The medium is the message and what does a fish know of the water in which it swims?
Snow in Scotland should be savoured like original sweet sips on the sound of silence. Or so it seemed to the Spanish couple literally tasting their first experience of snow among the Highlands this weekend. While they certainly shocked some spectators, I can only celebrate this close encounter of the Caledonian kind. This particular pair will undoubtedly remember this peculiar sensation, unlike many of the onlookers who might only manage a few vague recollections from their snapshots and selfies.
The spectacular Glencoe and the Devil’s Staircase have long captured my imagination. At this time of the year, it is easy to mistakenly believe you have landed on a distant moon of Saturn. But this alien landscape only adds to the allure of escaping the numbness and city life. I cannot understand why so many visitors cared only to take their opportunity, photo and prompt leave.
I find my mind full these days with discovering new experiences. I am mindful of the opportunities missed when work so often follows me when I travel, like a laptop on a leash. So many actors for change struggle to fit a life around their relentless work; I seem to struggle with the meaning of balance itself in the midst of a life’s work. I could only wish for more time to explore the Scottish Highlands. Alas, London was calling.
The return journey shared with other couples and families reminded me that a new generation of changemakers might face a more immediate obstacle to real living; the blurred boundaries between work and life seem less problematic than those between virtual and “real” life. In the seats in front of me, a young woman followed the long and windy roads through the glens, over the bens and beside the lochs through the screen of her smart phone. The rare pause afforded only to share another photo online or to take a nondescript selfie with her obliging partner. I wonder if they treasured a breath of mountain air unless it could be captured in a careful and rehearsed pose.
Waiting for me back in London was a large project to encourage the students I work with to seek unmediated sensations and immerse themselves in life. It is a strange reality that the quietest moments in any classroom I visit no longer follow a question from a teacher; the eerie and the silence hang scarily during the breaks as students become transfixed to the images scrolling across screens that are alienating them from their own experience. The screens that tether me to work are to be escaped in pursuit of stimulation and real living; screens are the stimulation for these students, as life just becomes a string of opportunities to collect and share unique hashtags that service virtual identities. Don’t live to work. Live to be seen.
Nearly half a century has passed since the French philosopher, Guy Debord, warned that mass media had replaced religion in offering repressive pseudo-enjoyment of the world. Real life has become subordinate to its mediated appearance. “The medium is the message,” declared Marshall McLuhan around the same time. Few appreciated the significance of the statement back then, but now we bear witness to rapid changes in the way we relate to each other and our planet. Debord and McLuhan joined a line of critical thinkers, from Walter Benjamin to Jean Baudrillard, in warning that our “mass age” is defined and numbed by the form of media as much as its content. It would be a mistake to assume that a new generation has become enchanted by bite-sized pieces of what passes for entertainment rather than the platforms that deliver them. Narcissus of Greek mythology, according to McLuhan, did not just fall in love with his own image; he fell in love with image.
McLuhan highlighted the dangers of allowing technological advances to leave no part of us “untouched, unaffected or unaltered”. He suggested that the instinctive understanding of young people for this technological environment alienates them from other generations. “If we don’t pay attention to the medium,” warns Benjamen Walker, “we won’t notice we are trapped in it.” I grow more concerned that the students of communications whom I meet are learning how to maximise their clout on social media rather than the work of McLuhan.
The evolution of mass communication forces us to rethink how we work towards the transformations in mindset needed to create a world for life to flourish in. McLuhan argued that the anxieties of our “mess age” are, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools. One of the most important educations in appearance and reality comes from Plato. In his Allegory of the Cave, he told of prisoners who are shackled all of their lives so they are only able to see shadows cast on a wall from people walking past a fire behind them. The prisoners perceived these shadows as nothing other than reality. It would be the responsibility of anyone who found freedom to lead the others out of the cave and into the light of real life. But now we return to the cave only to discover broken chains and prisoners sat of their own accord, captivated by the fire harnessed in wall-sized plasma screens and personal smartphones. The entertaining shadows of the cave have become more seductive than the world outside.
This lesson became more evident to me as I observed the young man sat next to me on the coach trip back from Glencoe. He did not once lift his eyes from his screen to see the magnificent sight of a soaring golden eagle. He did not once avert his gaze from several social media accounts to see the sunset cast oranges and purples over snow-capped peaks. He did not once look up from the Google image search of mountains to catch a brief glimpse of the summit of Ben Nevis emerging from the clouds.
I am sure he found some sense of comfort during his travels, in the “always-on/always-on-you” technologies that offer instant connection to the familiar people and places of a virtual home. Immersion in virtual life might even seem to offer avoid the vulnerability in visceral experiences of an uncertain and uncontrollable physical world. The “no place” of the online world provides an opportunity to escape anyplace. Screens take us anywhere. Anywhere, but here.
I realise that my own desire to explore the world, rather than escape it, necessitates new thinking about how to relate to a tethered generation. But the more significant insight that emerged during that trip through the Highlands was that the colourful images that dance in the new dawn of our technological age still tempt me. A curious mind is sated by an instant connection to a wealth of knowledge and immediate answers to the questions raised by any experience with new people and places. Listening to an audio history of the region greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the trip. I am fascinated and drawn towards the blurred boundaries between the real and the mediated when the virtual sphere is available for use in, or even superimposed upon, an augmented physical reality.
An insatiable desire to push the intellect beyond new horizons has led me online in a constant pursuit of stimulation of the mind, but the price for this is beginning to dawn on me. For example, I would normally take great pleasure in discovering the short film, “Shot in Glencoe”, recently shot to mark the 300th anniversary of the 1715 Jacobite revolution. It is saddening that the creators of the film decided that they needed to do something different to capture the attention and imagination of people no longer interested in the history and landscape of this region. But the time-lapse sequence of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “On the Massacre of Glencoe”, projected on to mountains and lakes under the stars is still a stunning example of bringing technology in to the world. Maybe it is the way to attract some people back, or for the first time, to the beauty of our world. However, I am already convinced of its appeal and for each moment spent learning through a screen, regardless of how valuable that might be, it is a lost moment for direct knowledge of the world and my place in it. The medium is the message and a screen cannot show you what snow tastes like.