McLuhan Reconsidered Part II

by Jim Andrews

Global Village

Table Of Contents

A technologically determinist vision of history?

Technologies as extensions of ourselves

Orality and Literacy

The scale and form of human association


Money as a technology

McLuhan's Humanism


Web Links to McLuhan


Money as a technology

Technology 'determines' culture and history to the extent that it "shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action." If we examine the effects on culture of the introduction of money (as opposed to operating under the barter system) we'd not look at individual exchanges of goods so much as the new types of exchanges made possible by the technology and the ways in which the technology gave rise to accelerated change and growth within society. Money increases the volume and diversity of trade. It facilitates exchange of goods and ideas. Money is an extension of our ability to get and give, to exchange. It puts a pig in our pocket and a number to our name.

We can more easily see how money "shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action" than we can how it changes us personally. Moreover, money makes possible so many other enterprises (and technologies) that we can hardly isolate the effects of money from the other technologies that would be impossible without it. And its effects interact with the effects of other technologies (metallurgy, for example). Money is a key ingredient in the broth of civilisation, but it would be difficult to examine it as an isolated phenomenon that works change upon us individually.

I'll take a swing at it anyway. Pythagoras introduced coinage into Southern Italy (c. 500 B.C). In his time, one of the prominent questions thinkers were asking was "What are things made of?" Some said fire, some said water, or earth, air, or some combination thereof. Pythagoras was one of the first to introduce us to the idea that it is not so much what things are made of as their form that is important. And the particular type of form he was interested in was mathematical. It's fitting that he should have introduced coinage into the area, introduced money that abstracts worth into a value and provides a common unit of measurement. In its abstraction of worth into (numeric) value, it habituates us into dealing with numbers and, more generally, promotes the sort of quantitative analysis that is prerequisite for deeper mathematical thought. [5]

Lovers With Fishbowl by Marcy Burt Butz

Mathematical thought acquires a foothold in the quotidian because of money. The language of number becomes as common as other forms of language. Money makes us all into carefully precise bean counters. Money counts. When we get bored with beans, we move on to geometry and then urban engineering. Modern probability theory came about in the 1700's as a result of attempts to solve gambling problems. Considerable mathematical ingenuity has been exercised on problems wherein the entities under consideration were dollars.

But money, in addition to providing motivation toward knowing rudimentary mathematics, comes also to mediate the environment that builds the paths we walk. Want to do something that costs money? Go see the banker. Money makes us a little green. Money, more often than not, gives rise to our calculations, schemes, plots, and cogitations. What can I say? How does money change us? Can I do no better than to say it makes us green? I FEEL VERY GREEN, DON'T YOU?

Let's try again. How's this: money mints a hot connection between numbers and desire. It really isn't money that gives rise to our calculations and schemes, but our desire to feel certain feelings. We don't want a particular thing for its own sake but, rather, to have certain feelings. We have some knowledge of how we want to feel; this gives rise to what we think we want; at this point, if the thing we want has a monetary price attached to it (not all things do), then we calculate or observe the price and whether we have it. We do not think often of pigs and cows, trades and counter trades, do not think of the price in terms of counter agreements and talks and negotiations and the community's fabric, but proceed directly to the balance of dollars and cents (unless we are wheeler-dealers--and most of us are not). aA

When we want the thing and thereby calculate and, happily, have the money, we experience a gratification that is, in itself, a little reward for our calculation. How much of the pleasure of numbers derives from this habitual type of reward when the balance is in our favour, when the algebra of need yields a numeric result in our favour? Numbers, in such case, are no longer remote abstractions but useful measures of our desire and need and power. Similarly, when the result of the calculation informs us that we're out of luck, how much displeasure befalls us, how remote and despicable does the shining realm of numeric forms therefore become? Money creates in us a range of emotions toward numbers--given how much money counts in the fulfilment or frustration of our needs and desires. The affective relation between numbers and need is dramatised and formalised with the introduction of money.

In a barter system, we count on others in our calculations whereas we do so far less in our typical monetary calculations. We typically (though not always) count dollars, not friends or cows during our gettings. Dollars and numbers themselves come to have a certain value in and of themselves--and this is both a numeric and affective value. The word 'value' itself is conspicuously ambiguous. We can speak of the 'value of love' or say 'the value of x is 3.' How strongly connected are our 'values' to numeric values? Whatever the answer may be, the metaphor is present in some measure. Money introduces relations between power, desire, value, and number that not only inform the scale of human association and action but also mould our perceptions of ourselves and others--and what is of 'value.' [6]

The main point is that technologies not only change cultures but also individuals. Sometimes very dramatically. The question to ask about my comments about money is whether people in a barter culture could have the same characteristics. If they can, then my comments are simply confused. If they can't, then that lends some credence to the remarks.

