What McLuhan would have laughed about - Understanding Media, CERN and the Jasmin Revolution, an interview with Derrick de Kerckhove


What would Marshall McLuhan think about the way the internet has evolved during the last decades? This interview followed days of presentation and discussion at the Ars Electronica symposium on the topic of Origins in 2011, the year of Marshall McLuhan’s 100th anniversary. There, lead scientists of the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN, Geneva, explained their technical set-up, their middle- and long-term research goals and discussed their possible significance with other scientists and philosophers. Derrick de Kerckhove sits down with Leo Findeisen to discuss how Marshall McLuhan might have reacted to the state of the art in experimental physics. McLuhan has been one the founders of Media Theory as we know and de Kerckhove has been his long-time assistant back in the days.

Topics discussed:

* How would you explain the relevance of McLuhan´s work to a fourteen-year-old, a member of the Always-On generation that lives a digital life at the current stage of the information revolution?

* Would McLuhan have laughed about the fact that the World Wide Web was a technical spin-off from physicists at CERN, yet has lead up to developments like WikiLeaks and the current Jasmin-Revolution in Tunisia?

* And, if in CERN, McLuhans prediction of 1962 that the next medium will make ‘humans hold all times in our hand’, is validated, what are possible implications to our own cognitive and actual self-navigation at the current state of Quantum Logics?

* What are the implications of McLuhans statement that. ultimately, ‘one has to be a mystic to understand the world’ ? And what is his connection to the Hegelian tradition in philosophy? Why is spirituality nowadays ‘merely a technical problem’?

  • Date of recording: Fri, 2011-02-04
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Transforming Freedom in an interview with Derrick de Kerckhove, Ars Electronica 2011

00:12 Introduction

Leo Findeisen: This is Leo Findeisen for Transforming Freedom .org/.com. We are here at the Ars Electronica 2011 and next to us is sitting Derrick de Kerckhove, a long-time assistant to Marshall McLuhan. Together we want to delve a bit into the theme of this year, Origins, from the perspective of Marshall McLuhan. This year, we also celebrate the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan and our team in Vienna has collaborated a little and tried to help to bring back…

Derrick de Kerckhove: Thank you!

LF: …some theory, media theory, back into the game. Marshall McLuhan can be more or less credited with compiling important Canadian predecessors of media theory and for founding the whole discipline. Could you please start by imagining a fourteen-year-old person listening to our interview online: what has been the difference that Marshall McLuhan was contributing to the whole way we conceptualize how media changes our lives? How would you try to invite him or her to start with a deeper reception?

01:28 How to explain McLuhan’s contribution to our idea of media to a fourteen-year-old

DdK: That is a very good question. I mean, it is the same question I have been asked many times, but it is the first time I have been asked to then talk to a fourteen-year-old, and in the city where Ars Electronica was founded exactly for a fourteen-year-old.
In fact, fourteen-year-old, I am going to tell you this: this place here, where I am, Ars Electronica, was created precisely for you and if you have not done it yet - if you are in the area - go to the Ars Electronica Museum which is a place which will tell you exactly why Linz has moved from an industrial city, which it still is, to one where your future will have to do with things in digital culture, with electricity, with your bloody Facebook, with all the stuff which you are using already with your cellphones.

For a fourteen-year-old, what Marshall McLuhan would say is that we are moving from a culture where none of that was available and where kids were doing what they were told to do, where they were trained in certain ways and where they were bored in their schools as they have always been, to a point where now, they have freedom from that to a certain extent, although within limits.

McLuhan´s prediction of the ‘Next Medium’ in 1961: From building an identity to building a profile

(…) Hey, fourteen-year-old, there is another thing which I can tell you here that I, when I was fourteen, I was building my identity, not my profile, I was not writing on Facebook, I did not have any blogs, I did not do any of these things. For me, my real life was reading books and writing and doing these sort of things – I never thought that I could make myself public the way you are able to. That is a very big difference that McLuhan predicted.

The ‘Next Medium’: Making Television an art form everybody can participate in

The next medium, said McLuhan - whatever it is, it could be the extension of consciousness - will not be contained by Television, but will contain Television in itself. Do you get that? Today on the internet, you can watch your Television. Not only that, it will transform Television into an art form.

So, fourteen-year-old, there you are, you have got in your hands the possibility of Television, the most expensive medium of them all, you can actually go and film anything and put it on YouTube, that is the art form. That is: you in possession of means of production of the most expensive means of communication ever invented by humans! And that is available for you, practically for free. That was a prediction by McLuhan.

