Marshall McLuhan on the return to “acoustic space,” writing, civilization and “our electrically-configured world”

“Until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror. Speech is a social chart of this bog.

The goose quill put an end to talk. It abolished mystery; it gave architecture and towns; it brought roads and armies, bureaucracy. It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of civilization began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind. The hand that filled the parchment page built a city.”

“Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village . . . a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.

Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience coexist in a state of active interplay.”

This is one of Marshall McLuhan’s famous claims about media and social change. Electric technology has created a “global village” defined by “acoustic space.” Writing—a visual medium—supplanted the “primordial” acoustic world and was subsequently dispatched by electricity, a return to the ear.

McLuhan’s claim rings true in the context of podcasts, audio books, voice ordering/assistants, voice/text services, ASMR and all the other superficially visual media experiences like video calling, streaming, TikTok etc. that are ultimately more defined by audio. All the above consumed on smartphones in every manner of intimate environment, ensuring maximum “involvement.”

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