan continued this passage: “and any effort to understand or control such situations by any means less inclusive than the dialogue will scarcely work.”