Stephen L. Talbott


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Our dialog with technology is a dialog with ourselves. Technology can indeed have a powerful effect upon the subsequent development of culture, but it is the kind of effect that powerful meanings have. This must be distinguished from any mechanical sort of cause and effect.

I draw on the work of Owen Barfield to indicate how the development of both printing press and perspective art, as companion movements toward abstraction, fit into the broad evolution of western consciousness. My conclusion is that, once we take this evolution into account -- and reckon especially with our own place in it -- we cannot say, in quite the way it is often said, that technology "causes" a radical transformation in the conditions of intellectual life.


Neil Postman's Undue Modesty

We typically prefer not to meet ourselves in the world. And when we do encounter something of ourselves -- as when we get spooked by a dark forest -- we berate ourselves for our superstition. As children of the scientific era, we feel obligated to become dispassionate observers whose primary (and admirable) goal is to avoid meeting ourselves -- our biases and unconscious wishes -- in the world.

But whatever the case may be with the natural world, we cannot avoid meeting ourselves within the sphere of the technological artifact. I want to speak about that meeting, and I will begin with a little story that might go under the title, "Neil Postman's Undue Modesty." This story is exceedingly brief, consisting of a single statement followed by a single comment. The statement is from The Disappearance of Childhood:

Television...does not call one's attention to ideas, which are abstract, complex, and sequential, but to personalities, which are concrete, vivid, and holistic" (101).

The comment is really a question: whose attention is not called to ideas? I ask because television has quite evidently called Neil Postman's attention to ideas of the most elegantly abstract, complex, and sequential sort -- for which many of us will be forever grateful.

Now, it is understandable that a man of such modesty should not have interrupted his exposition by interjecting, "I myself, however, am an exception to this rule; I have learned to read television as the expression of certain ideas, such as the ideas of concreteness, vividness, and holism." Understandable, I say, but unfortunate, for this remark would, I think, have been the single most important thing he could have said. Certainly, it would have helped to deliver us from the mistake of forgetting ourselves.

Of course, such immodesty would also have troubled the argument in which it occurred. But I think this particular trouble is healthy trouble, and I would like to stir it up as best I can.

Putting the issue paradoxically: to the extent Postman is right about the concrete, non-ideational character of television, to that extent he has proven himself wrong. But then, this sort of apparent paradox is one we should be getting used to. There are many ways to formulate the matter. For example: our becoming increasingly aware of the unconscious effects of the media signifies our becoming more fully conscious of those effects. Or again: our becoming increasingly aware of the collective, cultural aspects of our behavior signifies our becoming more individually responsible for our behavior. In Marshall McLuhan's formulation:

Hitherto most people have accepted their cultures as a fate, like climate or vernacular; but our empathic awareness of the exact modes of many cultures is itself a liberation from them as prisons. (76)

You may argue that the margin of self-awareness, along with the consequent margin of freedom, is slim indeed. But surely that margin is what our lives -- and especially, perhaps, the lives of media ecologists -- are all about.

We defeat ourselves in the very act of knowing -- defeat ourselves in the most hopeful way, bringing liberation. How is it that this fact has not figured more centrally in a discipline that delights in unraveling the complex relationship between the expressive human being and the media that constrain his expression? If the relationship changes with every success of the discipline -- well, that's one thing we dare not lose sight of for long!

What I want to suggest, then, is that we ourselves, with our active and evolving mindsets, must stand, not only in the place of the media ecology investigator, but also at the center of the investigations themselves. That is, if an overly insistent distinction between knower and known, between mind and content, is ever misleading, surely it is misleading here, where what we try to know (and what we thereby end up altering) is the style of our own knowing. Leaving ourselves out of the picture easily leads to an unjustified technological determinism.

It is, I suppose, a matter of emphasis, and my unease arises from what I perceive to be the prevailing balance of emphasis. Here, for example, is how Postman describes media ecology:

Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival. The word ecology implies the study of environments: their structure, content, and impact on people. An environment is, after all, a complex message system which imposes on human beings certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. ("Reformed," 161)

This statement does recognize interaction of some sort, but the effective causation seems mostly a one-way affair: the media of communication affect human perception and understanding, and media environments impose on us certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. But ask yourselves: given that this very insight constitutes an escape from the imposition, what is more fundamental -- the indicated causation, or the transcending act of insight?

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Meanings Are Not Things

I do not see how we can pursue media ecology much further without moving the human being as knower closer to the center of the enterprise. In the remainder of this paper I will try to hint at what this might mean, beginning with three brief summary statements.

1. An artifact is what it is only because of the meanings and intentions we have invested in it. We meet ourselves in the artifact.

A pencil lies in front of me as I write. It was, by design, made from soft wood, which is less expensive than hard wood and allows for easy sharpening; at the same time, it is sufficiently rigid to hold its shape while acting as an extension of my limbs. The thin cylinder of graphite inserted lengthwise through the wood is selected for the right softness, so that with reasonable pressure of fingers, hand, and arm, it leaves by friction a visible, but not excessive, trace upon the surface against which it is drawn. This trace, reflecting the movement of my limbs, is normally invested with meaning, whether via the alphabet and words, or via some other system of signification.

