Wednesday, November 18, 2009

McLuhan, the Economist

Marshall McLuhan used various analogies to explain his celebrated, confusing formula, “the medium is the message.”  In one, he likened the content of media to “the juicy steak held out by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” Media dangle in front of us all kinds of allurements. Whether we’re news junkies, sports fans, avid consumers, or gossip column devotees, media demographers have us targeted. They’ll invest millions to research our habits and attitudes to help them hone their content to seduce us into handing over to them our precious time.  But behind the enticing content and the operations that engineer it, a panoply of technologies roils away, magnifying, reviving and retiring one another in an accelerating process of innovation, assimilation and succession. This constantly shifting technological background recalibrates our sensory and cognitive experiences, day after day, year after year, shaping and reshaping our psychological biases and expectations—our comfort level. Media massage us unconsciously. That is their primary effect, to which McLuhan called our attention.

Another analogy McLuhan used was that of the cocktail party at which someone tampers with the thermostat, notching it up or down a few degrees.  If the climate-control system of a modern building co­­­­nstitutes a medium, and anyone who reads McLuhan’s opus, Understanding Media, will see that all technologies fall under his purview as media, because all extend some physical or psychical human capacity, then the thermostat illustrates how a medium can bear no message other than itself. In the case of the thermostat, no message distinguishes itself from the medium. But changing the temperature in a room will create a new psychological space; the occupants will feel new sensations; their concerns will shift; they will orient themselves differently in the space and towards one another. They will adapt to the environment created by the medium, but no alphanumeric message will have been sent from it, no semantic content will have issued from it, nothing that a dictionary could help decipher will have been uttered, printed, broadcast or posted online by that thermostat. Its message is felt, but it’s not a linguistic one.

The common element in these analogies is that they reveal a figure/ground relationship.  The juicy steak is a distracting figure; the thermally modified room an uncomfortable ground. McLuhan’s project was to get people to pay less attention to the baubles of content and more attention to the invisible ground. Training oneself to attend to the psychosocial effects of media as environments, and to spend less time critiquing their contrived contents, helps insulate a mind against the content engineers’ hypnotic ambitions. McLuhan was prescribing a therapy when he urged us to shift our focus from figure to ground.

So, what does this have to do with economics?


One half of today’s economy plays an important role as message—juicy distraction—as packaged and delivered by the news-manufacturing and punditry industries.  That half is concerned with government appropriations and taxes, congressional budget haggling, that is, with fiscal policy. This is the sideshow that people visit to root for liberals and conservatives grinding their axes.

But fiscal policy has a bitter half, the shadow twin, a subterranean half that lurks beneath the economic ground.  This economic mirror of fiscal policy mediates, invisibly, the staging of the fiscal Left-Right (melo)drama.  The hidden half of the economy has to do with the background against which fiscal policy is debated: who originates money in the first place? How do they move new money into the economy? Who’s on the receiving end of the new money? And under what terms do the receivers get the money? Money itself is conjured by fiat, so who attends the great power of turning nothing into spendable cash will control the ground on which our personal prosperity or impoverishment figures. (At least we have the Left-Right puppet show to entertain us.)

Coverage of the current economic meltdown makes it clear that corporate media work hard to make the partisan tax-and-spend debates as contentious as possible. This keeps the public preoccupied with the message of fiscal policy and diverts attention from the medium of exchange, the economic ground: monetary policy. We would do ourselves a great favor if we shifted our attention from the overt economic figure to the covert economic ground. We need to re-set the economic thermostat.

It is shameful that in the free democratic republic of the United States, a taboo persists against scrutinizing the Federal Reserve cabal of private banks, which sets the country’s, and through the IMF and World Bank the world’s, monetary policy. This cabal is a private business that operates independently of government oversight. But the mainstream media are very efficient at marginalizing people who break the taboo. And so public attention stays focused on the staged wrestling match between perennial fiscal contenders Socialist Left and Capitalist Right.

It’s temping to see the current pop culture fascination with zombies as a mirror. Maybe we’re trying to snap ourselves out of our collective dream. Entranced by the alluring, insistent voices of media, we have become a nation of zombies. But don’t expect people conditioned to fixate on media content to give up their preoccupation. As McLuhan also noted, somnambulism—sleepwalking—is a highly motivated state.

Or, if that seems too insulting, cool off with this analogy. There’s a droll saying that goes, “If you kill one person, you’re a murderer.  If you kill a hundred thousand people, you’re a conquerer.”  Apply that to economics, and it runs something like this, “If you run a ponzi scheme involving $billions, you’re a contemptible crook (e.g. Bernie Madoff). If you run a ponzi scheme involving $trillions, you’re the venerable Federal Reserve Bank.