The technology of money is a dramatic and relatively obvious example that wreaks change in us. Such changes are more difficult to isolate and describe when speaking of less influential technologies. Even when the technology is powerful in its effects on the society and the individual (such as is the case with computer technology) the relatively recent nature of it creates difficulties in foreseeing the long-term, stable consequences. But those who are observing initial changes have the advantage of having experienced life without the technology and so can speak more authoritatively about prior conditions.


McLuhan's Humanism

McLuhan attempted not so much a history of western technology as a history of the noetic (or cognitive) and sensorial (affective) changes brought about in the individual via technology. Always before us in his work is an image of the individual human being. He wasn't satisfied with trying to explore the ways in which technology determines culture but, instead, urges us to examine ourselves and others for the signs of change within us. He wasn't interested in the history of technology but in the history of people modified by technology. He was interested in the ways that technology mediates relations between people and changes individual's world views and nervous systems. In that sense, his work was humanistic.

His more lasting contribution is his vision of the ways in which history and culture and the individuals in it are modified and, to some extent, determined by technology. Also, his provocative attempts to apply that vision to the electronic technologies of the contemporary world have inspired a generation toward a deeper understanding of media and technology. Richard Lanham, in The Electronic Word, points out the importance of McLuhan to the contemporary world:

....As long as "McLuhanesque" remains a dyslogistic epithet, we can never decide what we should do with these marvellous new means of expression that now lie like quicksilver in our hands.

Picture yourself. What do you see? Is it your body you see and your face or do you imagine also a third eye that sees into atoms and yourself, the great universe and into the eye of others? And are your hands capable of touching the body of your beloved and the web of night? I wear glasses; when I look at myself in the mirror the glint of metal and the reflection off the glass is part of who I am.


Footnotes (Part II)

[5]   But the mere fact of its existence does not guarantee it's a reliable common unit of measurement. Indeed, Galbraith has said "Over all history it has oppressed nearly all people in one of two ways: either it has been abundant and very unreliable, or reliable and very scarce." The price of things emerges from the algebra of need and desire.

[6]    Ong, in Orality and Literacy (p.86), indicates that the origins of money and writing may be closely related: "It has been suggested that the cuneiform script of the Sumerians, the first of all known scripts (c. 3500 BC), grew at least in part out of a system of recording economic transactions by using clay tokens encased in small, hollow but totally closed pod-like containers or bullae, with indentations on the outside representing the tokens inside (Schmandt-Besserat 1978). Thus the symbols on the outside of the bulla--say, seven indentations--carried with them, inside the bulla, evidence of what they represented--say, seven little clay artefacts distinctively shaped, to represent cows, or ewes or other things not yet decipherable--as though words were always proffered with their concrete significations attached. The economic setting of such prechirographic use of tokens could help associate them with writing, for the first cuneiform script, from the same region as the bullae, whatever its exact antecedents, served mostly workaday economic and administrative purposes in urban societies. Urbanization provided the incentive to develop record keeping. Using writing for imaginative creations, as spoken words have been used in tales or lyric, that is, using writing to produce literature in the more specific sense of this term, comes quite late in the history of script."



Web Links to McLuhan

As expected, a wealth of Internet resources exist concerning Marshall McLuhan, his ideas, and the work of his colleagues and that of later generations who have been inspired by his work. This should allow you entrance into much of the existing Internet resources:

Chandler's McLuhan links
Daniel Chandler's site is superb when it comes to most aspects of media studies. It is also excellent regarding McLuhan resources.

Bernard J. Hibbits's Links to McLuhan

Technological Determinism
Informative essay on "Technological Determinism". See also Chandler's links concerning 'technological determinism'.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man and His Message (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Radio and video clips, plus text snippets. The radio and video clips are drawn from the CBC archives.

dbcinema on McLuhan
Type in "McLuhan" and see what you get. If you find an image of particular interest, click it.

McLuhan Reconsidered -- Part I


Created: 7/28/96
Last Modified: March 15, 2006