The particular pencil I am looking at is shaped hexagonally so that it will rest stably and comfortably between thumb and fingers. The eraser on the end is, you might say, an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and its length compared to the length of the pencil can be seen as a very rough "index of fallibility," among other things. While the yellow-gold paint over the wood may offer protection against the minor risk of splinters, it also testifies to at least a vestigial human need for aesthetic satisfaction in the objects of everyday use. Similarly with the pattern of grooves and indentations by which the metal band fastens the eraser conveniently to the wood, so that it is always there when we need it, and so that the wood serves as a convenient handle for exercising the small eraser.

The pencil's length is a happy medium: if it were two or three times as long, it would not fit inside my notebook and would be awkward to carry around; if it were half or third as long, its usable life would be greatly reduced, and the economics of its use would not be nearly as attractive since a higher percentage of the original length would have to be thrown away. The word "Ticonderoga" stamped upon the wood tells me something about the entrepreneurial and business origins of the pencil -- quite different, for example, from the days when an artisan may not even have signed his work. And if I have a few of these pencils lying side by side, I can discern in their remarkable uniformity something about their mechanized, assembly-line manufacture and their cultural status as "mere" objects. Even the single, isolated pencil reveals in the perfection of its symmetry and form a preference for precise machining at low cost over artistic expression at higher cost.

Here, then, are a few of the more immediate meanings of the pencil. Many other meanings cluster in varying configurations around the ones I have mentioned. They might be associated with memories of our school days, or with some threatening, bureaucratic use of the pencil, or with the typical posture and look assumed by the diligent pencil user...and so on almost without end.

At least some of these meanings and intentions are essential to the pencil's existence; without them there is no pencil -- not even if I happened to be holding this very same yellow wooden object in my hands. Look at it this way: for the small child who has so far discovered only the joyful, hole-poking capabilities of this object, there is no pencil. Likewise, if the object is lying underfoot in a pig sty, there might be a piece of wood there (whatever a piece of wood may be to a pig), but there is no pencil. The artifact is decisively an expression of human consciousness.

This, I have found, is easy to assent to, but extraordinarily difficult to hold onto. The reason it is difficult to hold onto is that we are all, in our bones if not in our theorizing, naive materialists. We cannot avoid relapsing into the wholly untenable thought that the pencil just is a particular configuration of wood, graphite, metal, and rubber.

But if the tool essentially embodies our meanings and intentions, what does it mean to say that tools shape and determine our conscious life?

2. Those aspects of ourselves -- meanings and intentions -- that we meet in a specific tool are typically expressed, not only in that one tool, but throughout our culture.

The mind capable of imagining an early automobile was a mind already relating to physical materials, speed, conspicuous consumption, noise, pollution, mechanical artifacts, time, space, and the aesthetics of machines in a manner characteristic of the modern era. It is hard to imagine any subsequent effects of the automobile not already implicit in this mindset, even if it is true (as it surely is) that the automobile gave magnificent new scope to the preexistent movements of the western psyche.

Looking backward from Henry Ford's manufacturing innovations, M.I.T. social scientist Charles Sabel remarks that

it was as if the Ford engineers, putting in place the crucial pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, suddenly made intelligible the major themes of a century of industrialization. (Quoted in Howard, 24)

Looking forward, we can ask: how much of the town's conversion to a spread-out, impersonal, rationalized, streetlight-controlled, machine- adapted metropolis was already prefigured on the floor of the first assembly-line factory?

Again: if, as many believe, the computer will serve to rationalize our businesses and overwhelm us with data, these effects are hardly distinguishable from the general thrust of the processes leading up to the computer's development. In fact, you could almost say that our businesses were becoming computers long before the computer itself existed, and that the computer was modeled on these businesses. This is far closer to the truth than most people realize.

Computer systems analysis and design promptly took up and generalized the methods of rational administration that organizations had developed throughout the modern era. The technical concept of "algorithm" was assimilated to the bureaucratic concept of "procedure," and the technical concept of "data" was assimilated to the bureaucratic concept of "files"....Computing practice drew on an established tradition of automating paper-based work. (Agre)

Historians Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray have recently made clear how far the principles of the computer were already embodied in business models. In his Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith described an imaginary pin factory based on the novel principle of the division of labor. Some fourteen years later the Frenchman De Prony, charged with creating mathematical tables, "conceived all of a sudden the idea of applying the same method to the immense work with which I had been burdened, and to manufacture logarithms as one manufactures pins" (Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, 12). Thereafter the organization of "human computers" for jobs such as tabulating census data and calculating ballistic firing tables was closely intertwined with the evolving organization of business in general.

Charles Babbage, credited with conceiving and designing the first computer during the 1820s and 1830s, was first of all an eminent economist whose work on automatic computing grew out of the rationalization of business. "Babbage is a seminal figure who connects Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to the Scientific Management movement founded in America by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s" (Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, 15). If, today, the computer can actually be, for example, a financial trading business, it is because financial trading has already been reduced to sheer computation, without regard for producing substantive value.

Given how fully our businesses had already come to express our computational mindset, it is not at all clear what it would mean to say that the computer began "causing" these businesses to evolve in certain directions. Which is operative in the first instance -- the physical machines, or the larger, organizational "computer," or the habits of mind that have found expression in both machine and organization?

Focusing on a different side of the computer's history, Paul N. Edwards claims that "virtually no one has recognized how profoundly the cold war shaped computer technology. Its politics became embedded in the machine -- even, at times, in their technical design -- while the machines helped make possible its politics" (ix).

