The Skin of Culture: A Review

(A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on July 8, 1995.)

The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality
Derrick de Kerckhove
Somerville House, 226 pages paperbound

In the no-man's-land between scientists, humanists, and the general public, a small band of prophets has been painting visions of the future of technology and culture. Their palettes include computers, networks, art, design, fashion, genetics, medicine, consciousness-altering devices and substances, and various flavours of postmodern aesthetic.

Although their communications with us span a considerable range, some common features emerge: a deliberately dizzying tour through the accelerated changes soon to come; a reassurance that we are regaining what we have lost, such as oral traditions and ritual; and often, a declaration that a new form of man is evolving.

About the time my eighth-grade teacher lent me her copy of Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media", Derrick de Kerckhove began working with McLuhan himself. Today, more than twenty years later, he is one of McLuhan's intellectual heirs, and director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. "The Skin of Culture" is his take on "the new electronic reality". For de Kerckhove, that primarily involves the ultra-high technology and mass culture of the First World.

It's written in a breezy, informal style, using contractions, personal anecdotes, lists, compare-and-contrast tables, and references to popular movies ("Total Recall", "Bladerunner", and even "Manhattan"). But this is no light summer read; it's a blizzard of ideas. Here's a sampling.

Ignorance will soon be valued as the only source of unbiased judgement and flexibility in learning. More women are smoking these days because "they are trying to reduce the volume of information their bodies give them." The hula hoop was a "cognitive response to the matricial embrace of television." The Greek alphabet was responsible for the invention of democracy and the chaotic course of European history, while ideograms brought millenia of stability to dynastic Egypt and China. Our response to TV is not cognitive -- there isn't time for that -- but sub-muscular.

de Kerckhove is especially taken by virtual reality (VR), which he sees as a multisensory electronic extension of self, and by neural networks, collections of self-adjusting elements that "learn" correct responses to inputs. He sees each of us playing roles analogous to those elements, as our interactions, facilitated by electronic networks, create a sort of "collective intelligence".

There is much to commend in his approach: it's interdisciplinary, it projects a positive attitude, and it attempts to generate discussion of new concepts instead of splitting hairs over old ones. But interdisciplinary should not mean undisciplined. Much of this fatiguing book reads as if it were written in chunks of a few hundred words, then quickly strung together. Tangents are followed which are neither pertinent nor elegant, such as the footnote which solemnly informs us that the speed of buildings is zero and that they shatter when hit by missiles, unless they are bunkers. Christopher Dewdney has a prominent front-cover credit as editor, but apart from a preface more hagiographic than biographic, his role is not much in evidence.

Like McLuhan, de Kerckhove is adept at spotting linkages between apparently unrelated things. But in his rush to link everyone and everything together, he misses countervailing trends. The Internet may serve the "global village", but it also houses an ever-multiplying number of pocket universes (newsgroups, bulletin boards, chat lines), in which small groups of people freed from geographical constraints can concentrate on their esoteric specializations. Some of these people, eschewing the literalism of high-tech VR and videoconferencing, interact by describing real or fictional actions in real time, using only text. These modes will persist the way books and magazines have persisted in the face of cinema and TV, because they allow individual control over shared space through acts of imagination.

He is wise enough to acknowledge cultural critics such as Neil Postman and Noam Chomsky, but his responses are curiously passive. Postman's fear of "information glut" is countered with the assertion that our brains will be capable of so much more processing once we abandon our alphabetic mindset. Chomsky's contention that consent is manufactured through narrowing the range of media debate is explained away by declaring TV an accurate reflection of the collective mind; the duration of a sound-bite, says de Kerckhove, corresponds precisely to the time people can afford to devote to issues. This is no less than a surrender to simultaneous technological and cultural determinism.

In the end, it's unclear whom this book will reach, other than fellow prophets and their acolytes. Scientists, even if they overlook the harsh criticisms of their role sprinkled through the book, will blanch at imprecisions such as "The HDTV image is a sort of electronic dendritic system composed of millions of parallel processors." Humanists will be disturbed by the equating of high and low culture (literally, Michelangelo and Madonna) and by the implied obsolescence of all non-electric media. And the general public will find nothing that empowers them so that technology and culture happen for them and not to them, so that their choices are not merely restricted to what bells and whistles they can add onto their toys.

Print might not be the medium de Kerckhove wants for his message: his preference might be to feed impulses directly into the base of your spine. Second best would be if you could take up your usual table at your favourite cafe, plug your multimedia laptop's modem into your digital cellular phone, and real-time videoconference with him while your untouched glass of Monbazillac grows warm.

Unfortunately for de Kerckhove (and perhaps for us), his book uses the obsolescent Roman alphabet, is printed on dead trees, and (as Socrates observed) when asked a question, it goes on saying the same thing to us, over and over.

Biographical Note

Prabhakar Ragde is a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo. He recently cancelled his cable service.

Nota Bene choices

The original commission from the paper called for a "Nota Bene" sidebar, containing either
  1. some intriguing or provocative facts from the book
  2. a telling anecdote, in my own words
  3. a pungent quotation from the book
with a preference for 1 and 2. I didn't quite trust the facts in this book, and I'm not sure what a telling anecdote is. I noticed that Kuerti in a recent review chose to make a criticism of the book in his NB, so I did that. On the other hand, I'm no Anton Kuerti, so I also included a prepresentative quotation. For space reasons, neither was used by the Globe and Mail.

Nota bene criticism

The chapter titled "Media and Gender", not even five pages long, concentrates on biological differences. We learn that women hear better than men but men see better, and that women live longer because they "distribute their life stress evenly between their minds and their bodies". What we fail to learn is why multisensory virtual reality, like most of the technofetishism in this book, is so much a male fantasy.

Nota bene quotation

Because we carry within ourselves the self-image inherited from the literate-based Renaissance, we fail to recognize that all electronic technologies, from the telephone to VR [virtual reality], extend our physical being well beyond the limits of our skin. The question of proprioception, our sense of our bodily outline, will soon emerge as the key psychological issue confronting the new generation of technologically aware people. Indeed, just as the rapid elaboration of the point-of-view became the condition for individual freedom in the neutral space of Renaissant perspectivism, a proprioceptive appreciation for one's point-of- being in networked data flow is among the conditions for retaining a measure of physiological and psychological control over one's whereabouts in electronic nomadism.