By: Ken N.
Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, says the media we use shape society’s behavior. McLuhan wrote almost 50 years ago, and died in 1980, before lots of things were invented. He was uncannily prescient, especially about electricity and automation.
He was so prescient, he beat lots of thinkers to the punch (are there any new ideas under the sun?), and we’re calling out four of them. Reading things we agree with, written a ways back by respected intellectuals, is as refreshing as a cool mountain stream and as comforting as a warm quilt (ooh, think about it!) so we wanted to share.
1. First to be pre-empted: Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, and his book Flow, about how we engage our skills and senses to achieve happiness. McLuhan says it like this, in 1964:
“Where in the mechanical age of fragmentation leisure had been the absence of work, or mere idleness, the reverse is true in the electric age. As the age of information demands the simultaneous use of all our faculties, we discover that we are most at leisure when we are most intensely involved, very much as with the artists in all ages.”
Darn right. Mikhail, 1990:
“The best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Mikhail expands on this at book length, beautifully. McLuhan moves on, examining how this changes the nature of work:
“The electronic age is literally one of illumination. Just as light is at once energy and information, so electric automation unites production, consumption, and learning in an inextricable process…The very same process of automation that causes a withdrawal of the present work force from industry causes learning itself to become the principal kind of production and consumption.” (emph. ours)
(Runner up for this one: Kevin Kelley, in What Technology Wants, speaking of his love of the internet.)
2. Next up: Marc Andreessen, investor/co-author of an early web browser called Mosaic, who declared that software is eating the world. Andreessen’s claim, 2012:
“Software is also eating much of the value chain of industries that are widely viewed as primarily existing in the physical world…Companies in every industry need to assume that a software revolution is coming.”
He cites examples in books, movies, music, games, photography, marketing, telecom, recruiting, automobiles, retail, energy, finance, health care, education, and national defense.
“As for technological acceleration, it now approaches the speed of light. All nonelectric media had merely hastened things a bit. The wheel, the road, the ship, the airplane, and even the space rocket are utterly lacking in the character of instant movement. Is it strange, then, that electricity should confer on all previous human organization a completely new character?”
“With electricity as energizer and synchronizer, all aspects of production, consumption, and organization become incidental to communications.”
All industry becomes incidental to communications, indeed. McLuhan moves on the look at what this means not just for companies, but for governments:
“Naturally, this last stage encounters the entire world of policy, since to deal with the whole industrial complex as an organic system affects employment, security, education, and polities, demanding full understanding in advance of coming structural change.”
Andreessen points to it too:
“This problem [employment] is even worse than it looks because many workers in existing industries will be stranded on the wrong side of software-based disruption and may never be able to work in their fields again. There’s no way through this problem other than education, and we have a long way to go.”
They both presage a coming struggle to hugely adjust social policies.
3. Education time. When the world is like this, what do we learn? Multiple things, says McLuhan:
“Wealth and work become information factors, and totally new structures are needed to run a business or relate it to social needs and markets…the new kinds of instant interdependence and interprocess that take over production also enter the market and social organizations. For this reason, markets and education designed to cope with the products of servile toil and mechanical production are no longer adequate. Our education has long ago acquired the fragmentary and piece-meal character of mechanism. It is now under increasing pressure to acquire the depth and interrelation that are indispensable in the all-at-once world of electric organization. Paradoxically, automation makes liberal education mandatory” (oomph added)
Who’s song is he singing now? John Hennessy, president of Stanford. From the New Yorker, 2012:
“(Hennessy’s) principal academic legacy may be the growth of what’s called “interdisciplinary education.” This is the philosophy now promoted at the various schools at Stanford…the goal is to have them become what are called “T-shaped” students, who have depth in a particular field of study but also breadth across multiple disciplines. Stanford hopes that the students can also develop the social skills to collaborate with people outside their areas of expertise…”Ten years ago, ‘interdisciplinary’ was a code word for something soft,” Jeff Koseff says. “John changed that.”
4. What about the way people work together? (Especially close to our hearts). And, go:
“[Women and] Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of knowledge…informed as never before, free from fragmentary specialism as never before —but also involved in the total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience.”
We totally agree. And then:
“Since electric energy is independent of the place or kind of work-operation, it creates patterns of decentralism and diversity in the work to be done. “
Yeah! Say it!
“The social and educational patterns latent in automation are those of self-employment and artistic autonomy.”
Some think he’s wrong, and see the problems outpacing the gains from this era of change. Fair concerns. But one of our investors asks us to not extrapolate the past, but invent the future.
We, and lots of other talented folks, love working on doing just that. Happy doing!