The long now, through the rear-view mirror

Greenbelt was rewarding, as ever, this year. Thought-provoking (if some astonishingly rude) speakers, a welcome chance to meet up with old friends, and that all-too-rare sense that thought and ideas were welcome.

And a good theme too: the long now. The shadow of eternity, the sense that our actions today may have repercussions in years if not centuries to come, and a counter-cultural shout against the sort of world where the long term means ‘a couple of years from now’.

For a few days I’ve been trying to map the links between that and the field in which I now work, and a chance conversation with one of my colleagues earlier today made this all make a bit more sense. We were discussing Marshall McLuhan. You know – McLuhan, the mad, freewheeling Canadian pop-sociologist, who told us all that the medium was the message, and many other things besides.

McLuhan’s reputation has rollercoastered over the past decades. The toast of the alternative subcultures of the 1960s, he fell very quickly out of favour as the ideals of that era died (to be fair, he also then stopped writing anything of interest whatsoever). Oddly enough for a discipline he in part prophesied, media studies largely hated the man in the 1970s. It called him simplistic when it came to his view of technology. McLuhan’s death in 1980 made very few people speak well of the man. We mocked, with some justification, his weird hippyish ideas of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. And then in the 1990s, something very strange happened.

That something was the Internet.

Overnight, McLuhan was rehabilitated. His 1962 idea of the ‘global village’, of everyone being able to know each others’ business instantly via media technology, made some sense when it came to the growth of television at that time. The shared event of the moon landings in 1969 showed that McLuhan needn’t have stopped with the idea of just one globe being part of a village. But when the Internet came along, a shared communication medium that connected one person directly to another without needing a central broadcaster to do it for them, people began to seriously take notice of McLuhan again. The global village was suddenly within everyone’s reach.

Media studies was still at best ambivalent about the man (for my part, he says too little about the technology have-nots for me to take him seriously). But outside the ivory tower, things changed. Wired magazine, beloved of the Web’s adopters in the early 1990s, called him its ‘patron saint’ (and in a phrase that will chime with many who read this blog, its ‘holy fool’). He was deemed to have Seen The Internet Coming twenty-five years early.

But then, his fans argue that McLuhan saw coming the fact that he would only make sense after his death. He wrote:

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

In McLuhan’s criticism, we understand the present only as it disappears behind us. The acceleration of technology means that things move too fast for us to make any sense of them at the time. And it’s only the hindsight of now that lets us understand the changes of years past.

Which in one sense chimes with Greenbelt’s idea of the long now, and in another sense almost completely contradicts it. Illustrating this year’s theme on the Greenbelt blog, Martin Wroe quotes Danny Hillis, co-founder of The Long Now Foundation in 1996. ”Civilization is reviving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” according to Hillis. Worse still, “the trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology…”

I’m not about to argue whether ‘technology’ (whatever Hillis actually means by that in this context) decreases our attention spans. But it’s obvious to anyone who lives with new media that it’s pretty futile to resist the sort of accelerated culture that McLuhan argues it brings about.

If we can’t resist it, we might as well try to live with it.

And McLuhan’s resignation to the fact that we make sense of today’s changes only in years to come is something that more than a few Greenbelters had at the back of their mind, as they tried to put meat on the bones of ‘the long now’. I know I did in retrospect (appropriately enough).

Hence, I suspect, why I’m restarting this blog. I came back from Cheltenham with a vague commitment to ‘share more’. I shifted a year ago to a field which deals with the long now in ways it’s yet to discover. With all that in mind, I hope it’ll be ok to share some ideas again. Many of them will be half-baked, some naïve and some just plain wrong, but they’ll be out there. And I can look back at them, through the rear-view mirror, and boggle at just how wrong or right (yeah, right) I was, in time hence.

I suspect it’ll all be a lot of fun too. Well, for me anyway…

6 thoughts on “The long now, through the rear-view mirror

  1. And a welcome back from me, too – and I think that blogging definitely needs to be thought about from the rear view mirror aspect – it’s a fact of life that we tend to read blog posts as they are being written – but to appreciate the story we really should look back from time to time …

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