One more example. Langdon Winner tells us how the technology of nuclear power pushes social institutions in certain directions:

Diablo Canyon [the nuclear power plant] is a prime example of an inherently political technology. Its workings require authoritarian management and extremely tight security. It is one of those structures, increasingly common in modern society, whose hazards and vulnerability require them to be well policed. What that means, of course, is that insofar as we have to live with nuclear power, we ourselves become increasingly well policed. (175)

But even if one accepts that nuclear power is an inherently political technology, its inhering politics are, finally, our own. Nuclear power plants emerged from, among other things, military weapons development and big science. That is, they emerged from a society that had already proven willing to shape itself around big science and a technologically driven military.

3. The meanings of an artifact change with time.

With Winner's comment about nuclear power plants before us, it is interesting to ask what other technologies present similar political challenges. The World Trade Center, government office buildings, and jet airliners immediately come to mind. The existence of each of these now requires us to be policed more thoroughly. And yet, a few decades ago probably none of them would have been cited in this regard. The meanings associated with these technologies have changed.

Regarding nuclear power itself, the social "determinations" of the plants are one thing when the plants are being built in rapid succession and hailed naively as the harbingers of a clean, economic, energy-efficient future, but something rather different when we are routinely shutting plants down for cause, decommissioning others, and looking in fresh directions for our energy future -- and something different again in a political environment such as the one that surrounded Chernobyl. I would hate to be the one who had to argue that there are no other mindsets, involving radically different intentions and radically different social determinations, beside the three just mentioned.

That the significance of our artifacts changes with time is in any case hardly controversial. If new technologies, or the meanings they embody, bring the sorts of ecological changes Postman speaks of -- and they certainly do -- then they change the significances of all the old technologies. A quill does not remain the same artifact in an age of ballpoint pins, and public debates are not the same events in the television age. The conversation of culture and technology is an ongoing one, and we are now participating in it.

But if this is true, then it is crucial for us to attend to our own participation, rather than simply look for influences issuing from technologies.

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Technology of the Printed Word

All this is, I think, implicit in Postman's choice of the term, "media ecology." Stressing the parallel with environmental science, he notes that "one significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment....The same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has had none." So "a new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything" (Technopoly, 18).

But this implies something else as well. In an ecological system, rather like in an organism, not only does every part affect the whole, but the whole is also expressed in every part. Which is to say that, with the possible exception of those cases where one culture forcefully imposes itself upon a completely foreign culture, the new artifacts, processes, ideas, and habits of thought that arise already bear within themselves, however creatively, the "drift" of what has gone before. They are expressions of the whole before they are modifiers of the whole.

If this has not received sufficient emphasis, I suspect it is because of that unconsidered materialistic assumption I mentioned earlier. It is easier for us to think of the technological device as a "thing" that somehow affects our thinking than to think of it as, in its essential nature, an expression of our thinking.

Perhaps the easiest place to see the true relationship is in language itself. Every speaker must rely upon the received, lexical meanings of his terms even as he attempts to transform these meanings according to his own intentions. His distinctive usage may, in turn, play its greater or lesser role in nudging the lexical meaning in a certain direction (Barfield, Speaker's Meaning).

Once we have reckoned with the technological artifact as a bearer of meanings and intentions, we realize that technological assessment is a fundamentally semantic enterprise. We are attempting to listen in on a conversation of meanings.

That the "new" ecological element is already an expression of the whole is no less true of printing technology than of the other technologies we have glanced at. Here is the context for the first printing presses, as one observer summarizes it:

Gutenberg was but one of many seeking to speed book production through mechanization; others were carrying out similar experiments in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Gutenberg was the first to assemble the necessary components of the printing process -- type production, ink manufacture, the press, paper supply -- into a coherent whole. The 15th century was a propitious time for the work. There existed a great market for books among the students of the rapidly expanding universities and the many literate members of the rising middle class, for reading was no longer a clerical monopoly. There was a well- organized book trade to market the sudden explosion of production. Paper, introduced into Europe through Spain and Sicily in the 11th century, was in abundant supply and no longer suspect as an impermanent material." (Wells)

A propitious time indeed. Clearly, the mechanically assisted written word was going to play an ever greater role in western culture, Gutenberg press or no Gutenberg press. So, too -- although it is not my purpose here to attempt a demonstration -- the clergy's influence upon society was going to continue waning. And if we shift our gaze to the techniques of the artist, we find that the increasing distance between knower and known, form and content, word and meaning, which is so often attributed to the printing press, had already found decisive expression in the development of linear perspective. By the early fifteenth century the artisan had begun learning to take up a subjective "eye-point" from which to view a detached, objective world through a window -- sometimes a literal window -- upon which a precise, mathematical projection of the world beyond could be traced. If the world, as it was being drained of its intrinsic meaning, could finally be re-presented as an abstract, reduced, mathematically derived schema upon a canvas, then so, too, the word, as it was being drained of its intrinsic meanings and becoming a "mere name" for something else, could finally be manipulated into rows of metal type.

These changes in word and image are not unrelated. However it was that the unified, ensouled world split into external, material object on the one hand and subjective viewpoint on the other, surely the separation of the word as outer, material body from the word as interior meaning is a manifestation of the same split. It is above all a historical semantics -- the study of how words change their meanings over time, which is also a study of human consciousness -- that enables us to characterize the split.

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Cause and Effect, or Conversation?

