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July 24, 2024

Inner Peace: It doesn’t thrive in the digitized world

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
June 21, 2023

Marshall McLuhan may have foreseen a ‘global village,’ but not the alienation and polarization of our digital era

By Richard Carey

Some readers may recall the cultural kerfuffle stirred up by Marshall McLuhan in the mid- to late 1960s. He coined the phrase “The medium is the message,” which was inspired by the overshadowing of print media by electronic media. The initial wave of electronic media, which early on was dominated by television and radio, was transmitted in analog form, replicating the pre-literate, holistic experience of information as a multimedia stream, engaging all senses. In McLuhan’s view, this new media, for better or worse, freed us from the linear, purely visual medium of the written word and literally changed the way we perceive and experience the world.

McLuhan is credited with predicting the internet, the modern “global village,” but it’s worth noting that he did not foresee or contemplate the transition from analog to digital transmission. This is a subtle but important difference between the electronic media of McLuhan’s time and ours. With the coming of computers, software, mobile devices and the internet, both the content and transmission of information has morphed from analog to digital. Analog is fuzzy, wavy, like the human imagination, while digital is binary, purely logical, transmitted in tiny, discrete packets. It’s a steady stream of little code bits made of ones and zeros — that is, everything is either on or off, yes or no; everything is either true or false. We have even tried to digitize time, with our so-called “smartwatches,” as if spacetime could be broken into little bits and bytes.

It’s plain, as McLuhan recognized, that the media affects cognition, and thus culture, in a transformative way. Today we know that this transformation is not merely psychological but that our brains can and do rewire themselves to adapt to our environment and to our individual experiences and habits. This is why repetition and practice make us better at things, whether it’s problem solving or playing pickleball.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

Considering this, I find myself wondering whether this subliminal bombardment of binarized information might be one of the catalysts for the angst that makes so many of us feel disconnected or alienated from the natural world, and thus from the sense of wholeness and belonging that we need, both to find inner peace and to enjoy a more harmonious interaction with our environment. Might this help to explain today’s widespread polarization, which arises from absolutist thinking and perceptions? There is no room for nuance in a line of code. Could the process of continuously assimilating digitized input be affecting our neurons? Are we becoming our cell phones?

Now, it can be argued that traditional logic is also binary. All statements are evaluated as true or false, and in a formal logical argument, a statement cannot be both true and false. Given this, while logic is an invaluable tool for serious philosophical argument, it does have its limitations. At its basic level its conclusions depend upon individual premises, which can differ between philosophers. For example, if one premise assumes the existence of a deity, while another presumes the opposite, wholly different philosophies arise. And logic always falters before the topological paradoxes manifest in our contemplations of the infinite and the infinitesimal.

As to the media and its impact on my sensory milieu, my resolution for this year is to limit my exposure to screens and instead tune in to the ever-flowing, beautiful continuum of our world and its universe. In the spooky realm of quantum physics, where everything is entangled, a thing can be true and false at the same time. I find that delightful. Likewise, I will not be bound by either-or; I will happily spin between our earthly (and heavenly?) poles, knowing there is an unbroken flux and flow of unifying energy. I will go full analog (after I check my email)….

Richard Carey lives in Ashland, and when not facilitating the Inner Peace column, spends most of his time studying the Zen of idleness and scribbling out the occasional poem.

Want to contribute? Send 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Richard Carey (rcarey009@gmail.com)

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