The Electronic Labyrinth

Marshall McLuhan and The Gutenberg Galaxy

First published in 1962, Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy studies the emergence of what its author calls Gutenberg Man, the subject produced by the change of consciousness wrought by the advent of the printed book. A propos of his axiom, "The medium is the message," McLuhan argues that technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented. The invention of movable type was the decisive moment in the change from a culture in which all the senses partook of a common interplay to a tyranny of the visual. Movable type, with its ability to reproduce texts accurately and swiftly, extended the drive toward homogeneity and repeatability already in evidence in the emergence of perspectival art and the exigencies of the single "point of view". He writes:

the world of visual perspective is one of unified and homogeneous space. Such a world is alien to the resonating diversity of spoken words. So language was the last art to accept the visual logic of Gutenberg technology, and the first to rebound in the electric age. (136)

For McLuhan, the standardized letter forms of movable type reduced spoken language and even the vagaries of hand-written communication to deviations from an original type. This not only resulted in the commodification of literature but the simultaneous emergence of the "author" and the "public." "Manuscript technology," he writes, "did not have the intensity or power of extension to create publics on a national scale. What we call 'nations' did not and could not precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in other people" (ix).

For McLuhan the coming of the electronic age will precipitate a return to the tribalism and pleasure in diversity that collapsed in the age of movable type. However, while this vision of a global village has become a reality in the age of suit-case-sized satellite transponder dishes, the homogenization which McLuhan associates specifically with a print culture seems no less evident in our electronic culture. One has only to think of the flattening of difference evident in the Pepsi ad campaign in which Geishas in Japan and tribesmen in Africa all sing along with Ray Charles in a global chorus of "Ah Ha." For all that the ad is only the unconscious admission of the essentially imperialist nature of the American imagination, it also points to the truth of life in the electronic village where everyone watches CNN and wants to eat at McDonald's. Though the post-print possibilities of hypertext apparently champion diversity and polyphony, it too is inscribed in a culture in which that diversity is merely the superficial gloss, the new packaging of tomorrow's commodities. We may live in the global village, but who would have foreseen that it would be owned by a soft drink company?

See also: Manuscript Circulation, Illuminated Manuscripts, Johannes Gutenberg and the Printed Book, and The Commonplace Book.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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