July 20, 2011
Here’s one of the things Marshall McLuhan, writing in 1964, had to say about productivity in the modern age.
"The main 'work to be done' is actually the movement of information. The mere interrelating of people by selected information is now the principal source of wealth in the electric age."
A pretty prescient comment, right? This is in 1964, before a home PC was even seriously contemplated. (McLuhan’s use of the term “electric age” is charmingly quaint today). And this is way before other mechanisms of “interrelating people by… information” existed, such as, I don’t know, the Internet, and social networks.
And yet, I find reading this book (_Understanding Media) _sort of like reading a horoscope. I often don’t fully understand what it is saying, so I read some easy message into it so that it makes sense more easily. Occasionally that sort of easy message is a projection of the known present onto the vague predictions of the past. Am I doing that here? Maybe. Here’s what McLuhan says a few lines earlier.
"In any given structure, the rate of staff accumulation is not related to the work done but to the intercommunication among the staff, itself".
So, I originally interpreted the phrase “source of wealth” in the first statement as “source of productivity / societal wealth”. But interpreted in light of this statement, I think what McLuhan may actually be saying is that a lot of people are getting paid to write memos. A lot of _personal income _comes from the work of synthesizing and handing out information to various different parties. That’s prescient too, isn’t it? But then we come back to the technologies that will eventually spawn the Internet and social networking again:
"Especially with the computer, the work effort is applied at the 'programming' level, and such effort is one of information and knowledge."
I’m guessing that McLuhan sees programming as a similar type of work, actually. They all fall under the general rubric of “doing things that help disperse information better”. Interestingly, at the time there was tremendous overlap between secretaries and programmers - both career paths were seen as some of the few acceptable ones for women. (It wasn’t until the late 60s that men began to enter programming in large numbers, see here for more).
I guess where McLuhan doesn’t take the next step is explaining how the rise of the Internet or of social networking is wealth-generating for society. Here’s a clue, though, which predicts the synthesizer (and indeed the Kindle, blogging, email, digital cameras, etc.):
"...Speed-ups of information have ended the divisions of delegated authority in favor of the 'authority of knowledge'. It is as if a symphony composer, instead of sending his manuscript to the printer and thence to the conductor and to the individual members of the orchestra, were to compose directly on an electronic instrument that would render each note or theme as if on the appropriate instrument."