Over the summer I've been listening to some of Terence McKenna's recorded talks after being exposed to him through the excellent C-Realm podcast. McKenna died in 2000, but his legacy includes countless hours of talks in which he very articulately discusses subjects as disparate as modernist literature, evolutionary biology, art history, gnostic philosophy, and chaos theory--usually tying them together through reference to "transcendent" experiences. McKenna was a major proponent of using psychedelics to achieve these experiences and he had some ideas that, on the surface, seem kooky to say the least: Psychedelic mushrooms as a medium for communication with extraterrestrials and a theory of history ending in the year 2012, for instance.
A recurring central point in many of Terence McKenna's talks is the role of technology, media, and communications throughout history and in the scope of unfolding human destiny.
One of McKenna's more interesting talks, "Light of Nature" takes place in 1987, framed against the twilight years of the Reagan administration, the October stock market crash, and the final episode of the cult TV series, "Max Headroom." I vaguely remember these cultural-historical events--I was 13 at the time--but what is striking to me is how both eerily accurate and yet grossly off the mark some of his predictions were. He riffs on the future of virtual reality/augmented reality as envisioned by William Gibson in his cyberpunk novels of the time, novels I read before I really understood anything about computers, media, or the modalities of human consciousness. In them, people live and interact in worlds composed of pure data. Interestingly, McKenna mentions the "genius" of the Mac interface of the day, where one could click on "icons" (before they were even called this) to interact with the computer in a more human fashion than say, typing commands.
Twenty-seven years later, we still don't have a widely available and compelling "immersive" environment. In fact, the easiest way to get anything non-trivial done on a computer is at the command line, the way programmers have interacted with their machines since punch cards went extinct.
McKenna's talks on Marshall McLuhan, the influential (and now mostly forgotten) media theorist of the late '60s, may perhaps shed the most light on his attitudes towards technology and the future. In a nutshell, McLuhan felt that the printed word, vis-a-vis Gutenberg and the print revolution, had displaced a deeper, richer world of medieval thought. McKenna offers some good points in his observation that moveable type was a sort of primordial meme for the dehumanizing and de-individualizing culture and society of mass production, to which he was heir as a Baby Boomer. By this logic, however, what are we to make of a technology the medium of which is ultimately reducible to chains of binary digits?
In any case, this thought--particularly as embodied by monastic illuminated manuscripts--allowed a deeper form of artistic and lexical communication. McLuhan, according to McKenna, saw the advent of television, and by extrapolation, "recent" immersive media technologies as a hearkening back to this more primal form of communication. This was a good thing, that would hasten--along with taking psychedelic drugs--the "archaic revival" of consciousness he often spoke of.
McKenna's particular strain of what many now call techno-utopianism seems to presage Ray Kurzweil's idea of a singularity--an event where human consciousness merges with a computer generated reality to achieve everlasting life as eternally persistent data. As awful and ridiculous as this idea seems, it's really just an extreme conception of what's already occurring in our attitudes at large with regard to communication in the digital age.
Twitter, Facebook, and the whole phenomenon of social media encourage people to interact in the most superficial and facile ways possible. And paradoxically, these electronic utterances persist forever. Whatever momentary lack of judgment compelled you to post that inappropriate selfie to Twitter or to make a rash comment on Facebook, will live on forever. It doesn't matter if there's an "unpost" button--data never dies and you can bet that it will come back to haunt you later, if your "public" self ever comes under institutional scrutiny. When the media of communications technology are easy, ubiquitous, and persistent, every action taken by the individual, regardless of its context, becomes a liability.
Contrast this with the epistolary tradition, where non-verbal communication could take weeks or months, as the hard copy missive had to be physically transported to its receiver. In my teenage years before the advent of email, I used to spend hours writing letters, not because I had all that much to say, but because I was conscious of the need to accurately and articulately express my thoughts. To me, a written letter was an extension of the personality, as important as dressing appropriately and being on time for a social event. Moreover, the broader act of writing (not to be confused with texting or emailing) challenges the writer to actually have something to say, something worth recording, something that merits the time, materials, and effort of communicating this way, not to mention the effort of the reader on the other end in reading the letter, article, essay, whatever.
