Statement on Culture and Technology

The Aug 6, 1964 issue of the TLS was dedicated to the question of the avant garde. McLuhan appeared in it as did such figures such as William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg. McLuhan’s ‘Statement on Culture and Technology’ is available on YouTube read by Andrew McLuhan. Along with other contributions to the TLS issue, it was reprinted in Astronauts of Inner-Space (1966). 


Statement on Culture and Technology
TLS, Aug 6, 1964 

The work of Adolf von Hildebrand (Problem of Form 1893) and of Remy de Gourmont was typical of a great deal of new awareness concerning the nature of materials and their relation to the modalities of human perception and creativity. The new art and architecture and poetry of the 20th century had their roots in a new kind of perceptual discipline that centers in the awareness of style. In 1922 Middleton Murray’s The Problem of Style made quite explicit the relationship between style and perception as well as the relation between art and the active training of sensibility. Recognition of technique became a program of discovery.

In 1920 T.S. Eliot’s essay on [Philip] Massinger brought new stress to bear upon the language of a period in order to make it a means of perceiving the entire structure and values of a civilization: 

These lines of Tourneur and of Middleton exhibit that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations, meanings perpetually eingeschachtelt into meanings, which evidences a very high development of the senses, a development of the English language which we have perhaps never equalled. 

This is the kind of approach to language as the material of poetry that launched many of the artistic experiments of the 1920s as well as the critical programs of the Calendar of Modern Letters and of Scrutiny. It is not only an attitude but a method and a technique of grappling with all the materials and technologies of any human environment so that if politics is the art of the possible, its scope must now in the electric age include the shaping and programming of the entire sensory environment as a luminous work of art. 

From the neolithic age men had been engaged in creating technological extensions of their bodies in various fragmented and specialist forms whether of script or wheel or housing or money. These extensions serve to amplify but also to fragment human powers in faculties in order to store and to expedite knowledge and materials and processes. Naturally such amplifications of human powers greatly enlarge the means and incentives to violence and foster the enlargement of bureaucracy and enterprise alike. The break with the neolithic age comes with electromagnetism and its derivative technologies. The electronic age is distinct from any other age. The numerous extensions of hands and feet in the various forms of spindles and wheels and roads now begin to yield to the circuit in the loop “where the hand of man never set foot”. The immediate extensions of our nervous system by telegraph and telephone and radio and television not only usher us into a period when the codifying and movement of information supersede all other tasks in scope and in the creation of wealth, but they involve us totally in one another’s lives. The extensions of our nerves and senses as they constitute a new man-made environment also require a wholly new kind of understanding of the sensory materials of this new environment and of the learning processes to which they are so deeply related. 

One of the discoveries of Baudelaire and his followers concerned the means of relating the creative process in poetry to the stages of apprehension of human knowledge. Since  Baudelaire art has become co-extensive with discovery and knowledge in every sphere of action and at every possible range of human development. The gap between art and technology has now ceased to exist as we come as we become cognizant of our art and technology as immediate extensions of ourselves. We have also acquired the responsibility of heeding the psychic and social consequences of such extensions. It is now many years since Mr Eliot pointed to the effects of the internal combustion engine on poetic rhythms. Many forms of technology far more potent than the internal combustion engine have been assimilated to the rhythms of art and poetry and social life since that time.

With the extension of the nervous system in electric technology, information not only moves in much greater quantity than ever before but at very much greater speed than ever before. Paradoxically the acceleration of information movement restores us to the habit of mythical and inclusive perception. Whereas data were previously fragmented by earlier forms of codifying information the electric circuit has restored us to the world of pattern recognition and to an understanding of the life of forms which had been denied to all but the artists of the now receding mechanical age. Our main concern today is with the patterns of the learning process itself — patterns which we can now see to be correlative with the processes of creativity in the world of the organization of work. The electric revolution means the end of jobs.

That is, electric circuitry eliminates the fragmentation and specialization of the work process which created the job type of work in the renaissance and after. The elimination of the job in the work process means a return to the depth involvement in role-playing formerly associated only with arts and crafts. But now in the age of information the work process and the learning process become interfused. Automation is learning a living. Precisely the same kind of a revolution is taking place in the world of learning as in the world of work. Numerous centers such as the center for culture and technology at the University of Toronto have recently come into existence. They are the response not so much to a theory as to a need and even to a pressure.

It has long been known that in graduate studies a research student crosses departmental boundaries as a matter of course. As access to all kinds of information becomes swifter, so does involvement in the pattern of every type of information. As an example the center for culture and technology which exists by cross appointments within the University of Toronto is concerned to establish ways of quantifying the psychic and social consequences of every type of technology. It is natural that the extensions of our senses technologically should have a direct effect upon the sensory usage and preference of any community. Many of these effects are quite incompatible with the continuance of older values. Once a sensory typology has been established for a given population therefore it is possible to predict the effect on that sensory typology of any given new artifact such as the motor car or television. That is to say it becomes possible to control or to avoid kinds of innovation that are destructive of such established values as we prefer to retain. However a large measure of personal and social autonomy thus becomes possible across the entire spectrum of culture and technology, much in the way that we now have the means of thermostatic control of the thermal environment.

A full understanding of the sensory typology of cultures on one hand and sensory order and impact of art and technology on the other affords the possibility of a human environment centrally programmed for the maximal use of the human powers of learning.