Nothing enters conversation proper except insofar as it is a bearer of meaning. But, as meaning, it can only have arisen from previous intention. In such a conversation of ideas and meanings, it makes little sense to speak of efficient causation, as if our interior worlds were connected to a set of material technologies by mechanical linkages. That is not how conversations evolve. Certainly some meanings are extraordinarily powerful; but the impact of meaning upon meaning, while it may be profound and pivotal for a culture, is not a material one, and the language of mechanical determination is wholly inappropriate for grasping that impact.

What language can we use? We exercise such a language whenever we explicate a set of interwoven meanings. If we want a history of the conversation of technology and culture, then we must pursue the history of meanings. Another way to say this is that we must pursue the history, or evolution, of consciousness. But there is a tremendous resistance to this, which can be illustrated by the voluminous literature about orality and literacy.

What bothers me about this literature -- or at least the minuscule proportion of it I have read -- is precisely its occasional tendency to substitute materially conceived causes for formal or final causes. That is, its tendency to speak one-sidedly about how things -- artifacts, technologies -- determine our ideas or meanings or the qualities of our consciousness. But this is to forget that things are ideas -- embodied ideas. They are meanings. They are the qualities of our consciousness. This truth is perhaps most obvious in the case of the computer, which is a radically different machine depending upon what program -- what body of logic -- it is running. But it holds equally for the pencil, as I remarked earlier. And for every other artifact.

Jack Goody, quarreling with those sociologists and anthropologists who make an overly simple, binary distinction between primitive or advanced, wild or domesticated thinking, suggests that

many of the valid aspects of these somewhat vague dichotomies can be related to changes in the mode of communication, especially the introduction of various forms of writing. The advantage of this approach lies in the fact that it does not simply describe the differences but relates them to a third set of facts, and thus provides some kind of explanation, some kind of mechanism, for the changes that are assumed to occur. (16)

No investigator as subtle and balanced as Goody could be charged with using "mechanism" here in a crude, mechanical sense. But his use of the term is nevertheless symptomatic; what does it mean? If there did not stand behind it some notion of the causal efficacy of material technologies as such, apart from their meanings, he would not have been able to contrast his own approach so sharply with the others. He would not have called for a "third set of facts" to give explanation to all the others. He would instead have substituted more accurate and finely nuanced distinctions of meaning for those "vague dichotomies" -- and would have done so, of course (actually, he does do so in good part), by reading the technologies as critically important expressions within this interior conversation.

Ong tells us that "Goody has convincingly shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called `prelogical' to the more and more `rational' state of consciousness, or from Levi-Strauss's `savage' mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy." But why are these different explanations? Ong seems to have in mind the difference between a material, causal explanation on the one hand, and a resort to vague mental analyses on the other. He goes on to say,

I had earlier suggested...that many of the contrasts often made between `western' and other views seem reducible to contrasts between deeply interiorized literacy and more or less residually oral states of consciousness." (29)

Like Goody's "mechanism," Ong's "reducible" appears symptomatic. Somehow he has in the back of his mind the interiorization of various aspects of physical technology -- which is fine and sound as far as it goes. But if he had kept in view the fact that the tool is only a tool so far as it bears meanings and intentions, and that all meaning and intention is by nature interior, he would have realized that his reference to "interiorized literacy" is rather like speaking of "interiorized interiority." What is the point? The point ought to be to unravel exactly those nuances of interiority that differ from one culture to another, accounting among other things for the embrace of different technologies and for the different expressions represented by the same technology in different cultures -- all, of course, as a matter of historical fact rather than arbitrary systematizing. But this is the approach he seems to be denigrating.

In sum, when we talk about the mutual determinations of technology and humanity, we're talking about an interior conversation. It is a conversation between ideas and meanings expressed in particular technologies, in the culture at large, and, to one degree or another (perhaps a very small degree) in the conscious thoughts and words of individuals.

As a brief, merely suggestive example of such a conversation, I will look at the changes in the nature of space -- which is also to say, changes in the inner experience or meaning of space -- leading up to the discovery of linear perspective.

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The Changing Experience of Space

The two-dimensional image, as we have it today, is the result of the purest mathematical abstraction -- an abstraction fixed upon human consciousness at almost exactly the same historic moment as the printed word. Leon Battista Alberti's Della Pittura, the first treatise on linear perspective, was published in 1435. The "discovery" of perspective, which caused such a sensation, involved reconceiving the artist's canvas as the section of a mathematical projection of points in space. The pictorial image, once governed first of all by a pattern of meanings, was now increasingly conceived, and then seen, as a product of points and rays. Points, according to the German master of perspective, Albrecht Durer, "are the beginning and end of all things."

It was, of course, an interest in the image as mathematical projection that led to the Renaissance fascination with the camera obscura and other precursors of the modern camera. And, today, the triumph of the digital image is wholly owing to the computer programmer's mastery of coordinate systems and projections. The graphical image is built up abstractly and analytically in software, pixel by pixel.

