The Gutenberg Galaxy Book Review

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In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan takes the extraordinary step of trying to make sense of our digital world by tapping into the fundamental mediums of communication that we posses: hearing, seeing, smelling, etc. McLuhan argues that technology is a way to extend our primitive abilities. For example, a hammer is an extension of our fists, radio is an extensions of our voice and hearing, airplanes are an extension of our legs and their ability to take us places. Each of us uses our senses in differing amounts which he calls, “sense ratios.” When one of them is used more than the other, our sense ratios become unbalanced. McLuhan believes that early humans had their sense ratios shifted in the extreme to our auditory abilities.

Man relied on his hearing to communicate, interact and therefore, perceive himself, as being in a world of sound. This is an extremely important point, which serves as the catalyst for the rest of the book. In a world of sound, everything is immediately affected: one person talking in a room affects everyone in that room at the same time. This is opposite to say, texting a particular person: only that person is affected. To be in a world of sound, McLuhan believes, is to be in a state of constant terror and, drawing from the ethnological studies of pre-literate African societies, one where the individual, with his inner monologue, does not exist. For to live in an auditory society is to live in a place where all communication, even inner dialogue, is expressed in an outward manner. That is why (in the examples he provides), pre-literate African societies could not distinguish private thoughts from public expression, and why Eastern Europeans were dragged in Soviet courts to confess that they had thought of something against the Party’s interest, much less to have done it.

Mcluhan’s insights derived from observing behaviors in different societies throughout history becomes quickly apparent, and this early part of the book I considered to be the most engrossing. Partly also because it introduced for the first time the concept of the medium of communication as being a large part of the message itself. Thus, the sense rations being highly skewed towards the ear, the medium of sound affected the behavior of the society itself.

The second stage of the book concerns itself with the invention of the phonetic alphabet, and how it transformed the sense ratios of society to the visual end of the spectrum. Compared to Hieroglyphs and Logoglyphs, words in an alphabet have no relation to the subject that they are expressing. Their combination, and the sound they produce, are instead delegated that purpose. Hence there’s an inherent split between the meaning of the word and the letters it’s composed of. This, in McLuhan’s view, created a split in mankind’s psyche that forever affected it. The alphabet, he says, is a machine that irreversibly transforms primitive man into civilized man. No longer is the inner life connected to the outward expression. The phonetic alphabet instead teaches the reader to divorce his inner voice from the outward expression, enabling the pronunciation of words and the grasping of meaning. Thus the inner life of a person, apart from the life of society, becomes possible.

With this newly acquired ability, man was able to embark on a dramatic journey of progress -first led by the Greeks, then by the Romans. The alphabet taught us the ability to create homogeneous repetition; first in speech, and henceforth in industry. McLuhan believes this process to be irreversible: there’s never been a documented case of a civilization, once having acquired knowledge of the alphabet, to have fallen back to a primitive state. McLuhan’s ability to connect vast cultures with different languages and histories is admirable. In a sort of process by induction he endeavors to convince the reader by numerous cases how his hypothesis proves correct by touring the entire span of civilization.

Mcluhan is at his weakest when he tries to attach too much of history into the invention of the printing press. It is a topic that takes up about a quarter of the book and involves as diverse figures as Joyce, Francis Bacon and Shakespeare. In one instance, he argues that Shakespeare foresaw the coming commoditization of the written word through a small piece of one of his plays. In another, he argues that Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake shows the fundamental nature of man now existing in a new state of altered sense ratios much in the way the printing press had done in the 15th century onwards. It’s almost like he cannot help but see the same patterns everywhere he looks – much like the entranced Africans he studies.

Still, The Gutenberg Galaxy should be required reading of any technologist, because it brings an understanding of the electronic age as the coming back of primitive man and his altered sense ratios as belonging to the ear. Think of the last time you looked at Twitter and saw a trending hashtag – how is that different to spreading gossip? Or the notifications that constantly beep from our computers and phones from all sorts of services that try to draw our attention – how is that different from people speaking to us and trying to catch our attention much like a Turkish bazaar? Instead of point to point communication which defined the 19th to 20th centuries (each technological iteration simply cutting down on the time for transmission), the new digital age is a graph, where multiple people affect each other in a multiplicity of ways. Thus, our modern age isn’t so different after all than that of a large gathering of cavemen by a campfire. The difference is that instead of clubs we have now nukes.

I believe that understanding the context of the media we use and how they affect us, simply be nature of the media itself, will enable us to be more conscious and thoughtful of the products and services we as technologists make. Perhaps in doing so we’ll purposefully create new mediums of communication that enable people to flourish in their lives instead of entrance them into submission.

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