Many of those influenced by Marshall McLuhan – including fellow Canadian David Cronenberg – did not share the media theorist’s religious views; most of them didn’t even know that the media seer had deep faith. Yet McLuhan’s religious sense offered structure, symbolism, and perhaps even song to his media explorations. Those who are persuaded by his media theories are not automatically persuaded by the religious vision behind them, but their attraction to a thinker so steeped in God could be seen as suggesting a kind of theological osmosis. God made his way into media theory through McLuhan, whether he was acknowledged or not.
Rather than sinking into history like many of his provocative contemporaries, McLuhan has grown in popularity and credibility over the years. It’s fascinating to realize that McLuhan is no longer becoming a prophet the more our world turns to digital. As Paul Levinson notes, McLuhan’s metaphors were extravagant and malleable because they had to be: of growth. In contrast, definitive and fully documented descriptions of a technology, even if correct and therefore useful in the present, can tell us little about the future. Could McLuhan’s religious vision have captured ineffable truths that both transcend the digital world and also help us to understand it?
While McLuhan was at the end of his life, Kevin Kelly was a young photographer on a freelance assignment in Jerusalem. He wandered down the street at night and found himself at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus was crucified. Exhausted and with no place to stay, Kelly lay down at the crucifixion site and fell asleep. He woke up when the crowds of visitors began to gather “as the sun was rising this Easter morning, and I was looking at empty graves”.
Raised a Catholic, Kelly had since drifted from the religious faith – until this morning. Fourteen years later, Kelly was the founding editor of Wired magazine – and Marshall McLuhan was at the masthead as the magazine’s patron saint. Kelly said his Easter conversion resulted in, as he puts it, “a logic, a comfort, a leverage that I have because of that vision.” It is a formulation that closely resembles the structuring element of faith for McLuhan.
McLuhan’s appearance at the masthead might be an oddity or a nod to the tech magazine team if it weren’t for Kelly’s faith and how that faith influenced his view of technology . Kelly argued that “technology is actually a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God”. Technology, for Kelly, offers us another way of trying to understand the impossible: at best, we could only apprehend God as a metaphor; even with all the “artificial intellects we make”, we might only have “the faintest glimmer of who God is”.
God made his way into media theory through McLuhan, whether he was acknowledged or not.
Kelly had a clear supporter in Catholic Louis Rossetto, the magazine’s co-founder and the one who recruited Kelly as editor. Rossetto rejected the idea that Wired was a technology magazine. As he wrote in a short manifesto in the first issue, the magazine “is interested in the most powerful people on the planet today – the digital generation. These are the people who not only foresaw how the fusion of computers, telecommunications and media are transforming life at the dawn of the new millennium, but they also made it happen.
Wired debuted Volume 1, Number 1 in March/April 1993. On the cover, a blurry close-up of Bruce Sterling is set against a teal background. McLuhan’s name appears on the cover, announcing a conversation between Camille Paglia and Stewart Brand. On the right side of the cover, “The Medium…” stretches to the edge, alongside a neon pink tab which, if you follow the page, leads to a double page spread that quotes McLuhan from The medium is the A message“The medium, or process, of our time – electrical technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and all aspects of our personal lives. It forces us to reconsider and reevaluate virtually every thought, every action, and every institution that was once taken for granted. Everything changes you. The lines stretch languidly across the pages, as if McLuhan is lounging in his office couch at the Center for Culture and Technology.
The conversation between Brand and Paglia is rooted in McLuhan’s identity as a lost prophet. Paglia recounts how she was influenced by McLuhan. His books were attributed to him at Binghamton University in the mid-1960s. “What happened to him? asks Paglia. “Why do these people who read Lacan or Foucault have no awareness of the mass media? Why would we speak of the school of Saussure? In none of this French bullshit is there any reference to the media. Our culture is pop culture.
Wired did its part to keep McLuhan relevant. Over the years, articles such as “Honoring Wired’s Patron Saint”, “McLuhan Lives”, “Five Views of St. Marshall” and “The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool” have reminded readers of their visionary guide. In an essay, editor Gary Wolf concludes, “It is comforting to think that McLuhan is overwhelmed, as it lessens our shame at not living up to his standards. Its pleas for understanding and its warnings of doom are like the quaint aphoristic exhortations and eschatological prophecies of the early church.
Kevin Kelly took McLuhan’s pleas and warnings as a way to develop a “spiritual dimension of technology”. In Kelly’s extension of McLuhan’s vision, he sees the need for stewards of technology in the same way that we might think of ourselves as stewards of the natural world. Kelly argued that our nebulous, almost mystical way of talking about information sounds like people are “talking about the Holy Spirit.” Technologists, Kelly observes, will place an almost spiritual belief in information but be hesitant to believe in God, which reflects their comfort with the metaphors associated with information more than any ontological truth.
Technology, Kelly believes, “can teach us more about God.” Technology requires trial and failure, construction and deconstruction. “The ongoing scientific process of shifting our lives away from the rule of matter and toward abstractions and intangibles can only prepare us for a greater understanding of the ultimate abstraction,” Kelly writes. “We tend to see God reflected in nature, but I bet technology is the best mirror of God.”
Kelly seems to be describing a potential marriage of mind and technology that McLuhan doubted would happen, but would be very much in line with his Christian vision. Kelly helped McLuhan stay and grow in our digital world. As others like Joshua Meyrowitz have noted, “McLuhan’s writing is so dense and rich that it seems to cry out for participatory exegesis and to be treated like sacred text”. McLuhan embarked with fervor on the electronic world to come.
We could consider with Meyrowitz how McLuhan’s mosaics, probes, statements, and even his errors have been “generative, rather than substantial, inspiring rather than instructive.” McLuhan offers us a way to reimagine the digital world through a spiritual vision of communication. The vision isn’t often easy, and it’s not often delivered in a way that we like, but it’s a radical and personal vision nonetheless. You wouldn’t expect anything less from a saint.
Extract of Digital Communion: The Spiritual Vision of Marshall McLuhan by Nick Ripatriazone courtesy of Fortress Press.