What the graphics engineer produces, whether with the aid of a lens or from pure, mathematical manipulations, is what we see -- first, in the graphics themselves, and then (with a vision disciplined by these graphics) in the world. Already at the outset "Alberti exhorted his artist-readers to learn to see in terms of...grid coordinates in order that they develop an intuitive sense of proportion" (Edgerton, 119). The Italian historian, Giovanni Cavalcanti, wrote in 1838:

And thus the eye is the ruler and compass of distant regions and of longitudes and abstract lines. Everything is comprehended under the geometric doctrine, and with the aid of the arithmetic art, we see that there is a rule for...measuring with the eye." (Quoted in Edgerton, 115)

The window and grid of the perspective artist was necessary to prevent the mind's old habits from subverting the eye's measuring capabilities. The grid, when employed with the right intention, successfully squelches the mind's tendency to read meaning rather than gauge spatial relations. In this sense the grid we have plastered over our eyes complements those other tools with which, as scientists, we measure the world.

But the habit of perspective viewing had to be achieved If it is true that the discovery of the various mechanisms for perspective representation helped to fix this habit upon the western mind, it is also true that the developing habit was what made the discovery possible in the first place.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, artists in northern Italy struggled mightily with the problems of spatial representation. Viewing their art today, we can watch as foreground slowly separates from background, and as individual figures begin to "stand out" in bold relief. Through continual experimentation, these artists achieved considerable success in perspective representation well before the breakthrough discovery of the geometry and technical apparatus of perspective. The early fourteenth-century painter, Giotto, gained wide fame for his life- like portrayals. According to Boccaccio, "there is nothing which Giotto could not have portrayed in such a manner as to deceive the sense of sight" (quoted in Gombrich, 61).

In The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, John White traces in great detail the artistic process by which the object begins to emerge within a new space of its own. It begins with the artist focusing on the individual object, now felt to possess an unwonted solidity. Captivation by the object itself "precedes any interest in space as such. The interval, or nothingness, which separates one solid from the next, is relatively unimportant" (35).

In this early phase, objective space only hesitantly makes an appearance, as a kind of appendage of the object. It "clings, expanding and contracting, to the figures, and to the simple solids that are indispensable to them in the playing of their parts" (p. 221). The artist has succeeded in rendering the individual object, in all its solidity, with considerable fidelity. And he has cleared enough habitable space around the human figures to allow for their gestures and actions. But the coordination of all these separate spaces within the overall work of art remains inconsistent, a source of growing puzzlement as the whole question of space began to be felt by the artist as a problem. Only with the fifteenth-century elaboration of the systematic rules of perspective did the new space finally come into its own:

Now the pictorial process is complete. Space is created first, and then the solid objects of the pictured world are arranged within it in accordance with the rules which it dictates. Space now contains the objects by which formerly it was created....The result is an approximation to an infinite, mathematically homogeneous space1.

In their struggle to "get out of the picture" and to see the world objectively in perspective, the artists of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were at the same time working themselves free -- or being worked free -- of an older, medieval experience of the world. Barfield, who has limned that older experience in a lively manner, observes that, despite a "strong and growing sense of the individual soul, the man of the middle ages "was not yet felt, either physically or psychically, to be isolated from his surroundings in the way that he is today. Conversely, his mind and soul were not felt to be imprisoned within, and dependent upon, his body" (History, 124). Barfield asks us to imagine what it was like to stand in the world as a citizen of the medieval era:

If it is daytime, we see the air filled with light proceeding from a living sun, rather as our own flesh is filled with blood proceeding from a living heart. If it is night-time, we do not merely see a plain, homogeneous vault pricked with separate points of light, but a regional, qualitative sky, from which first of all the different sections of the great zodiacal belt, and secondly the planets and the moon (each of which is embedded in its own revolving crystal sphere) are raying down their complex influences upon the earth, its metals, its plants, its animals and its men and women, including ourselves....Our own health and temperament are joined by invisible threads to these heavenly bodies we are looking at.... We turn our eyes on the sea -- and at once we are aware that we are looking at one of the four elements, of which all things on earth are composed, including our own bodies. We take it for granted that these elements have invisible constituents, for, as to that part of them which is incorporated in our own bodies, we experience them inwardly as the "four humors" which go to make up our temperament. (Saving, 76-77)

Likewise, a man's disposition -- for example, his jovial, saturnine, or mercurial nature -- was at the same time a disposition of the heavens, whose influences were intrinsic to his own being, placing him in sympathy with other persons and things similarly influenced (History, 126). These sorts of relations can be traced by entering sensitively into word meanings and following their changes over time, as Barfield has done in numerous works.

All this had consequences for the experience of both space and image. Medieval art looks flat and unreal to us, but its contemporary beholders were drawn into a rich tapestry of meaning. Pictorial depth, for them, was not quantitative and spatial, but imaginal. As for the world itself, they participated in it more fully than we; it was less like a stage they walked over than a garment they wore. They felt themselves "rather less like an island, rather more like an embryo" than we do today. (Both the garment and embryo metaphor come from Barfield, Saving). Accustomed to experiencing the real world imaginally, they found it much easier than we to experience the image realistically.

