The unyielding cries pierced through my ears, pillaging my body down to the tips of my toes. I tried the usual tactics to mitigate the pain: fashioning the pillow like a hot dog bun around my head, burrowing myself into the couch cushions, rummaging through my bag for downers like an addict. Nothing worked.
We’d taken the younglings out earlier that day, hitting the local fair where kids could terrorize one another and create havoc for parents and supervisors. You’d think that after a fun-filled day of Lord of Flies re-enactments, the kids would be spent by the evening.
It didn’t help that I was nursing a hangover that could leave Keith Richards bed-ridden. A smörgåsbord rife with tequila shots, double ryes, patio beers, chronic, and any other quasi-legal substance was devoured daily for a period of a week. This tends to happen when you party with old friends who inhale savoury intoxicants at a rate that would shock even the most seasoned psychologists.
I thought I could organize my visit to Vancouver in such a way that my party week would be offset by a few days of R&R in Edmonton, a place known for beach days and calming ocean sounds. In reality, I wanted to see a friend in Edmonton who had graduated out of youthful shenanigans years ago. He started a family and settled down, showing more responsibility in one day than I had shown in my entire life.
Alas, the plan was doomed at its inception. I was fond of spending time with children for several hours, since I could hand them off to their parents when I was either tired, bored, longing for love and intoxicants, or just plain sick of the brats. It quickly dawned on me that my stay in Edmonton would be spent in constant contact with these youngins, leaving me no respite outside of the meagre hours of sleep I would get.
Entrenched in the confines of Edmonton, sleep would not be an option on that final night. I watched as the clock hit 2am, the floodgate of tears broken wide open like Gretzky’s Oilers had just hit the 5-goal mark in the 2nd period. I contemplated jumping out of the adjacent window.
This is what happens when you take an iPad away from a 3-year-old child.
“The hidden aspects of the media are the things that should be taught, because they have an irresistible force when invisible. When these factors remain ignored and invisible, they have an absolute power over the user. So, yes, the sooner that the population or the young world can be taught the effects of these forms, the sooner we can have some sort of reasonable ecology among the media themselves.”
Marshall McLuhan said these words in a lecture recorded by ABC Radio National Network in 1979. McLuhan, a professor of English Literature, had a proclivity for prescient statements, understanding how innovations in technology could radically alter how we perceive the world.
I don’t believe in prophecy, nor do I think Nostradamus was some sort of sage of the ages. With time, McLuhan’s statements have come to fruition, forcing many — including myself— to question whether the man’s brilliance broached into the supernatural.
He spoke in paradoxes, using creative phrasing that sometimes confused listeners and readers. “The medium is the message” and the “global village” are probably his two most quoted ideas. The first, while sounding simple enough, is a metaphor so intrinsic that it speaks to how different periods of human history conceptualize and (mis)understand the world during their time. The idea comes down to this: a particular medium of communication works us over, much like a massage, and as our senses reach out and respond to this medium, the medium reaches out to us, implanting its conventions on our mind and body.
In human history, different periods were exposed to various media. Each medium operates based on its own conventions, and each one has an impact on specific senses. The written word, for example, which dominated since the advent of the printing press, had a profound impact on how society structured itself. Its effects, including how primarily literate people form thoughts in bits and pieces — a sort of fragmentation in understanding — created lineal thinking and specialization.
The onset of television marked a profound shift, and McLuhan knew it. Despite its reputation of being predominantly visual, television was one of the first media to appeal to multiple senses, leading to a constantly fluctuating sense ratio. He viewed television as the first in a longline of digital media that would expose us to an entirely new form of understanding. The effects would not necessarily be positive.
“We have confused reason with literacy, and rationalism with a single technology. Thus in the electric age man seems to the conventional West to become irrational,” noted McLuhan in his book Understanding Media. The tools of yesterday have left us unequipped to deal with this new environment. Our tendency to look to the recent past in an attempt to find answers — a rear-view mirror approach — is utterly useless with digital technology.
This digital landscape demands participation. We are inextricably involved in everyone else’s lives. Take a gander at how we choreograph social media posts and are updated with shots of every meal and trivial interaction. We have taken the world in all its vastness and complexity, and contracted it into a “global village”.
Cord cutting is popular these days. In the case of children, their umbilical cords are indeed cut, but they are replaced with a power cord, leaving them constantly connected to the digital world. They feed off of it, rely on it, grow desensitized and feel pain from it. But remove that power cord, and you’ll face an unconscionable wrath.
The prevalence of attention disorders is no mere coincidence. While pharmaceutical companies have an incentive to broaden the definition of disorders, making people think they have an ailment when no ailment exists, there is something to be said about how the conventions of digital technology—smartphones, computers, tablets—alter our minds and bodies.
Inundated with information, we seek instant gratification on a moment-to-moment basis. Easily digestible content satiates our senses, but we are left wanting more. Our attention spans are decreasing, not because we are trying to be rude or ignorant, but because we are fixated on our devices and what we think they provide.
It is not uncommon to be on multiple devices simultaneously. The basketball game is on, the phone is buzzing, the laptop is spitting out information, the newest digital magazine is open on our tablet. It’s become second nature, and we’ve grown oblivious to it.
Gone are the times when your primary responsibility after finishing school that day was to drop your bag and head back outside, meeting up with local hooligans for some wholesome “nicky nicky nine doors”. Video games, social media, and on-demand programming are now at the disposal. Once VR hits the mainstream, it’ll be total involvement. Forget using your imagination. You can be Batman.
I lost hope at the hour and a half point. When one would tire, the other would tag-in, like they were fucking Edge and Christian. After nine minutes of silence, my buddy came out of the bedroom exhausted from the marathon session.
We chain-smoked like the world was ending. Surely, these brief moments of calm were more valuable to him than to me. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something profound was happening in the mind of that kid.
I remembered how he’d peruse the IPad, finding the latest videos on Youtube and manipulating the tablet with an ease that I envied. It’s almost as though the device itself was specifically created for him.
Tomorrow would be another battle, and the challenge would be different. There was no sense in looking at today, searching for the answers that would help tomorrow. Like McLuhan said:
“What is desperately needed is a kind of understanding of the media which permit us to program the whole environment, so that say literate values would not be wiped out by new media. If you understand the nature of these forms, you can neutralize some of their adverse effects, and foster some of their beneficent effects.”