The ‘Next Medium’ will enable world-wide communication and research

He also said, that the next medium will become a medium of communication and research. Well, you might not be doing a lot of research on it, but you must be going on Google some time and this is the way you communicate, right? This whole thing that you are going through. 

He said that the next medium will make retrieval very easy, and when you want to know anything, where do you go? Google, Wikipedia, whatever. So, that is retrieval.

The ‘Next Medium’ will make organisation of information unnecessary and retrieve our encyclopedic potential

And he also said, the next medium will make the organization of information unnecessary. Why? Because by now, everything is tagged, you just put a keyword there and then you got it. So, whatever he said, he said that in the year 1962 so we are talking almost 50 years ago. What a prediction!

And what he also said is that this `next medium´ will retrieve our encyclopedic potential. Now, that is a little bit more complicated, but it has got a name: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is, for you, the possibility of writing a correction to something that has been said before or introducing a new item that you find very important. You will not be interested to do this when you are fourteen, but believe me, by the time you will be 20 years old, you will be thinking about it. And then, Marshall McLuhan said that it is going to become an economy, and this is obvious, because by now, 10 % of the economy, especially in an industrial town like Linz, 10 % or more of the economy is linked to the internet or the web.

That is what McLuhan had to say to a fourteen-year-old.

05:21 The Large Hadron Collider as a window into the origins of consciousness and evolution

LF: Now it is interesting that we do not only have the anniversary of McLuhan himself and in next year, the jubilee of The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), one of his greatest works, but also that now, in the year 2011, we celebrate 20 years of the internet - its concept was proposed a little earlier, but in 1991, it was made public. Yesterday, we listened to Rolf Heuer from CERN and explained to us (…) how these many thousands of physicists in Geneva work, many of them working 100 meters underground in a circular tunnel of 27 kilometers in length, on the biggest machine ever build in the process of civilization…

DdK: Bigger then the Egyptians! It is in time, the Egyptions build it in time, in Geneva they build it in space…

We have to understand that the Large Hadrion Collider is an absolute miracle of humanity that is ‘thinking large’! It is not just the size of the thing itself, it is what it is doing and what it is trying to do.

McLuhan would be very interested in this, because it is a fundamental questions that is being asked that concerns every single moment of us, let alone each one of us and every single life has that fundamental question…

LF: The question being?

DkD: The question being: Where do we come from? How do we come from? I mean …, I tend to be more enthusiastic than McLuhan when it comes to technology, but the fact remains that this first image of the fossil radiation, 380.000 years after the Big Bang, the evidence that there was a Big Bang, the succession of levels that the Hadron Collider and other centers of astronomy and various kind of research that are actually connected to what is going on at the Hadron Collider. Putting all these pieces together, we hold all time.

McLuhan said: All times are now. And that is what the Large Hadron Collider is actually saying. He would have said: yes, here is an example of what I mean by saying: All times are now, because the succession of growth of elements, of galaxies.

Yes, that was the aim of my talk, by the way, I was fascinated by this idea of consciousness being evolution turning back on itself. That is was it is, this is what the Large Hadron Collider is. It is consciousness, it is evolution, it is development, its consciousness´s own evolution that turns back on itself since the Big Bang. When we talk about the expansion of the Universe, looking back, looking back to that extraordinary image, the fact that it is even oriented is amazing, the fact that there is an orientation in the direction of the gaze of these huge instruments and that in the intermediate stages of time, 20.5 billion years ago,- and what not -, to my life, to this moment that we are sharing on this screen. All these stages are there. That is the absolute form of holding time together, except the bit that happened before the Big Bang. Or, in fact, a billionth of second before the Big Bang…

LF: Some years ago, and, happily so, also at Ars Electronica, you were giving a lecture of two hours

DdK: Did I speak too long? (laughs) …

09:32 The Expansion of Social life: what does the metaphor of a ‘Quantum ageimply?

LF: No, (…) it was scheduled like this. I am interested in the fact that you ended with a scheme of three stages that some people might find to be too simplistic, but that is, at the same time, very inspiring. These stages, or `ages´, were described by you as, first, the Gutenberg Galaxy. For our fourteen-year-old, this stage implies that people are able to read and write, to print and copy, yet all this takes place in analogue and material letters, one has to carry lots of kilograms of information around.

DdK: Indeed.

LF: The second stage was the Electronic age, (…) which we are living in, or in its latter parts of.
But then you said - and I remember thinking to myself: come on, Marshall, come on, Derrick… - when will this ever enter our life in an interesting way -, that the future is Quantum. And now, some years later, we are sitting here…

DdK: …and have Anton Zeilinger who tells us that stuff is happening. I cannot believe myself that I have this validation from a really good scientist, and one of the most important Austrian and European Scientists.

