The iGalaxy: From Gutenberg to Jobs

McLuhan with portable tv

Marshall McLuhan

The Gutenberg Galaxy is a fascinating study published in 1962 at the onset of our now thriving digital age. Author, Marshall McLuhan was aware of the coming revolution in consciousness as a result of digital technology, soon to be of utmost importance to international events such as the moon landing of 1969. McLuhan died in 1980, prior to the first Apple Macintosh of 1984. He had that special quality of awareness beyond himself, yet totally rooted; he could see reality from a perspective throughout time, in the motion of evolution. A sort of Renaissance man himself, McLuhan has the capacity to deal with philosophy, poetry, history, satire, and fictional literature in a non-linear mosaic analysis that counts for so much more than an account of technological progress.

The book goes in to the history of literacy and focuses predominantly on philosophy and literature around the Renaissance. He analyzes Shakespeare, Bacon, Descartes, Pope Alexander, Cervantes, and many more literary giants who each had something to say about the changing times. McLuhan alludes to his contemporary scene only when it is convenient to example present civilization compared to changes happening to society during the onset of the mechanical age, and specifically the Gutenberg movable type machine known as the printing press.

Johannes Gutenberg and helpers proofing

Johannes Gutenberg and company in the printing business.

Prior to movable type, the system in which metallic fonts are inked and pressed mechanically on to paper to be bound and packaged as books or magazines, the west predominantly transcribed material on to papyrus paper. Such books were transmitted orally to students, who would transcribe, and libraries were not rooms of bookshelves, rather they were stacks of scrolls. Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg, we are now accustomed to reading from books. Or are we?

What scholars are now discussing is the third phase of the book. First, it was the papyrus scroll handwritten and transmitted orally or copied verbatim from another scroll. Then, it was the book, as we know it commonly today. Now, thanks to touch screen technology and personal computing, we have the eBook, something that is equally new to us as the mechanically produced book was to our ancestors.

Today, it is the iCulture of the iBook, iTunes, iPad, iPhone, iPod, connected to a Google of information at all times. We used to “go online” in the nineties. Now, that’s a chimera of habit; we’re constantly online. Your perspective can run amuck in this fantasy! In fact, McLuhan refers to the advent of books as the first time throughout history that man had real permission to disconnect from a world of common knowledge of the audile-tactile kind, in which individual personality was not much other than those few characteristics of temperament and physical stature that separated one person’s point of view from the other. Perspective was largely handed to you, prior to 1500, thanks to oral tradition and the limitations of information distribution.

Steve Jobs circa 1984

The story of Don Quixote is discussed as the first major character in western history to attempt bringing the outside world in to harmony with his own internal perspective. The “fixed point of view” brought about by books and widespread literacy individualized man in a way that has undoubtedly become absurd today. While Quixote’s struggle was more about the changing new world against his attachment to the old world, we relate to Quixote by chasing our own dreams. Maybe we all want to be Steve Jobs and personal gain has become the windmills of our time. Most of us leave our family and hardly look back, chasing some fantasy of personal gain, career, and social stature.

Accompanying this revolution is a mass consciousness shift and global confusion; some people are stalwart and will die in resistance to this paradigm shift, continuing with their coffee and paperback reading at Powell’s books on Burnside until the end of days. For the sake of history and nostalgia, may that experience be available for the rest of my life. But for only $79, I can get myself a kindle and enjoy a complete library stack in the privacy of my personal handheld computer. I can’t resist.

What are we becoming? McLuhan actually predicts some of this in his book. Imagine him, a sensitive scholar, observing the changes happening all around him; the first television families and constant radio everywhere he goes. You know because you grew up with television and moved on to YouTube. So imagine whom you would be circa 1500 when commercially produced books were beginning to fully dominate the older scribal methods, how easy information was becoming to access, how quickly the people began to fragment. Today, there is hardly a moment wasted in pursuit of any idiotic or enlightening piece of information that you can possibly ask for. It is both empowering and entrapping. For this reason, Socrates believed in oral tradition. He knew that memorization was the death of philosophy, for in fact truth is constantly moving and only the capacity for logic and reason inherent within all of us, exercised not by memorization but in discourse with others, can continuously discern fact from bullshit.

Consider how fragmented we truly are now. Religion is more arguable than ever. Entertainment is incredibly diverse and trash to one is genius to another. Knowledge has become relative and all it really takes is a few wikipedia articles to consider yourself an expert on some subject to impress strangers at the bar or café.

Real-time example. The soothing synthesizer sounds of Steve Roach were abruptly followed with heavy guitar of Street Sweeper Social Club in my iTunes. But all I had to do was pull my 16GB micro disk card and plug it in to the MacBook to transfer the other recently downloaded Steve Roach music in order to maintain my personal desire of soothing electronic music, in my iTunes. In 1500, you would have to be wealthy enough to afford a minstrel. You would tell your personal minstrel to change their tune. Give a modern twenty-something that minstrel and their change of tune would be a frustrating limitation of timber, melody, and genre. It is those wide discrepancies of what you might call “music” and another might call “noise” or some other word of their choosing coupled with the immediacy of personal desires to be fully realized that make our time so bizarre and volatile.

In 1984, The Apple Mac revolutionized computing by offering a system that needed simply a floppy diskette to completely alter its functionality and potential. Prior to that, almost all computers were built specifically for one trade or another: music production, architectural modeling, word processing, etc. But the Mac could accept any diskette with any software compatible to it, homogenizing the computing power in to a “personal computer”. This machine had no hard drive, little RAM, it was essentially an 8 MHz processor with a gray screen, ready to accommodate whatever software designers could imagine within those confines. It was elegant and perfect for its time. Today, nothing has sparked software engineers’ imagination greater than the first iPad: a processor with flash memory and a screen, only it is at least 100 or 1000 times smaller and more powerful than the classic Mac, and this was achieved in merely twenty-five years. The printing press required more than fifty years to really catch on and the changes to society did not become evident for another fifty after that.

To be fair, the first digital computer was made in 1943 and the first tube computer was made decades prior to that. So it did indeed take around one hundred years since the advent of computers to begin the process of psychic revolution. However, we are now confronted with a medium that is changing so rapidly and advancing at such a pace that, unlike the advent of books, it is changing us within single generations.

I recall the nineties as a time of home phones, dial-up internet, and premiere television: I had to make an appointment to catch a friend at home on the phone or see that television show that everyone was talking about. Now, only fifteen years since my first personal computer, we can watch all programs on Netflix or Hulu without commercials. Or text message friends and gain a response within the hour, if not the minute we send it, wherever they are in the world. It is boggling. But I was born last century! The kids living across the street from me were born with all of this. It is their nature. And 1982 must sound like some bygone time, an artifact of older times.

If Cervantes depicts Don Quixote as the first “hero” to attempt bringing his internal point of view in to harmony with the external reality, only to be revealed as a fool, then Steve Jobs is the first living myth of our time to achieve that, manifesting his vision in to all of our lives by sheer force of will and charisma. It turns out Cervantes is the fool and we are all Don Quixote.

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