"In these electric age , we wear all mankind as our skin".
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media.
McLuhan's most useful insight in the context of cybermedia is
that technologies provide extensions and specializations of our
physiological and organic potentialities. This observation is
specially relevant to electronic technologies which he considered
to be different expressions and extensions of our central nervous
system: "By putting our physical bodies inside our extended
nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic
by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of
hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls- all such extensions
of our bodies, including cities- will be translated into information
Specifically, this extension, or "outering", or externalization
of our central nervous system takes the form of networks which
are more or less faithful imitations, or technological
metaphors which attempt to reproduce the intricate networking
of our own body electric.
1.The Hardware Networks.
Physical, material networks of interacting and integrating communications
classification technologies are being woven into and around and
above the surface of the planet, and in space via satellite and
space probes. Electricity is the common denominator, creating
a single unified field of electro-magnetic and related activities
upon and within the Earth's crust. Whether you plug a toaster
in Toronto, place a call in Manila, or receive a
digitalized lay-out of the surface of Miranda, one of the moons
of Uranus, you share into this single environment much in the
way any micro-event within your brain or your body takes part
into the synergy of your whole person and being. "We wear
mankind as our skin" means that each one of us is, via electricity,
in touch with everybody else whether we
wanted or not . The very structure of electrical conductivity
is closer to the structure of human tactile experience than to
any other sensory experience. Indeed, electricity does not, as
we commonly assume, "travel in space", it pushes itself
within a resonant interval of
distant electrons from one point to another at the speed of light.
If everybody understood the implications of this tactile metaphor
, it would probably help to bring the world and
mankind to a closer understanding of each other: we are in fact,
and not only in theory, in a global relationship of minute pressures,
stimulations and variations of intervals between
people and things , which make the global human sensibility approach
the condition of the global variables.
2. The Software Networks.
Within this technological environment, the practice of communications
provide software networks which fill the airwaves to capacity.
We harvest and market every available
frequency from the very low range of human hearing (30 Hertz to
20 Kh ) to the extremely high speed of 300 gigahertz for satellite
and radar communications. The common
denominator of our software networks is the human languages, the
world's first and still
foremost "mass media>". We milk our grammars and
their attendant vocabularies, and the infinite variations afforded
by them for innovation, control and processing.
Within the unified electronic environment , language provides
the essential differentiation factor without which there cannot
be articulation nor processing. Just as the electronic hardware
is the necessary technical metaphor for carrying out our increasingly
complex operational activities, language, the human software,
provides the articulated extensions of the human mind. We find
in the whole world's electricity / language interactions, the
same bewildering, but perfectly understandable relationships that
govern the mysterious brain / mind interactions.
3. The Electronic Sensory Extensions.
However, even though computer technologies have increased our
interest and focussed our attention on the rule-governed properties
of our own central nervous system, with a special fascination
for the brain, the complexities afforded by the joint metaphors
of "Artificial Intelligence" and "Expert Systems",
and other cognitively-based research, are not limited to cool
intellectual processing. The recent growth of "Virtual Reality"
indicates that we are finally understanding that we must also
reflect on the indispensable role of our sensory modalities to
fully experience the message of electricity.. The best among A.I.
researchers have already come to the conclusion that there can
be no real
"intelligence", artificial or otherwise, without including
considerations for the role of
The insistence of V.R. researchers on touch is not an accident
: indeed "comprehending" and even "thinking"
(pensare comes from pesare which means to weigh, to support) are
subliminally tactile experiences. V.R. researchers have recognized
that true information-
processing is not restricted to logical operations but that it
must include the input and the complex integrative patterns of
auditory, visual, tactile and soon, olfactive and gustatory modalities.
It is no surprise that 80% of V.R. researchers were originally
trained as artists, because it is the artist's first job to deal
with the complexities and the revelatory
possibilities of the human sensorium. Better than anyone else,
the artist knows that
electricity has something to do with touch.
4. The Place of Consciousness.
However, the inclusion of our sensory extensions into the electronic
environment brings on another dimension to our perception of reality.