If the challenge for the Renaissance artisans was to extricate themselves from the web of influences -- meanings -- by which their own seeing was shaped, that of the Greeks, Barfield tells us, was to detach the very idea of thought "first from the idea of movement in space, and then from the idea of movement of any sort" (Saving, 103). Barfield reminds us that Plato found the "revolutions of the mind" inseparable from the heavens:

As to the relation between thought and space, it is almost sufficient to read the Timaeus -- which, incidentally, was the principal channel through which the thinking of Plato and his predecessors was known to the Middle Ages. In this dialogue, Plato describes the world as `a moving image of eternity'. It is however not simply a matter of a few revealing uses of key-words, though of these there are enough and to spare: as when he tells us that of the seven different kinds of movement, movement in a circle is..."the one that has most to do with mind and understanding," or again, that by contemplating the undisturbed revolutions...of mind in the heavens we may make use of them for the revolutions of our own intellect, which, though disturbed, are nevertheless akin to the former. It is rather that the whole development and structure of thought in the dialogue is such that celestial astronomy and metaphysics are inextricably one. (Saving, 102-3)

Earlier still, as Bruno Snell shows in The Discovery of the Mind, the very recognition of one's mind as one's own had to be won from the surroundings. The heroes of the Iliad experienced many of their pivotal thoughts and impulses of will as arriving from without, given to them by the gods. That is, the self -- our interiority itself -- was received from "out there." But if interior is exterior, then the meaning of space can have had almost nothing in common with our experience of it today.

So the overall movement is from a time when "what we call space was conceived rather as a kind of unindividualized, all-enclosing continuum, or mental mobile, for which perhaps wisdom is the best modern word we can find" (Barfield, Saving, 149). From this plenum a progressive contraction of interiority into individual centers occurred -- not by any means as a uniform process, but traceable by means of delicate semantic investigation -- until by the time the scientific revolution had done its work, the fully awake individual looked out upon an objective world and a container space in which he was no longer conscious of meeting himself2.

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A Conversation on Different Levels

One thing, I think, emerges clearly from all this: there are different levels at which we can try to eavesdrop upon the conversation of culture and technology. At one level we can observe with Edgerton that the early pioneers of perspective wanted to glorify God by making manifest in their art the world's harmonious, divinely given order even as they unwittingly contributed further to the emptying of sacred meaning from several hundred years' worth of paintings. The Renaissance "rediscovery" of perspective

was not immediately heralded as a victory of objective reality over medieval mysticism. To the contrary, the early users of the new art- science thought of it as a tool which might help restore the moral authority of the Church in a world becoming progressively materialistic. (7)

At the same level we can observe with Postman that Gutenberg, a devout Catholic, "would have been horrified to hear that accursed heretic Luther describe printing as `God's highest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward'" (Technopoly, 15). In other words, our thoughts about our technical contrivances have a miserable history -- enough so to make a pessimistic judgment appear quite reasonable: "The effects of technology are always unpredictable" (Postman, Disappearance, 24).

But at a deeper level we find profound continuity of meaning, although not necessarily of conscious meaning. Not surprisingly, Postman provides the lucid exposition against which it is easiest to explain the point. I'm thinking of those paragraphs in The Disappearance of Childhood where he speaks about the Frankenstein syndrome (23-25). I will alternately quote from his text and supply my own running commentary -- not so much to disagree outright as to tweak the emphasis at one or two points.

First, then, Postman quotes Myron Gilmore:

The invention of printing with movable type brought about the most radical transformation in the conditions of intellectual life in the history of Western civilization....Its effects were sooner or later felt in every department of human activity.

But remember that the technical sophistication of Gutenberg's press with its movable type was about as far removed from the technology of, say, three hundred years previous as the "radically transformed" conditions of intellectual life brought by the press were removed from the conditions of three hundred years previous. And those were not two altogether different removes. Did the detached, abstracting, objectivizing, sequential, logical mind ever express itself in a single, greater leap than when, still half-embedded in a medieval environment, it worked systematically, in many artisan shops across Europe, to perfect a machine to print books -- a machine based on the coordination of numerous technologies, on a tightly controlled, mechanical sequence of events in the press itself, and on rows of tiny, individual typographical elements now wholly abstracted from the words of which they are part and free to move around in endless, complex rearrangement?

If there was ever a comparable achievement of the abstracting mind, perhaps it was when the Renaissance painters managed to analyze what had once been a meaning-soaked landscape into a projective configuration of lines and points sectioned by a canvas. Or perhaps it was when the first syllabary or alphabet was conceived and impressed upon a physical material. Many an important cultural movement never subsequently achieves a stride to match the reach and significance of its first steps, but merely plays out in an increasingly routine fashion the logic of its early, defining gestures.

So where Gilmore claims that the invention of printing "brought about" the most radical transformation of the conditions of western intellectual life, it would be safer to say that the modern condition of mind, as it was coming to birth, expressed itself decisively and characteristically by contriving the tools it could most effectively lay hold of. Those tools then contributed to the further development of the modern tendencies -- as expression strengthens expression, not as material cause produces material effect.

Harold Innis...stressed that changes in communication technology invariably have three kinds of effects: They alter the structure of interests (the things thought about), the character of symbols (the things thought with), and the nature of community (the area in which thoughts develop). To put it as simply as one can, every machine is an idea, or a conglomerate of ideas.

This last sentence is the perfect summary of much that I have been saying. But (as we will see below) there is a vexing question of emphasis. Postman appears to be saying that the machine is an idea because of the specific nature of the effects it causes, or helps to cause, not that it arose as, and essentially is itself, a conglomerate of ideas or meanings. There is no explicit acknowledgment that the ideas are our ideas, or that the "ideological bias" embedded in every tool (Technopoly, 13) is our bias, whether conscious or not.

