Thursday, 15 January 2015

Marshall McLuhan and the Microcard


“It is perhaps characteristic of many areas of human interest that whenever a new technology appears it should act as a mirror for the preceding technologies. In this century electric memories have introduced an entirely new skill into the storing and retrieving of information. By microcard it is now possible to have the contents of all the libraries of the world on one desk top.”

Marshall McLuhan was a curious Canadian with a sizable appetite for communication theory and a peculiar propensity for making outlandish prophecies. Here are the opening sentences of his review of Frances Yates’ book ‘The Art of Memory’, as found today on page 61 of the March 1967 issue of ‘Encounter’, that erudite London journal of literature and politics. Her book details how ancients and moderns invented memory systems. She considers such things as the medieval cathedrals that told the mythic story of its society in glass windows, and Dante, whose long poem is a mnemonic warning about how the things you do now will have consequences later. ‘The Art of Memory’ is a classic of its kind and belongs in any theological library.

But what is a microcard? Webster says it is “a sensitized card approximately 3 in. × 5 in. on which printed matter is reproduced photographically in greatly reduced form”, first used in 1944. This definition alone reduces McLuhan’s claim to a reductio ad absurdum. Everybody knows you cannot have the contents of all the libraries of the world on one desk top, even in 2015, let alone on microcards in 1967. So what is he talking about?

It is as though that visionary part of his mind was eager to see something that reality had not yet caught up with. Reality certainly wasn’t about to prove him right about the full potential of a microcard. It seems McLuhan wished to see the future as a place where the contents of all the libraries of the world were available at his elbow and that it only took a small leap of faith, and illogic, to believe it so. How he read these microcards is not explained, as he then launched forth on an analysis of the communication past, as explained by Frances Yates.

Perhaps he was a prophet of the world wide web, even though the technology was not yet in place to make that happen. His interest in ‘electric memories’ is one that anyone dealing with a computer today recognises, indeed must adapt to, for we now have to live with not just our own personal memories, of various standards of fleshly excellence, but with all of those billions of electric memories pushing in upon us each time we google.

It is doubtful if there will ever be time when it is possible “to have the contents of all the libraries of the world on one desk top.” The web is one big library and library holdings are now available on screen from all over the planet, but it has to be asked if we even want to have the contents of all the libraries of the world there for us to access. It is not only an impossible dream but a nightmare from which we would wish to awake. It is disconcerting to consider McLuhan’s fantasy about the technological future, now that we live in that future. The truth, as so often, is not just the truth, but otherwise than the truth. I must jot that down on a microcard. For future reference.

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