LF: But now let us try to image speaking to a twenty-four year-old in order to…

DdK: …hmm, yes, but even a fourteen-year-old would understand what sort of difference that would make, it is huge.

LF: But how would you conceive of the difference it makes for our social life, for our ways of cognition?

DdK: Our social life is much expanded, I would be skeptical to say it is much improved, but much expanded, I had never thought that I have two thousand friends before, now I get a fair bit of mail from people who are pissed off and angry at me because Facebook tells them that I have too many friends. And Facebook sets a limit to, I don´t know exactly, five thousand friends or so.

Now, the point is, I just don´t check Facebook enough and I get a lot of requests and I don´t go back to see them and then, now and again, I have a Facebook rush and can, (…) again, leave it alone for a while. But is signifies a huge expansion f our relationships.

LF:  But is there a possible relation (…) one can draw, to, let´s say, thinking in logical paradoxes and unpredictability of the `Quantum logic´?

DdK: Oh, the ‘Quantum Thing’ is much bigger than in terms of a social dimension. The ‘Quantum’ metaphor is largely a digital metaphor, but at several levels higher than the digital metaphor. Cutting   things into bits a pieces, even if it is zeros and ones, and they all look like you have a smooth continuity, is one thing. Putting them all together and letting them equilibrate amoung themselves and their own weight and their own agendas and their own substance, that is comprehension, that is what our brain does, really does.

When we talk about intelligence, we can say: yes, there is a lot of intelligence on the web,- and there is, huge software and fabulous stuff that is going on -, but, comprehending, understanding, that is the `Quantum Thing´. Just imagine a machine that, just like we now have our memory and our understanding expanded by the internet and digital culture, we are reaching spiritual levels, We have to be Mystic to continue to understand and manage the world, because that speed of integration and that comprehensiveness of all the possible data that come into the proposition of whatever questions, whatever conflict, whatever research, whatever association, whatever it is that `has to bring things together´, suddenly we have something that starts to bring things together understandingly, as opposed to `just simply doing it´.

13:18 ‘Spirituality is not religious’- Hegelianism and spirituality in relation to technology

LF: In terms of the history of ideas, we know that in the year 1806, Mr. Hegel, a German philosopher, had already been stating: We are in the eternal Now, in a very specific sense. Because he conceived of notions of the eternal spirit, of the eternal consciousness, that is becoming matter and then is going through having different, let´s say, synergies or `syntheses´, as he called it, and that there would be a logic of progress in function until the absolute spirit knows what it is doing.
And in order to try to relate it to the Large Hadron Collider now, whenever it will happen,- in 2011 or 2012 -, whenever the first real results will come out, it is a little different. You have been talking about the `Real Now´, the `Now of Time´, but is it, for me, hard to say why somebody could derive spiritual lessons for our globalized world. For you, it is less problematic?

DdK: Not a bit problematic. I mean, it does sound Hegelian and I have been accused of excessive Hegelianism at times, but I don´t see it as a problematic thing. I mean, spirituality is not religious. It is an experience of intelligence that is much faster and much higher than being simply sympathetic. And it is emotional as well, and it is very complete. Spirituality is something necessary, we are all spiritual beings, but we don´t realize it, we don´t cultivate it, but there is no reason not to. It is not a religious thing at all. I mean, it is a technical problem, spirituality is really a technical problem.

LF: So you would even say that they are something like ‘cognitively praying’ at CERN?

DdK: Hmm, yeah, yes, ok, `prayer´ is one of the expressions and I have nothing against others…

LF: … ‘telepathy’, ‘foresight’, ‘oneness’ …

DdK: Hmm, yes. But I don´t want to secularize what I am talking about any more than I want to religify it. I want to say it just like that: it is a technology of being, and being is really very nice so we like to keep it going and doing it well. (laughs) Yes, you know?

LF: That is nicely put.

15:30 Why did the World Wide Web come from physicists? The cultural and political impact of physics

LF: Yes, I think we are dealing with much more than your supposed Hegelianism. Let us only remember how our colleague Friedrich Kittler has been very much starting with McLuhan and his hardcore analysis of the `material base´ in his research of the material dispositives of new technology. And then, looking at the remediation of these technical dispositives, it is really interesting that these new technologies, like the HTML-language, the HTTP-protocol and the IP numbers, all these things are now revolutionizing (…) lives up until the Jasmin revolution and, plus or minus, WikiLeaks, have, originally, been developed by physicists to better communicate. Would a Marshall McLuhan of today find that to be a big irony or would he have seen some inner consequence that it happened that way?