But they are not the sort of ideas that lead an inventor to conceive of a machine in the first place....There is a sense in which all inventors are, to use Arthur Koestler's word, sleepwalkers. Or perhaps we might call them Frankensteins, and the entire process, the Frankenstein Syndrome: One creates a machine for a particular and limited purpose. But once the machine is built, we discover -- sometimes to our horror, usually to our discomfort, always to our surprise -- that it has ideas of its own; that it is quite capable not only of changing our habits but, as Innis tried to show, of changing our habits of mind.

But if we truly accept that "the machine is a conglomerate of ideas," then we must see it as an expression of our habits of mind before we talk about it as a means for changing our habits of mind. These habits do indeed tend to be unconscious -- we are in that sense sleepwalkers -- but they are nevertheless habits of mind. Their expressions must be read as meanings, not physical causes. It is true that inventors have rarely foreseen many fundamental consequences of their inventions, but this is only to say that they are not fully conscious of their own -- and their culture's -- habits of mind. As to our horror upon discovering that the machine "has ideas of its own," that horror is perhaps healthiest when it reflects a growing self-awareness.

To say it in James Carey's bold way: We may find that the structure of our consciousness has been reshaped to parallel the structure of communication, that we have become what we have made.

As Carey says, we do risk becoming the tools of our tools. But this risk is that we will be possessed by unconscious meanings. We cannot disown these simply because they remain unconscious. Like the pencil, the other physical structures of communication consist of particular configurations of our consciousness, particular tapestries of meaning. Their subsequent reactions upon consciousness and meaning must be read as a conversation, not as material causation3.

The effects of technology are always unpredictable.

The invention of the printing press, as also the discovery of linear perspective, dates back to the early Renaissance, preceding the onset of the scientific revolution by one or two centuries. The idea of history in the modern sense -- the understanding of the past as "something different" and the habit of "looking on the past as a sort of seed, of which the present is the transformation or fruit" -- this whole developmental view of time is, as Barfield points out, hardly more than three centuries old (Barfield, Speaker's Meaning, 14-16).

So of course Gutenberg did not grasp in conscious thought the consequences of his invention. But a lot of water has passed over the dam in the meantime. We now have sophisticated histories. More than that, we have historiography. We have the discipline of technology assessment. Best of all, we have, as of just three decades or so ago, the ongoing work of Neil Postman. Can we say today with quite the same confidence that the effects of technology are always unpredictable? Surely they will never be predictable in the manner of mechanically connected events. But we have at least begun to see that they are assessable, and we have our first serious attempts at assessment. We can now look at ranges of possibilities based on current social habits and on the manifest urges to change some of those habits.

To become conscious of something is no longer to be merely the passive recipient of influences operating collectively and unconsciously. As we look over the past several hundred years, it is urgent that we do not forget ourselves as historians, media ecologists, and whatever else. We are something new upon the face of the earth, and if there is a source of white heat and light from which the conversation of technology and culture will gain its future impetus and direction, we must not fail to look for it first of all within ourselves.

To use [Lynn White, Jr.'s] metaphor, the printing press opened a door upon which European culture had been anxiously knocking. And when it was finally opened, the entire culture went flying through.

This, to my mind, is the nearly perfect statement, and it is the anxious knocking that I have tried to elucidate. We need only avoid an undue emphasis upon the material door or on its character as a radical separator in any qualitative sense -- as opposed to a radical accelerator of what is already there. For in a conversation, unlike a mechanical system, the knocking at the door of future possibilities is already the passing through. It is well known that one cannot ask a question rightly without already possessing the greater part of the answer. So, too, one cannot knock at a particular technological door without already having entered into the possibilities on the other side.

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Owen Barfield's Contribution

However slight the changes of emphasis I am proposing, they arise from a point of view that is in some respects radically skewed relative to more conventional perspectives. This point of view has been greatly influenced by Owen Barfield. In the remainder of this paper I will summarize a few aspects of Barfield's work, particularly as they bear upon the issues discussed above.

Barfield has spent most of this century (he is now 98 years old) pursuing a semantic approach to history. He has not only, nor even primarily, been interested in the impact of idea upon idea. A history of consciousness (as opposed to a history of ideas) attempts "to penetrate into the very texture and activity of thought, rather than to collate conclusions. It is concerned, semantically, with the way in which words are used rather than with the product of discourse" (Saving, 90).

Attending in this way way to the qualities and movements of consciousness -- and particularly of western consciousness -- Barfield found that it has a coherent story to tell. It is a story about the broad, slow shift of the locus of meaning from "out there" in the world to "in here" in the human being. It is at the same time a story about a certain shift within meaning: "throughout the recorded history of language the movement of meaning has been from concrete to abstract" (Saving, 117). Not concrete in the modern sense of "material" (which turns out to be a highly abstract notion), but in the sense that every perceptible exterior possessed an interior -- was ensouled -- and every soul and spirit was embodied.

This concrete unity of body and soul progressively split apart, with the interior qualities of the world increasingly experienced as arising within the human being, and the now dis-ensouled objects of the world confronting this human being as wholly external realities. From a kind of mythic participation or dispersal in the world, man's interior -- it might be better to say "the world's interior" -- gradually withdrew "inside man's skin" until, in the time of the Stoics, his "I" or ego was first raised to philosophic consciousness. By the time of Descartes the separation of this ego from the world had become severe enough to pose the problem of re-connection. In our own time of sharp preoccupation with an "objective reality" purged of all inner qualities, the subject has departed so far as to become a vague ghost awaiting final exorcism. In our preoccupation with the object, we lose sight of the one who is preoccupied. We forget ourselves4.

