07 June 2021

McLuhan—Mass as Simultaneity, Simultaneity as Fragility

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)
In terms of the industrial age, it can be pointed out that the difference between the previous mechanical age and the new electric age appears in the different kinds of inventories. Since electricity, inventories are made up not so much of goods in storage as of materials in continuous process of transformation at spatially removed sites. For electricity not only gives primacy to process, whether in making or in learning, but it makes independent the source of energy from the location of the process. In entertainment media, we speak of this fact as "mass media" because the source of the program and the process of experiencing it are independent in space, yet simultaneous in time.
(p. 347)
Automation brings in real "mass production," not in terms of size, but of an instant inclusive embrace. Such is also the character of "mass media." They are an indication, not of the size of their audiences, but of the fact that everybody becomes involved in them at the same time. Thus commodity industries under automation share the same structural character of the entertainment industries in the degree that both approximate the condition of instant information. Automation affects not just production, but every phase of consumption and marketing; for the consumer becomes producer in the automation circuit, quite as much as the reader of the mosaic telegraph press makes his own news, or just is his own news.
(p. 349)

This recentering of the "mass" concept on the notion that everybody becomes involved in them at the same time gets at something important yet often overlooked about Post-Industrialism, Postmodernity, The Spectacle, or whatever TF we're calling it at the moment. Perhaps this emphasis on simultaneity is too narrow to be a total theory of mass media, and perhaps this is because the former mass media have now sprouted lots of "on demand" tentacles. Still, even now McLuhan invites some trenchant questions: was "on demand" not a bigger deal in the outmoded context of broadcast TV, i.e. within which it itself was nothing less than the seeds of destruction, than it does now, post-destruction (mid-destruction?), when it has become taken for granted? Even now, early Sunday afternoons in the fall are great for running errands, and getting the internet to work on my iPhone this past Memorial Day afternoon was a dicey proposition. In other words, beyond the ability of the media proper to determine behavior there remain structural factors which determine not just how but also when we engage with media. Hence I would venture that mass behavior in McLuhan's sense above is still a significant phenomenon in media consumption even as the implosion proceeds apace.

It would be quite an interesting project for some Media Scholar (not me, I am just a tuba player who likes to read) to take inventory of the current morass specifically around this question of simultaneous involvement. I'll bet that there is media consumption which is more truly "on demand" and media consumption which is more truly independent in space, yet simultaneous in time. Given that the various media have not quite, not yet, not fully congealed into a truly unified and undifferentiated sector (though it often seems we are hurtling towards this faster than we can comprehend), some correlation might emerge from such a study, i.e. we might find revealed a few obvious commonalities among those media which tend toward mass simultaneity and those which, somehow, continue to resist it. A now-familiar example: people playing around on the internet while they are at work; a structurally-determined mass-ness which nonetheless, we might conjecture, is also structurally confined, i.e. to things like discussion boards, simple games and short videos, and of course, the humdinger, social media, but also inherently resisting extension all the way to feature-length video, immersive gameplay, etc., the latter media expeditions being too demanding to be multi-tasked and too difficult to hide from the boss.

And as for projects of resistance, things are so far gone these days that just doing the opposite of the mass seems like a solid starting point. Apropos of the present retribalization, this means looking out for mass behavior even on the smallest scale. One of many subliminal cognitive reconfigurations which is precipitated by the move from a Minneapolis-sized to a Los Angeles-sized conurbation is that one no longer feels guilt or FOMO about being able to attend only one of the two or three in-network events happening on a given evening; rather, when you're always missing out on something, or better yet, a dozen somethings, you either get desensitized to the guilt or you lose your mind, and if the former then perhaps you ultimately are liberated from a certain kind of herd mentality (and also from sensitivity to otherwise notable absences at your own shows). In this respect, the dynamics of a small scene are much more mass than those of a big scene. Small-scene people actually behave more like a mass than do big-scene people. Scandalizing? Libelous? To the extent that we have passed what Tim Wu calls "peak attention," McLuhan's übermass has also passed into history and ceased to apply to the present whole. But within given communities or (GASP) networks I would argue that it still very much applies and has some explanatory power. Again, if you desire very strongly to get away with, say, taking your clothes off in a public place and hopping around like a frog for long enough to work up a sweat, might I recommend the Twin Cities' western suburbs on any Sunday afternoon when the Vikings are playing? Please don't actually do this. But please do consider this humorous thought exercise in relation to, say, Jane Jacobs' eyes-on-the-street theory of mixed use, or in relation to any of a number of eco-parables about subhuman animals mindlessly following the pack to their own demise. Please do consider what it is about simultaneous involvement that creates "fragility" in N.N. Taleb's sense, for both individual and group.

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