It is only because we can include such
sensory inputs as artificial vision, hearing and touching into
our extended sensorium that we can truly consider the possibility
of "Artificial Consciousness". A.I. is truly A.C.
minus the interplay of the senses. It is only by adding the sensory
interplay that we can
reconstitute outside our body the kind of "interiority"
which is characteristic of
Our conventionally "western" understanding of consciousness
is that it is an "internal"
phenomenon, something happening somewhere between the ears, taking
information and stimulation both from the outer, objective realm,
and from the inner, subjective physical and mental sensations
and experiences. This notion is a typical response to the alphabetic
culture. From the earliest beginnings of alphabetisation, the
Ancient Greek Pre-Socratic and Socratic philosophers began to
propose the idea that the seal of cognition and even
perception was not, as previously believed, the chest and the
lungs, but the brain. Even as they were being increasingly alphabetized,
the Greeks, and the subsequent western
civilization, shifted their sensibility from the realm of breathing
to that of thinking. Of
course, there could be no clear-cut distinction between "inside"
and "outside" in pre-literate cultures who based their
epistemology on breathing because breathing is essentially an
It is, based on an unconscious appreciation for the specific relationship
between the reader and the text, that Plato and Aristotle, and
much later Kant and Descartes, formulated a
categorical distinction between the objective reality of Nature
(physis) and the subjective experience of consciousness. The literate
bias of this distinction has escaped completely the attention,
both of the philosophers of the past, and the cognitive psychologists
of the present. Reading is a process whereby an objective array
of abstract signs, a code , is
process whereby an objective array of abstract signs, a code,
is translated by the mind into a subjective experience of interpretation.
And yet, in spite of trillions of words said and written about
information-processing and consciousness since the time of the
Presocratics, no one seems to have made a
significant observation: it is that turning reading material into
cognitive material requires the combination and the articulation
not only of words and ideas, but also of sensory
information. You cannot read a novel, you cannot read at all without
a minimal input of
imaging. That imaging process is built upon sensorial reminiscences
which are stored in memory and made available on demand for endless
combinations and recombinations which make up consciousness.
Under the impact of the literate bias, Nature itself became a
book, a metaphor which ruled the thinking of the Middle Ages and
still remains an unquestioned assumption in many modern societies.
Within that literate frame of mind, consciousness was possible
within our mind. The division between reality outside and consciousness
inside was clear, made all the clearer by the efforts of scientists
to corner every aspect of the material,
visible world into neat and proper and universally agreed-upon
5. Common Sense.
As McLuhan suggests: "Our very word 'grasp' or 'apprehension'
points to the process of
getting at one thing through another, of handling and sensing
many facets at a time through more than one sense at a time. It
begins to be evident that 'touch' is not skin but the
interplay of the senses, and 'keeping in touch' or 'getting in
touch' is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight
translated into sound and sound into movement, and taste and smell.
The 'common sense' was for many centuries hold to be the peculiar
human power of translating one kind of experience of one sense
into all the senses, and presenting the result continuously as
a unified image to the mind. In fact, this image of a unified
ratio among the senses was long held to be the mark of our ratio-nality,
and may in the computer age easily become so again. For it is
now possible to program ratios among the senses that approach
the condition of consciousness ".
Very quickly, while the Renaissance was developing our humanistic
tradition, the common sense elaborated by late Latin and medieval
philosophy became equated with the printed word. Indeed, text
provide meaning and henceforth "sense" which is common
reader. Much in the way that the alphabet reduced all our sensory
experience to a single line of meaning, digitalization is now
reducing all our organic and mental experience to a single sequence
of coded information. But the critical difference between books
cybermedia is that the latter make possible the retranslation
of this common code outside the realm of the human mind and sensorium.
6. The Vanishing Boundary Lines of Consciousness.
Because we can today project the sensory interplay which is required
for consciousness outside the closed universe of our minds, our
convenient distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity have
ceased to be entirely reliable: the boundary line is blurred when
it is not-eliminated altogether.