Stated in this way, the entire perspective could easily be taken as a neat, abstract schema to be imposed upon history. What distinguishes Barfield from some others who have spoken of the transition from an early primitive or participatory consciousness to modern consciousness is precisely his resistance to such abstraction or "top-down" schematizing. This resistance is already implicit in his chosen method of historical semantics, which demands an exquisite sensitivity to the concrete play of meanings in highly particularized contexts. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows something about the requirements of this method. To impose universal dictionary meanings (which, as Barfield points out, are typically abstract meanings) upon a particular text is to lose almost everything distinctive that the text has to give. In attending to the word, one must hear both the given (lexical) meanings of the culture and the individual speaker's inner intent, of which the oral or written expression is the outer body.

But this mention of the individual only obscures the truth inasmuch as the slow emergence of the individual from the collective is not a given; it is achieved in the course of the evolution of consciousness. So long as the direction of meaning's flow is from the world into man -- so long as man does not know himself as the source of his own meanings -- we can hardly talk about the individual in anything like the modern sense. And if we want to find the historical moment in the western world when this direction of meaning's flow had clearly reversed itself, we could do no better than look at the transition from the medieval era to the Renaissance -- and more particularly at the development of linear perspective and the invention of the printing press. At that moment we were rapidly waking up to a world "out there" on the other side of the window, a world from which our last, dream-like entanglements were disappearing. Similarly, as word, thought, and thing became disentangled, we woke up to words as our own playthings, freely manipulable and interchangeable; the world no longer forced its meanings upon us.

Given such a historical understanding, one is no longer tempted to think that the printing press caused this waking up and this objectification of the world. These are coherent shifts in consciousness that tell their own story going as far back as recorded history carries us. They can only be explicated in their own terms. In a conversation of meanings, as I have been insistently pointing out, material cause and effect cannot figure directly. A piece of technology can enter this conversation only as a bearer of meanings. And in recent history these have become more and more our meanings rather than the world's meanings, more and more individual meanings rather than collective meanings, more and more conscious meanings rather than unconscious meanings. Or, at least, that is what is being asked of us by our own evolving capabilities.

One consequence of the emergence of the wide-awake individual is that the history of ideas and the history of consciousness become less and less distinct. As our individual awareness is brought to bear upon our own consciousness -- and upon such questions as how technology interacts with our habits of thought -- our ideas about things gain a quality of self-awareness that is at the same time a change in the underlying structure of our thinking. Where Gutenberg was largely unconscious of the dialog transpiring between himself and his press, so that he could not have reasoned accurately about the historical meanings of his technological involvements, Neil Postman is not unconscious; his awareness of his relation to the technology has changed even the way he watches television. The television has become a different tool for him than it is for most people, bearing different meanings, much as the stick of wood and graphite is a different tool when it ceases to be a hole- puncher and is used for the first time as a pencil.

With this growing freedom comes growing responsibility. Barfield emphasizes that we must now supply out of our own, spirit-connected depths the meaning that once was the world's gift. Failing this, we become puppets of unconscious meanings -- meanings that possess us instead of being possessed by us. If there was a time when meaning properly and necessarily flowed into man from the world, that time is no longer. As we wake up out of the world, we become the world's wakefulness.

The lesson of media ecology, I think, is that we encounter ourselves in the sphere of artifacts, and are becoming responsible for what we find there. Barfield provides a larger context within which we can place the passage, for example, from Gutenberg's unawareness to Postman's awareness, as well as a method for tracing the passage and understanding it "from within," the way one understands a conversation. This context and method encourage us to be ever alert to the new possibilities and responsibilities that continually arise within the evolving conversation of technology and culture.

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Bibliographic Note

Barfield's Saving the Appearances would have to be considered his fundamental work related to the topic of this paper. But that book is exceedingly dense and full of unfamiliar ideas. Much clearing of the ground was accomplished in his early (1928) work, Poetic Diction.

For a general introduction to Barfield's thought, the essays and lectures in the following works are useful: The Rediscovery of Meaning, and Other Essays (1977), Speaker's Meaning (1967), and History, Guilt, and Habit (1979).


1. 123-24. If "space now contains the objects by which formerly it was created," there is, I think, a parallel truth applying to the word: consciousness is coming to "contain" the words by which formerly it was uttered. As the physical objects of space could now be projected onto a two-dimensional canvas and manipulated there, the mind could also project the physical word onto the printed page and manipulate it there.

2. See the last section of this paper for a little more context. For Barfield's discussion of western man's experience of space, see "The Harp and the Camera" in Barfield, Speaker's, in addition to the works cited in the text above.

3. No material object, conceived in the manner of a reductionist science, can participate meaningfully in the development of consciousness. It can only disrupt consciousness, as when a needle is thrust through the brain. The material "because" is not the same as the rational "because" -- a fact that is lost sight of with more and more regularity today.

4. I have tried to describe the late stages of this process in the chapter, "Mona Lisa's Smile," in Talbott, 249-61.

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Agre, Philip. "Beyond the Mirror World: Computers, Privacy, and Representation." Draft chapter (1 June 1996) for Agre and Marc Rotenberg, eds., Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1996.

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Barfield, Owen. History in English Words. The edition I have used is undated (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, and Company). The book was originally published in 1926 and was reprinted by Lindisfarne Press in 1986.

Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973. Originally published in 1928.

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