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Platform Independent Marshall McLuhan vs. Marshalling Regular Expressions

by Andy Oram
07/08/2002

Glosses on Marshall McLuhan must chase one of the strangest trajectories of any public figure. In less than a decade, McLuhan went from Catholic university professor to media celebrity to cliché. His very career proved one of the theses for which he is best known (although not the points he most desired to make known): that the new television culture blankets the world with impressions that hit all viewers simultaneously and that are not subject to analysis or dissection but merely to reaction. We no longer preserve the neat perspective that distinguishes figure from ground; we have only a field of impressions.

McLuhan's books struck the public in the 1960s (a time when figure and ground switched places for many) with the projective force he had assigned to print media. This explosion was followed by an implosion driven by the iconic force of the electronic age. His ideas gained currency through television appearances, jokes, a scene in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, and not least the conscious homage paid to his ideas by the advertising industry. If you missed McLuhan's ideas going out, don't worry--you certainly received them coming back in.

Recently, I began to research and re-evaluate McLuhan. The impetus was a surprise I had not known how to deal with for several years: the success of a book called Mastering Regular Expressions by Jeffrey Friedl. Now that Friedl has just finished with writing, and I with editing, a second edition, this is a good historical moment to integrate the phenomenon into our understanding of the role computer processing plays in social development.

Every medium, technology, and concept, no matter how modest, has a social context.

Regular expressions, from a practical standpoint, are tools for handling text. No one processes a JPEG with regular expressions. Television is totally off the agenda. A McLuhanite would take one look at the subject matter for regular expressions and declare them irrelevant.

Related Reading

Mastering Regular Expressions
By Jeffrey E. F. Friedl

Yet Mastering Regular Expressions came out and became an instant hit. The Perl community (where regular expressions had taken hold most strongly at the time) treated Friedl as a hero. His talk at the first O'Reilly Perl Conference filled a large hall right up to the back doors. We sold out all copies of his book at the conference, even though it had released six months before, and brought in another batch of copies that were promptly sold out as well. Five years after publication and 22 years after the death of McLuhan, the first edition still sells several hundred copies per month and is continually recommended on mailing lists and in journal articles.

Not only Friedl's book but regular expressions themselves have marched to commanding heights that no other language can point to. Originally marginal outside of Perl and a few old Unix tools, regular expressions now appear as standard offerings in virtually every modern language--including the .NET framework, Java, Python, and PHP--and turn up as conveniences in major utilities such as the Apache web server, the MySQL data base engine, and the Postfix and Exim mail transfer agents. (The author of Exim, Philip Hazel, developed a popular regular expression library used in several tools).

What does the success of regular expressions have to do with McLuhan? Simply put, the technology and Friedl's book seem to embody everything McLuhan said was passé: they celebrate and support a reverence for text that McLuhan expected current generations to abandon. The actual message, as I will show, is more subtle and enhances McLuhan's work substantially.

McLuhan was the Shannon of sociology, placing his bets on the primacy of communication over content.

A thesis concerning the obsolescence of print or text culture, and the ascension of electronic media, would seem extremely odd coming from an English professor. But to McLuhan, such a provocative statement was merely a vehicle for a deeper message: that we are leaving behind the age dominated by the logical argumentation and specialized analysis characteristic of text study. At best, such study could moderate and soften the impact of the new electronic media.

On the summer morning in 1440 when Johann Gutenberg rose from his bed in Strasbourg to print the first trial leaflet on his printing press, the sun rose on an essentially holistic world of oral, aural, and tactile participation. The primary experience of every human being was face to face and responsive--one did not simply take information in, but dialogued with the person offering it. Manuscripts, richly impressed with the hand and personality of the scribe, did not alter the primary nature of information as a kind of speech or activity.

Space and time in those days were gloriously diverse, to the extent that each location and each moment held its own meaning. Besides the grand distinction between the heaven and the earth, the earth itself--and the diverse tribes within it--clearly differed from place to place. There was no uniformity or redundancy.

Into this multisensuous world Gutenberg threw a shocking anomaly: several thousand Bibles that were all alike, each containing several thousand As and Bs that were all alike. The notion that one could subdivide an experience and make it precisely repeatable and predictable has thrown into commotion every society where movable type has become commonplace. As McLuhan says in The Gutenberg Galaxy, "the most obvious character of print is repetition." Among its consequences, according to McLuhan, are:

  • Individualism

  • The scientific method

  • The sense of the universe as uniform and predictable (following Isaac Newton)

  • Linear reasoning (selon Descartes)

  • Industrialism

  • Fixed prices that allow global trade

All this is so essential and pervasive that it would never have been examined by anybody, but for an equally fundamental revolution taking place now with electronic media: the telegraph, the telephone, radio, phonograph, television, and (the medium to which the final chapter of McLuhan's Understanding Media is devoted) the digital computer.

In contrast to print culture, our growing electronic culture features instantaneous, non-verbal impressions that are taken in whole and that reverberate with the emotions of the viewers...a breakdown of traditional cause-and-effect reasoning, replaced by a re-ascendance of myth as the driving force behind decisions and actions...a similar substitution of holistic experience for print culture's focus on individual components of the situation (print culture's separation of figure from ground)...A weakening of Western individualism in favor of a renewed group or tribal membership, created by the simultaneous exposure of millions of people to the same images

Computers and automation are playing a major role in this transformation of society, according to McLuhan, because they speed up events so much that traditional sequences are replaced with simultaneous activities (he would have been quite comfortable with computer clusters), and because humans have to deal with the outcomes of computation as a whole rather than with the individual steps of which they were made.

In later years, McLuhan became fascinated with new research on the hemispheres of the brain, and associated the dominance of the left brain with print culture while associating right-brain thinking both with the pre-print oral culture and the emerging electronic media culture.

It is hard to discern McLuhan's moral values among his torrents of literary references and comparisons. Certainly, he blamed Gutenberg for the emergence of Protestantism and other historic trends he disliked. Private correspondence also reveals that he hoped the electronic age would bring people spiritual revelation. On the other hand, his view of television can be gleaned from the wish expressed in The Gutenberg Galaxy that we "mastered the nature and effects of all our technologies, instead of being pushed around by them." He shows even less reserve in his posthumous Laws of Media, which darkly states that television watching causes an "impulse...towards anarchy and lawlessness."

While the pre-eminent medium of McLuhan's time was television, had he managed to experience the Internet he would undoubtedly have seized on it and declared it even more characteristic of the sketchiness, immediacy, and intense user engagement engendered by new media. During McLuhan's lifetime, digital networks existed only as instruments of business, and he could comment on them only from that standpoint. Now that the Internet is a personal and widely shared experience, many have pointed out its new-media traits: its adaptation to short, quick-breaking information, its reliance on rumor, and its awkward presentation formats.

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