Electric Man

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
July 4, 2017
On Air

“When you are on the air you are, in a way, everywhere at once.  Electric man is a ‘super angel.’  When you are on the telephone you have no body.  And, while your voice is there, you and the people you speak to are here, at the same time.  Electric man has no bodily being.  He is literally dis-carnate.  But a discarnate world, like the one we now live in, is a tremendous menace to an incarnate Church, and its theologians haven’t even deemed it worthwhile to examine that fact.”  (Marshall McLuhan, interview with Fr. Pierre Babin, 1977)


Media guru Marshall McLuhan made these prophetic remarks forty years ago.  “When you are on the air you are…everywhere at once.”   The term “on the air” is not used as it once was in the age of radio and TV.  But being “on the air” is more widespread than ever.  Everyone’s “on the air.”   The internet has made us all “super-angels.”   It’s not just for TV personalities anymore. In fact, it’s an archaic surprise, like a caveman showing up at a sweet sixteen party, when someone is not “on the air.”  In the electric age, the human body is no longer a “boundary” for the soul.   The body is looked upon as if it were Play-Doh.   In one sense, we no longer feel the need to be “human.”  The word “human,” like the word “humus,” means “of the earth.”   It’s no accident that the “trans-humanist” movement was founded by Julian Huxley in 1957, just when the TV age was taking off. 


To be “of the earth” – to be “human” – is to have a nervous system inside a body.   In a “human” culture, the body and its brain – the nervous system – perceive the world around it through the five senses.  A “human” being is formed by his or her ecosystem and local culture.  The landscape, the soil, the vegetation, the wildlife, the weather: these comprise the atmosphere within which a human culture is formed.   A local culture is part of a human ecosystem.   By nature, we’re all local yokels.  But in an electric world, everywhere becomes our “ecosystem;” and every culture becomes our culture.   Time and place have nothing to do with it.  We can “now” live in any age or any place, or in every age or every place.   “Now” is every age.   “Here” is everywhere.   As McLuhan points out, all media are “extensions of man;” and electric media are extensions of man’s nervous system.


With electricity, everything becomes “local” but without “place.” Hence, we live in a “global village” in which everyone wants to participate in everyone else’s personal business.  There is no privacy in an electric world.  Everyone butts in.  Your business is everyone’s business.  Gossip is not just for small towns anymore.  The whole world is a small town now, but without Main Street.  Verdicts precede trials.  Mobs rule.   Electronics doesn’t like silence.  It demands public confessions.  Everyone must pick a side and make a statement.   “Tell us what your thinking!  Tell us what you’re feeling!  We demand to know, now!”  The electric world demands immediate responses.  It won’t give you a chance to process.  The Pope says it’s a sin to gossip.   The electric world says it’s a sin not to gossip.


We mistakenly assume that the electric world is a visual world.  Perhaps this is because of everything from light bulbs to TV to YouTube.  But this is not the case.  Electricity engages our acoustic and tactile senses more than our visual sense.  For example, we don’t like watching silent TV (unless there’s closed captions), but we don’t mind listening to TV without watching it.  In the days of radio shows, why did people sit in semi-circles around radios?  People don’t sit in semi-circles around silent TVs.   As for electric lighting, we don’t like silence when the lights are turned up.  The brighter the lights, the more we need sound.  In an electric world, we want to hear or feel more than we want to see. Art museums, fine restaurants and traditional churches dim the lights because they prefer silence to talking. When modern churches turned up the lights, people started talking aloud in church. 


Electricity is acoustic.  It produces impressions, not logic.  On the other hand, the eye – the visual sense – likes to make connections.  It likes logic. Reading is an exclusively visual activity, which is why it creates premises, syllogisms, syntax, grammar, definitions, declensions, conjugations and categories.  A visual activity, like reading, is better done by candlelight or by dim light than by a naked light bulb, because reading requires silence.  The ear competes with the eye when the lights are bright.  We’re more logical and reflective in candlelight because it lets the eye dominate.