Taking, for example, as a point of entry into this matter of boundaries,
our relationship to mental and technological screens, we can find
a guiding pattern into the maze of our
mediated information-processing. Needless to say, with books,
the "screen" where images and meaning are played out,
is inside. In fact, it is more like an internal stage than a flat
screen, hence the close association that has existed between alphabetic
theatre. The Greek invention of the theatrical institution was
but a standardizing model for the integration of sensory inputs
coming from within the self during the reading process.
With television, the ultimate refinement in a long series of spectacular
information-processing, the screen is both outside an replete
with sensory information. However, from the point-of-view of information-processing,
TV is an incomplete technology. It pours its images from the outside
in, totally impervious to our individual responses. Many critics
have pointed out that TV is a one-way communication medium. It
better than a "packaged" reality. Even so, it is TV's
very high sensorial content that makes it so attractive and provides
the necessary step toward the later outering of consciousness.
TV also rapes the boundaries of the private imagination.
Computers, by allowing us to "talk back" to our screens,
bring in the second element which will lead to work our consciousness
outside. Talking back requires one form of interface or another.
It is therefore understandable that much of the work that has
gone into building better computers has focussed on improving
interfaces and making them "user-friendly". Simultaneously,
the interface has become the privileged focus of information-processing
and that is precisely where the boundary between inside and outside
has become blurred. The big question haunting cognitive psychologists
today is whether, when we use
computers we are masters or slaves, or a bit of both. Are the
routines of programming
purely external events pertaining to an objective machine, or
do they impose such a
rigorous protocol of operations that they turn into mere extensions
of the program?. The only possible answer to that vexing question
is to recognize that computers have created a new kind of intermediate
cognition, a bridge of continuous interaction, a sort of "corpus
callosum" of exchanges between the outside world and our
The development of this intermediate stage of conscious processing
is verified not only in terms of our personal relationship to
computers, but also in the sociodynamics of
computers within the network environment. A rapid synergy can
establish itself instantly between computers and television in
marketing and electioneering polls, or even at the stock exchange
where important life decisions are being taken for us by machines
minimal intervention of our own voting or thinking abilities.
7. Penetrating into the Screen for Objective Collective Consciousness.
The recent marriage of computers and television is once again
changing the ground of human cognition. To understand the full
implications of the possibility of processing
artificial and video images and sounds in real-time, we must proceed
considerations about V.R., skipping the necessary but less interesting
steps of infographics, interactive video, CAD, desktop video,
and other slower and more laborious interactive technologies.
With V.R., we not only talk back to our screens, we "enter"
into them quite
literally, like TRON, the prophetic movie about a programmer cruising
into his program. What is more, the V.R. machines extend and mainline
our sensory inputs (touch, vision and hearing) to reconstitute
an artificial consciousness which is truly outside our own mind,
outside our own body. Still more, this artificial consciousness
can be shared, and the
sharing possibility confers upon V.R. the principal character
of conventional, objective
Jaron Lanier rightly observed that in his invention RB-2 (reality
built for two), for the first time in human history, a world had
been created where people could experience a form of subjectivity
as if it were objective, without it being a dream We can now more
appreciate the teleology of the digitization of human experience
which seems to have been meant partly to introduce a third level
of consciousness available to anyone donning
eyephones and dataclothes. We can also begin to trace the long
and complex itinerary of the human mind moving from tribal consciousness
into the private realm of the self through books, then coming
out again into the social realm without losing its bearings in
individual sources. McLuhan, of course, was perfectly aware of
this possibility long before our best science-fiction writers:
"Having extended or translated our central nervous system
into the electromagnetic technology, it is but a further stage
to transfer our consciousness to the computer world as well. Then,
at least, we shall be able to program consciousness in such wise
that it cannot be numbed nor distracted by the Narcissus illusions
entertainment world that beset mankind when he encounters himself
extended in his own gimmickry. If the work of the city is the
remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than
his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation
entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make
of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?".