I started writing this post a week or so ago, but something I heard today on the C-Realm Podcast, recorded at the Flood Wall Street event that happened this last Monday, sums up my thoughts on the cognitive disparities between the traditional written word and recent communications technologies. KMO was interviewing a documentary filmmaker who had this to say about modern media: "Media has to be the communication device to the masses ...We've got more information than ever before, but more noise leads to, I would say, more narrow-mindedness, because people choose to be on their phones, their devices, they're watching what they want and they're getting their understanding through memes that are like, two or three sentences. You can't have critical thought in that capacity."
While the digital age has brought us Wikipedia, excellent and free open-source software, and the ability for anyone, me for example, to potentially reach millions through blog postings on the internet, it's also created an incredibly high noise-to-signal ratio (or an incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio). Whatever your message, good luck reaching anyone without spending a lot of advertising money or time on search engine optimization. By comparison, I imagine the town cryer was a much more efficient way of getting the word out.
Worse still, digital media have more or less completely supplanted print media and old-school journalism, and the class of professional journalists it once supported. The Woodward and Bernsteins, the Albert Camus', the Upton Sinclairs of print journalism, and even the Mike Wallaces and Walter Kronkites of TV news, have been put out of business by semi-literate Reuters and AP dispatches on the Google and Yahoo! homepage feeds--or else the rabid, ranting partisans, the cable news equivalents of shock jocks, on Fox, CNN, MSNBC, etc. For every Naomi Klein, Bill Moyers or KMO, it seems there are thousands of Alex Joneses, Glen Becks, and Sarah Palins. In any case, these are the voices most likely to be heard, should an inquiring individual seek information about the world at large in which they live.
As with all things capable of generating a profit, the internet that was still mostly nascent during McKenna's day and a DARPA project during McLuhan's, has been co-opted by corporate capitalism and data-driven marketing. Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook are all here to make our lives as consumers as effortless as possible, while mediating our consciousness (and unconsciousness) in insidious ways that Madison Avenue could only dream of during the golden age of advertising. Welcome to 2014; George Orwell was only off by 30 years.
One prescriptive I would like to propose, as something akin to the Slow Food movement, is a critical mindset that rejects sound byte journalism, the intellectual equivalent of fast food. Whereas the Slow Food movement eschews fast food, globalization, mass production, GMOs, and anonymity in favor of tradition, sense of place, nutrition, novelty and taste, I propose a style of thought that favors long-form journalism (in both the written and spoken word), documentary film, and in-depth photojournalism--over sound bytes, short attention span video clips, sensationalism and shock tactics.
This response to the trivialization of journalism, let's call it, for lack of a better word right now, the Slow Thought movement, does not seek to privilege one form of media over another, rather if privileges depth and character over style and brevity. And on this point I wholeheartedly disagree with McLuhan: The medium is not necessarily the message. Blogs and podcasts after all are a prime venue for exactly the type of journalism that is necessary in this day and age, whereas traditional bastions of the essay and long-form journalism like The Atlantic and Harper's have become increasingly banal and irrelevant. How can NPR possibly have anything to say when it's sponsored by the likes of Boeing and Monsanto?
It's time to stop giving media outlets like NPR and The Atlantic free access to informing our worldview when they've become just another mouthpiece for the corporate interests who benefit so much from the maintenance of the status quo. On the other hand, citizen-journalists like KMO of the C-Realm, John Michael Greer of the The Archdruid Report, and Seth and Justin of The Extraenvironmentalist provide excellent, thoughtful, and free podcasts and blog postings utilizing the "old" formats of spoken word and print made universally accessible by the internet, in which McKenna saw so much promise. Of course, they're competing for our attention with the much greater noise and much more pervasive presence of Facebook, Twitter, Google News, and YouTube, the ultimate weapons of mass distraction.
For my part, I'd like to do what I can to further access to relevant critical voices in this day and age. In the near future, I'll be posting links to some of the blogs and podcasts that I feel are really important and relevant. I've certainly gained a lot of fresh perspectives by listening to and reading the voices challenging reality as presented by the mainstream media.
I'm also hoping to launch a book review section of the site. Whether you read it on paper or on a Kindle is irrelevant, I think, but the sustained act of consciousness and mental focus required to read and understand a book is something increasingly lacking in society today. Books and serious authorship, perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree, are suffering a fate similar to that of print journalism at the end of the 20th Century. The publishing industry is sustained by the likes of Harry Potter, whereas serious writing by authors likeThomas Pynchon or Noam Chomsky is read by increasingly few. Anyway, if you've read this far, I'm probably preaching to the choir. In any case, I hope you enjoy the posts, here and elsewhere, that are yet to come.
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