primary and secondary experience

the book

is an extension of the eye

…and by that logic, I suppose, so is the blog…

I’ve been reading Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 book The Medium is the Massage for class.

McLuhan has a lot to say about primary experience and how it relates to a world filled with and influenced by electronic media. Here’s an example, in which he specifically laments an educational system that is, as he sees it, outdated in its method of compartmentalizing information and removing it from the world of the experiential:

Many of our institutions suppress all the natural direct experience of youth, who respond with untaught delight to the poetry and the beauty of the new technological environment, the environment of popular culture…The student finds no means of involvement and cannot discover how the educational scheme relates to his mythic world of electronically processed data and experience that his clear and direct responses report.

McLuhan’s analysis of the then-budding electronic world seems remarkably prescient at times, as when he remarks, “The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions–the patterns of mechanistic technologies–are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank–that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes.'” Countless Facebook posters busted for making unsavory comments would likely agree that this excerpt provides a surprisingly apt description of the world of social networking.

Whereas McLuhan saw the electronic age as one of direct experience, however, it seems to me that the opposite is true nearly 40 years later:

  • We navigate a vast majority of our “relationships” primarily over the internet.
  • We learn about political and social movements, scientific theories, and philosophical thought by reading condensed versions of other people’s research and insights rather than by exploring primary sources–or even more detailed summaries of scholarship or research!–for ourselves.
  • We read about politics and hear about them on television, but don’t actively participate in them, especially if we aren’t reminded by the huge advertising budgets of national presidential campaigns.
  • We want someone to tell us what constitutes great art rather than finding out for ourselves. (Speaking of which, Frank Oteri at NewMusicBox just posted an eloquent, impassioned plea for the focus to be on the experience of art itself rather than on the idea of the “Great Man.”)
  • We want to listen to music in our own homes, on our commutes, through our own earbuds. We don’t even want to get up to go shopping, or to the library or bookstore, much less to the record store.

What does this all mean for the way we interact with music today? I don’t know that we can conclusively say that it means anything at all. I can’t find a good source of popular concert attendance statistics, but based on personal observation I think it’s safe to say that people do sometimes still leave their homes to hear live music. And although I disparaged iTunes culture above, this technology has also engendered the undeniably positive effect of granting easy access to music that listeners might never have the chance to hear otherwise.

But so far I’ve only focused on consumption, not on production or creation. Consider for a moment the popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. We like the idea of being able to play an instrument well or participating in a band, but actually doing these things must be too much work–how else do you explain the fact that it’s more popular to strum or bang on a piece of plastic than to actually participate in collaborative music making? Thinking about the time gamers spend getting really, really good at these games is even more infuriating when you consider that this concentrated effort could have gone into learning how to do something that doesn’t require an instructional display and a power source. (This problem is not solved by the recently released Rocksmith or similar concepts that incorporate real instruments; NPR predicts in the linked commentary that the game isn’t likely to encourage would-be guitarists to continue playing once the screen is turned off, as the player depends on the instructions to find his or her way through the music. It’s never a good sign when people who can actually play the instrument struggle with gameplay.)

For me, the experience of making music–alone or in groups, and even if it’s music I didn’t create myself, which it usually is–is definitely rewarding enough to merit the work. Similarly, the experience of attending a live performance is one that can never be replaced by a recording. However, it seems to me that cultural trends toward isolationism and mediated experience have the potential to endanger these activities.

I’ll end on a slightly divergent note: McLuhan notes that visual forms of communication hold the eyes captive, but that the ears do not tend toward prioritizing one sound over another and cannot naturally shut out their sonic surroundings. As we withdraw from the world of reality, spending increasing amounts of time alone with our various electronic devices in quiet, sanitized sonic environments, choosing exactly what we hear through our computer’s speakers or our headphones, we risk missing out not only on the process of producing and listening to live music, but also on what McLuhan seems to think is the most direct method of experiencing the world: LISTENING to our surroundings.

I should clarify as a postscript that I don’t mean at any point to sound alarmist or one-sided; as much as technology isolates us from the tangible world, it also opens up new means of knowledge and communication, despite the fluffy summaries of research-that-might-suggest-to-the-contrary-but-which-probably-don’t-attribute-causality that seem to crop up fairly often in the press.  However, I think it’s worth criticizing our tendencies as a society toward experiencing the world through the filter of technology.
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  1. Great post girl! I love your postscript. :) I haven’t read any McLuhan but have always been meaning to. Now I’m even more inspired to, realizing how relevant his ideas are to the present day.

    • Awesome! I’d definitely recommend The Medium is the Massage–it seems like a great introduction to his ideas and it’s fairly short (but thought-provoking!). I’m going to read Understanding Media next…hopefully, anyway.

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