8. Bionic Man.
The determinative unfolding of technologies which "transfer
our consciousness to the
computer world" must posit the gradual elimination of interfaces,
or as was suggested at the previous ArtFutura Congress in Barcelona,
the direct connection of V.R. sensors to our own organic sensory
inputs/outputs. It is already conceivable and almost feasible
technically to command crude machine-driven operations by thought
alone. Eye and voice command
interfaces, the closest simulations of thought, are already well
past the drawing-board stage. One predictable consequence of the
vanishing interface is to give substance to musings about "bionic
man". A truly bionic relationship between man and machine
can only be
established by removing the last boundary which is the interface.
This is not necessarily
desirable, but the prospect should not obscure the fact that we
have been entertaining
determinative relationships with our machines and our inventions
all along. There is no such thing and there has never been such
thing as "natural man".
That being said, when we are confronted with the obligation to
adapt to our own inventions, we tend to adopt the standard strategy
of cowering into our previous image. Even as we are witnessing
the relentless takeover of our minds and bodies by bionic technologies,
we are far from trying to measure up to the requirements of a
bionic psychology. We still hang on to an outdated, if not irrelevant
image of the Renaissance Man trapped within the perspectivist
point-of-view of the closed private consciousness. As McLuhan
quipped, adopting a single point of view in front of even as banal
an electronic environment as broadcast TV is
tantamount to flapping one's arms very fast to stop a tidal wave.
Today's man and woman must try to grow psychologically to the
size of our technological reach. If we can walk, albeit virtually,
in Miranda'a valleys, we must begin to realize that our consciousness
private and collective, all at once, has taken the proportions
of our solar
system. We must also strive to integrate within our intimacy,
that is within our sense of self, the intricacies of the universes
opened up to us by our technological probes. Even as our personal
and individual fields of vision are being hugely extended by our
retrieving systems, the limits of our normative scope are being
exploded never to return to their former shape. We cannot pretend
anymore that "all the world that the eye can see" is
our only reference point for identity and choice.
Our self/body image cannot safely remain that of the puny human
substance packaged under our fleshly skin, as if we didn't also
belong body and soul to the larger realm of
mankind in permanent contact. Wearing mankind as our skin may
soon be not only an option but a necessity as we feel the need
to relax our egotistical drives so as to realize that we will
all make it together or we won't make it at all. One way to go
about this is to let go of our
obsolete point-of-view as inadequate survival strategies, and
to replace them by a sense of our "point-of-being".
The question is : where do we fit in, as individual people, in
this sudden expansion of consciousness, and in its correlative
implosion of being all contracting into
one?. The point-of-being is a tactile experience, well attuned
to the electronic sensibility. It also enables us to keep track
of ourselves when our voice, image, touch and command
operations are distributed and spread instantly all over the globe.
My point-of-being, far from distancing me from reality as my point-of-view
used to do, is my point of entry into the
sharing of the world.
From the super ordinate vantage point of our individual consciousness,
we do not know, feel, or experience in any way other than fleeting
and imprecise wave-like sensations of pleasure and pain, the myriad
events and communications within our body and mind at the cellular
level. What is happening today with the rapid integration of our
cybermedia in the global
bionic body is the same proliferation of unimaginably complex
event sand interactions, but with a momentous difference: each
technological event, being the fruit of our conscious work, is
accessible to a greater or a lesser degree to our conscious appraisal
both individual and collective. This new situation puts the onus
of responsibility for world harmony upon each one of us. It has
become possible to share into large waves of information-retrieval
sweeping over the planet via radio and television. It has become
desirable to share into
planetary emotions whether it be about the Gulf crisis, or about
the plight of the Third World. To be and to remain relevant within
the onrush and precipitation of collective consciousness into
the bionic networks of the Earth, we must, as McLuhan strongly
urged, develop, each and everyone, the sensibility of the artist:
"The artist is the person in any field, scientific or humanistic,
who grasps the implications of his or her actions and of new knowledge
in his or her own time. The artist is the person of
Derrick de Kerckhove is director at the McLuhan Programm in
Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. He has published
extensively in the field of communications theory. His work involves
neuro-cultural research investigations into the impact of the
media such as writing, television and computers on the human nervous
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 1998 catalog.