The famous media scholar’s statement about preliterate societies seems to apply also to our society today, in which the word “terror” appears in the news daily.
When McLuhan’s oral society gains enough leisure to develop a written language, “leisure” would mean not simply a few hours off work, but also some insulation from the terrors of the interconnected world. Enough insulation so that one could safely turn one’s attention inward for a while, to direct one’s mind to matters other than immediate survival.
Obviously a number of human societies achieved this, with some – perhaps particularly in Europe in the second half of the last millennium – able to extend this secure leisure to a sizeable thinking class. This class of scholars and inventors were able to separate from the sphere of holism, and develop the reductionist science that has held sway for some centuries.
Reductionism means that everything is not connected to everything – or at least that we may pretend that it is not. Instead, a natural phenomenon (dependent variable) is a function only of a few main causes (independent variables), maybe with a few mediating and moderating variables thrown in. Other forces at large in the world are said to have an influence “too small to matter,” subsumed in the model’s error term. Very often, the model encompasses one-way influence only, with no feedback effects.
These models could sometimes be tested in a laboratory, which further insulated the experiment from variation in non-treatment variables.
So, following Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science who first held that science is a social endeavor and not a disembodied, “objective” activity, I put to you this speculation: Reductionist science arose as a result of, and in probably unconscious imitation of, the growth of insulated social leisure.
Historically, that brings us up to the late 20th century. That era brought us growing globalization of trade and investment, international transmission of epidemic disease, satellite communication, and ultimately (drum roll, please) the Internet. A well-known magazine is titled WIRED. This is to say that everything became interconnected again.
We have had to understand, and suffer from, the complexities that create climate change, and the grievances of people who turn to violence and cybercrime, knowing that their small actions can make havoc across huge swaths of lives and property.
Science became more holistic, outstanding examples being the work of my late colleague Ilya Prigogine on open and dissipative structures, the work of the Santa Fé Institute on complexity theory, both of which acknowledge feedback (circular causation).
Oh, and what has become of leisure? Think of all the blogs on "I spent a whole week off the grid" and "How to get your child's nose out of the screen," and I leave you to answer that question yourself.
The official definition of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of non-combatants. Yet we may also say that terrorism is in the mind of the terrorized. Terror has returned, not just due to evil deeds of some non-state actors, but because we are aware that everything is once again connected to everything.
* Marshall McLuhan (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-6041-9.
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