DdK: I think that he probably finds it natural. If I am not mistaken, one of the things that he thought he wanted to be before he decided to for communication and literature - in fact, for literature, really -, was to be a physicist. McLuhan was always interested in the ground, and physics is the ground, the major ground. Of course, the ground of physics itself changes and today we are looking at a new change game, we are not sure how it will evolve.

Marshall never stopped talking about Werner Heisenberg, or Linus Pauling, he was interested in the chemical bond, which is a physics issue, he was interested in the principle of indeterminacy and incertitude,- he thought that it is a very key thing that keep thought, that we should always have this `flexibility between the axle and the wheel´, as he said. - so, no, he would not find an irony there. But I cannot really pretend to be McLuhan and could know what he would say.

LF: What, then, would be de Kerckhove´s assessment of why the World Wide Web came from physicists?

DdK: Why the World Wide Web came from physicists comes from the fact that this particular experiment, this particular operation of the Large Hadron Collider was so dependent on large computation, regrouping of many different expertise, urgent for those who were involved with it. Urgent, because in fact, a lot of it has been done not for funding, but by the love of it, somehow, many engineers  have contributed first and then, eventually, got to be known, and so on, but, basically, were in it because they love the whole question. I would say that trying to improve the speed of communication between so many people over things that are very complicated, in fact, the stuff that it is actually studying is infinitely more complicated than the machine, so everyone´s expertise on this or that particular zone or area to be made known, it would make perfect sense.

18:43 The Internet as ‘Art on the Net’ - An inadvertent revolution

Also that Tim Berners-Lee probably never had an idea about the significance, nor did the director of his operations at the time who commenting on his proposal for the WWW: `vague, but interesting´ (corr.: ‘vague, but exciting’-> original proposal for CERN, the ed.)- he probably never had a clue that he was doing anything for anybody else than for his own environment. That would make McLuhan laugh, that is was a completely specialist view and the inventor himself had no idea, only later, eventually, he got the idea.

He got a price here in Linz, you know, he stepped on the stage of Ars Electronica or of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) at the time, and said: `Well, I am very happy to be given the price, the Golden Nika, for `Art on the Net´ - I think that was the category at the time - `but I am not an artist, I have never thought of myself as an artist.´ So, I think, he realized what he had done over time, that was the irony of it, that there was not a big plan to change the world or something. Only now, yes, he wants to change the world, but not at the time.

This relates to what I liked about what was said by Rolf Heuer who is the General Director of CERN at the Ars Electronica symposium these days about the spin-offs, and what a spin-off that was from that particular condition, that particular situation that was called “CERN”.

Of course, we also think about Yahoo, and…

LF: …Napster, and…

DdK: … and YouTube, these kids who invented these platforms. Yet these guys in CERN had the tools to invent something that is more understood, more deliberate.

LF: And if we, again, address our ideal fourteen-year-old, we could say: you are sitting in front of a of a sort of Ferrari of complexity of communication and reordering that has been invented by high energy physicists and mathematicians and computer scientists just if you write an email.

DdK: Yes, and when you think of how many times your bloody computer falls apart under your nose when you just finished writing something which you thought was brilliant, the fact that this thing has so many parts, billions of parts, that it actually works almost without a glitch, that in itself to it.

(End of Part I, produced on September 4th, 2011)



De Kerckhove received his Ph.D. in French Language and Literature from the University of Toronto in 1975 and a Doctorate du 3e cycle in Sociology of Art of Tours (France) in 1979. He was an associate of the Centre for Culture and Technology from 1972 to 1980, and worked with Marshall McLuhan for over ten years as translator, assistant and co-author.

As a single author, he has written Brainframes: Technology, Mind and Business, The Skin of Culture, Connected Intelligence and The Architecture of Intelligence. He edited or co-edited numerous papers, essays and collections including McLuhan for Managers and The Alphabet and the Brain, The Augmented Mind, an eBook offered by 40k Books.

Coming in around 7500 words, The Augmented Mind, looks at the three eras of language (carried by the human body, then by literacy and now by electricity) and how the globalization and interconnectivity of today’s world has impacted our development and growth.

Many thanks to our colleague Giorgio Cipoletta from Italy for providing the video recording.

Additional Sources:


A recent essay of Derrick de Kerckhove on the Augmented Mind: http://www.40kbooks.com/?p=3811

Symposium Origins, Video documentation:


Creative Commons 3.0 Austria http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/at/