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Mir McLuhanism – Econlib



Mir McLuhanism
  • …not just digital media to expand information exchange and offline life deprecated-They also backwards literacy and exit orality.
  • … This book is about orality, once made obsolete by writing, and about literacy, now made obsolete by digital media.
  • —Andrey Mir, Digital future in the rearview mirror: Jaspers’ axial age and Logan’s alphabet effect(p. 10)

TThe year 1969 saw the premiere of Sesame Street on public television. In the years that immediately followed, adults extolled the program’s virtues. They claimed it taught children to read. I said to myself, and sometimes out loud, “No. It teaches children to watch television.”

There was one in high school avant-garde English teacher who introduced us to Marshall McLuhan, known for his slogan ‘the medium is the message’. My cynicism is over Sesame Street was based on McLuhan’s insistence that the nature of the medium would have a stronger effect than its content.

Andrey Mir calls McLuhan and his fellow travelers media ecologists. In addition to McLuhan, he quotes Eric Havelock, Harold Innis, Jack Goody, Walter Ong, Neil Postman and others.

Mir argues that media ecology explains many of the cultural changes we experience. Many of us would say that we are suffering from these cultural changes because the values ​​of the Enlightenment, such as freedom of expression, objective inquiry and the dignity of the individual, seem to be slipping away.

Mir writes,

  • Why do people on social media become so polarized and deaf to logic and reason? Why do people read less and ask more? How does social media change minds and society? What comes next? The answer is digital orality. (p. 14)

Mir sees the invention of the alphabetic script as a useful ‘rear-view mirror’ to inform his analysis. Following Robert Logan, Mir sees that alphabetical writing trains the mind for intense concentration and abstraction. Mir argues that alphabetic writing therefore created the conditions for the cultural changes that Karl Jaspers called the ‘Axial Age’. In the Axial Age, around 500 BC, humans began to see themselves in relation to history and to an all-powerful deity. Our notions of science, argumentation, empirical observation, and logic all appeared during the Axial Age.

Consider the changes that occurred when people moved from only face-to-face oral communication to the ability to read and write. Writing gives us a powerful form of social memory, making us less dependent on individual memory. The illiterate person lives in a multi-sensory present. For literate people, a more introverted existence becomes possible. As we read, we tune the world to focus on the input from our visual sense. We can disconnect from the present and dwell on the past and future. Instead of relying on our immediate reactions, we stop to think and reflect on what we read. We relate to descriptions of people and events that are beyond our personal experience.

Reading requires us to think abstractly. This is especially true for alphabetical writing. The meaning of the symbols on a page is not self-evident. We must interpret and calculate the meaning.

When only oral communication is available, collective memory must be in the form of received wisdom. We appreciate the person who can repeat the sacred stories with high reliability. When writing there is room for thinking. We can appreciate the person who asks questions or criticizes.

Writing allowed for the codification of laws, which eventually led to impersonal concepts of justice. The printing press, which came after Gutenberg, allowed for the broad reproduction of thoughts, which in turn made possible the scientific method of testing the reproducibility of results.

“How does the proliferation of electronic media, especially in the 21st century, affect our brains and our society?”

How does the proliferation of electronic media, especially in the 21st century, affect our brains and our society?

Mir says the new media emphasizes quick response, not reflection. They tempt us away from contemplative reading with addictive distractions.

With the advent of cable news,

  • Television stopped being news-oriented and started being viewer-oriented. This move reversed the print-induced control over emotions and restored the agonistic mentality both on air and in viewers, starting the process of cultural and political polarization (which skyrocketed fifteen years later with the rise of social media). (p. 244)

Mir claims that modern media is behind the rise of identity politics.

  • Digital orality recreates an environment in which collective indoctrination is encouraged while personal questions are suppressed. (p. 217)
  • The truth is a referendum based on likes. (p. 228)
  • It becomes increasingly difficult to resist the tribe’s ‘peer pressure’ when the objective truth does not align with the tribe’s truths. (p. 235)

So where are we now? Mir notes,

  • … blog posts were the last texts of the Gutenberg era. (p. 317)

This makes me wonder about the demographics of the readers of Substack essays, which are reminiscent of blog posts. I’m afraid this readership exceeds the age of 50.

  • Digital speech possesses the characteristics of both oral and written communication. As with oral speeches, it allows for the immediate exchange of answers; Like writing, it leaves a record and can be transmitted through time and space. These characteristics imply that people’s spontaneous and especially emotional attempts to establish their social status in conversations are no longer fleeting. Millions of people’s interactions are collected, distributed, and displayed for everyone else to respond to.
  • This new type of conversation has its advantages. It enables socialization at an unprecedented pace and scale. But the ease with which digital speech can be exchanged has shifted the focus of communication from reflections to reflexes, from content to attitude. Social media demands that everyone relate to others, to their ideas, to their problems and achievements, to their existence. The viral editor of the blogosphere has evolved into the viral inquisitor of social media.
  • [On the Internet] authors do not share physical space and type their answers separately. Moreover, such a conversation often has more than two interlocutors and the exchange becomes chaotic. The oral theme-rhematic confidence of responses to previous utterances is often broken, and the written syntax does not apply either. All this makes digital conversations a strange hybrid where conversation partners often simply do not ‘hear’ each other. Their dialogue is not coherent; it is fragmented and causes emotional frustration, which is so typical of digital conversations.
  • Furthermore, because digital speech is recorded, it is not just an exchange; it is an exchange shown to others who can judge and contribute. Therefore, it is an exchange aimed at influencing others. The agonistic mentality of orality flourishes in digital orality, further amplifying frustration and polarization.
    (p. 318-319)

Mir goes on to say that “like” buttons, emojis and other forms of digital communication are even more primitive than speech. They’re more like grunts and gestures. He is writing,

  • … digital orality trains the brain to experience small and repetitive hormonal satisfactions for minuscule efforts of participation or even for simple presence. (p. 319)

And where are we going? In just a short paragraph, Mir suggests that we humans are about to leave the real world behind to live entirely in the virtual world.

I found this forecast, and indeed the entire book, intriguing, but speculative. It seems likely that the human brain and culture were influenced by literacy in general and alphabetic literacy in particular, in the way that media ecologists claim. And it is likely that the apparent decline in support for Enlightenment thinking can be traced to the shift in digital media.

But media ecologists do not subject their hypotheses to rigorous empirical testing. They do not look for natural experiments that might show that their proposed causal mechanisms are at work.

For more information on these topics, see

Many observers have noted and lamented the shift away from objectivity in academia and journalism. Some attribute this to an ideological takeover by postmodernists and leftists – the so-called Gramscian march through the institutions. Others assign some blame to the feminization of institutions, with women bringing their social tools to enforce conformity to campuses and newsrooms.

Even theorists like Jonathan Haidt, who see social media as the root of much evil, point to the specific strategies and tactics employed by the leading companies as the problem. Just as Sesame Street fans saw hope that television could be reformed for social good, Haidt seems to hope that with better standards and guidelines, the harms of social media can be limited. A supporter of McLuhan would be skeptical.