Ever since the TV, the eye has become less engaged in the exclusively visual activity of reading.  Rather, the eye is now more integrated with the ear and the sense of touch.  Ever since TV, the eye has been connecting dots on the screen, and the brain has been imagining images that don’t exist on the screen.  This is true for both standard-definition TV and for HDTV, though in different ways.  Standard-definition TV makes moving mosaics of light.   On the other hand, HDTV looks more like cartoons or video games than reality.  HDTV is akin to a moving comic book.  Either way, TV screens don’t create complete images, whether they be high or low definition.  Our imaginations fill in the visual blanks, with the help of our hearing and feeling, and we extrapolate images and visual illusions from light pixels.  This is why watching TV – or watching images on an iPhone – is by no means a passive activity.  It’s totally involving.  People using electronics only seem to “drop out” of the world around them because they’re in fact “tuned in” to the world that is not around them.  “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” 


The troubling shakeups that the world is now experiencing, like an echo of the sixties, are the continuing transition from a visual to an acoustic culture that began with TV after World War II.  It’s a transition from a logical, literate, left-brained culture to an impressionistic, acoustic, right-brained culture. “With electricity, which is above all oral and acoustic, the right cerebral hemisphere rises to the surface,” said McLuhan.  “Here is how scientists now characterize the two sides of the brain,” said McLuhan to Fr. Babin.  “The left hemisphere specializes in analysis; the right hemisphere, in global or holistic thoughts, with a limited aptitude for language. The right hemisphere governs the succession of words not so much as a logical sequence but as resonant interfaces.  It concerns everything we take as a whole….The right hemisphere treats information much more diffusely than does the left hemisphere: information is distributed more vaguely.   The right covers the field of perception in its entirety, whereas the left concentrates on one thing at a time.”  


To get the idea, just watch “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” a 1956 movie with Marlin Brando and Glenn Ford.  From another angle, we might say that class clowns are right brained.  Teachers’ pets are left brained.   In the 2016 presidential election, the class clown defeated the teacher’s pet.  Hippies are right-brained.  Squares are left-brained.  The 1967 “Summer of Love” was a right-brained explosion.  In the 1968 elections, Hubert Humphrey and Tricky Dick were left brained.  Right-brainers got “clean for Gene” (McCarthy).   Ever since then, even left-brained politicians have been marketed in right-brained packages.   In 1976, Ford and Carter were both left-brainers.  But Carter had better right-brained packaging.  McLuhan said Carter’s TV appearance made him look like the all-American neighborhood boy.  PR consultant Vic Gold said he looked like the Quaker on the Quaker Oats box.  Natural right-brainers, like Reagan and Bubba, were easier to sell than left-brainers like Mondale, Bush 1, Dole and Gore.  Millennials are non-ideological because ideology is a left-brained thing.  In today’s governments, left-brained policy makers are trying to govern increasingly right-brained societies. Contrary to popular assumptions, politics today is not about ideological left and right.  It’s about craniological left and right.


The Catholic Church has been clumsily dealing with this since Vatican II. As McLuhan put it:  “We can say that the revolution in the Church came about as a result of a sudden hemispheric shift in the brain, and it occurred in the blink of an eye, a snap of the fingers.   Indeed the solution lies in the complimentary nature of the two cerebral hemispheres [of the brain].   For…these two hemispheres are complimentary, and not exclusive.  Neither mode is more important except in transitional forms of awareness.  It is culture that makes one or the other dominant and exclusive.  A culture builds itself on the preference for the one or the other hemisphere [of the brain] instead of basing itself on both.”  Today’s Church is dealing with  “hemispheric battles” within the brain formed by electric currents.


McLuhan spoke prophetically about this to Fr. Babin:  “At the speed of light, in a culture that changes from day to day, when we can live in a century in ten years, when every day of our lives we can pass through at least a hundred years of historical development, then we have to adapt our psychic and physical lives so that they change at the same rate.   The task horrifies us.  We are not designed to changes at such a pace.  Alvin Toffler called it ‘Future Shock’: ‘We are going too fast, we cannot adapt.’  At this speed, we cannot adapt to anything….No balance is possible at the speed of light, in economics, in physics, in the Church, or wherever….”


McLuhan said that he converted to Catholicism “on his knees.”  Prayer is our antidote to the speed at which electricity is changing us. Like the Prodigal Son, prayer makes us “return to ourselves” (Luke 15:17).  Prayer raises us to God and brings us back down to earth.  A human is never more “of the earth” than when he or she talks with God in the heart.  Prayer invites the “Lord and Giver of life” into the whole person, body, brain and soul.  Catholics are better suited to confront the electric world than anyone else because of the Church’s prayer tradition.   Electric media dis-embodies us.  But prayer re-embodies us.  Electricity turns us into “super angels,” but prayer makes us saints.   Prayer brings us back to ourselves because it brings us back to the God who became “human.”