Derrick de Kerckhove, professor in the Department of French and director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, worked closely with Marshall McLuhan throughout the seventies, and is often considered as one of McLuhan's most acute interpreters and successors. His previous book, The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality, edited by Christopher Dewdney, poet and philosopher of science, was well received. Connected Intelligence can be seen as a sequel and extension to the former work.
The basic message of Connected Intelligence is similar to that of many technophile books about the Internet: that this new medium presages a revolution in human affairs, the sense of an encroaching "global mind" that amounts to the next stage in humankind's evolution. The Internet is interpreted by de Kerckhove in the matrix of McLuhan's media theory as a state of being where humans increasingly extend themselves across the world, while at the same time the world increasingly floods into them. The result is a new state of consciousness, expressed in "connected intelligence".
In his enthusiasm for the Net, de Kerckhove vastly overplays the possibilities of technology, suggesting, for example, that since some computers can react to the body's movements and physiological data, it is only a matter of time before computers can read our minds. And Artificial Intelligence, as far as he is concerned, is practically already here.
He looks at the world in terms of theories of media, which leads him to some rather unusual conclusions-for example, the celebration of video games as a vehicle leading towards empowerment. His central assertion, that the interactivity of the human being with technological media spells the end of mass culture, is highly questionable. Others think that this "interactivity" is merely a deeper and deeper immersion into the electronic media field. But de Kerckhove appears to rarely miss an opportunity to slam literacy as something implicitly abnormal and peculiar to the West.
When de Kerckhove discusses art, particularly as a vehicle for resolving world-historical issues, it does not seem that any of the art he thinks is cutting-edge is anything more than a vehicle for technological tricksterism. The problem of what kind of authentic art-as opposed to mannerism, kitsch, commodity, propaganda, or genre-piece-is even possible in late modernity, is far more profound than de Kerckhove thinks. Perhaps so many parts of authentic human meaning and existence have atrophied and become attenuated today, that "art", as it was understood by almost every generation before the 1960s, is simply impossible.
The strongest sections of the work, in my opinion, are "The Future of News", and "The Future of the Book". De Kerckhove acknowledges that print newspapers will endure for the sake of maintaining some sense of public debate, whereas books will be increasingly cherished as "decelerators of information (and subsequently accelerators of thought)", and for upholding "public domain in the sense of the res publica of the Romans" in an ever more accelerated world. De Kerckhove's highly intelligent defence of the printed newspaper and book comes close to subverting much of his larger thesis.
Kerckhove is also highly insightful when writing about the "feelings economy"; he does not seem to see, however, that this electronic-money world of speculative highs and panic terrors, where billions of dollars can be made or lost in seconds, makes capitalism's claim as a system for the rational allocation of resources very doubtful. As the Oxford professor John Gray suggests, the most serious response to this hypermodern acceleration would be a convergence of genuinely traditionalist, ecological, and socialist thought, in hope of a steady-state society and economy.
An effective argument against de Kerckhove is a variation on the old computer cliché, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). In so far as computer users are indeed typical, unthoughtful, flat-souled products of the current-day North American consumption culture and education system, there is no amount of neat software and "information"-or, for that matter, of participation in an electronic synergy of similar non-entities-that is going to improve them. Not the late modern "vidiots" (to use Jerzy Kosinki's term), but those persons among whom some sense of history and the truly spiritual have endured have the most meaningful things to say. So, ironically, any real meaning to be derived from the Internet will be based on the input of belief residues and conceptual paradigms from before the current age of hypertechnology.
The invocation of ecology in "Planetization" (Chapter 11) and "Thinking the Earth" (Chapter 12) seems especially limp. De Kerckhove has missed a central physical point about reality-that every person on Earth must breathe relatively clean air, drink relatively clean water, and eat physical food to remain alive; that they must have some physical clothing and shelter; and that they all produce physical waste. De Kerckhove is so remote from direct physical concerns that he calls an economy of ever-increasing bandwidth as one of "plenty". Some would define economic "plenty" as the ability to have a diet that allows one to physically flourish, to be properly shielded from the extremes of weather, to receive necessary medical care-and not drown in waste and pollution (and exterminate nearly all other species) as a result. The tragedy of the planet appears to be that about twenty percent of the population is wallowing in a mostly meaningless luxury of hypermodern polymorphous perversity and hypertrophic consumerism, while the other eighty percent is more culturally authentic, but buffeted by ever more abject poverty in the midst of a demographic explosion.
The electronic media field, while arising out of the West, is in the process of annihilating any meaningful, rooted cultures in Europe and North America. The cultures of aboriginal peoples and other designated minorities, held up today as the only proper foci of moral, social, and cultural concern, are not only the ones on the verge of extinction.
De Kerckhove's technophile obsession allows him to ignore the physical. The pampered, transnational, ultra-technological world he flits about in is accessible today to only a comparative handful of individuals on the planet. He is emphatically part of what the social critic Christopher Lasch described as the New Class, or (following Robert Reich's terminology) the symbolic analysts, or the knowledge elite: a very thin and highly privileged slice of the global population. De Kerckhove has ascended to such a position not only as a result of his obvious intellectual acuity, but also because of a major convergence between his intellectual, and New Class managerial-therapeutic, projects.
While remaining mostly oblivious to physical realities and resistances, he and others (like Douglas Rushkoff) at the same time attempt to imbue "cyberspace" with genuinely spiritual aspects, often presenting it as the equivalent of the realm of God sought for in many mystical traditions. But these traditions generally warn against such an ascent through artificial or ersatz means. It is no surprise that the LSD prophet Timothy Leary, in his later years, latched onto Virtual Reality as the best new high, and the key to transforming consciousness. But is the result true insight, or a hallucinatory daydream-nightmare?
For de Kerckhove, as for many of the hypermoderns, notions of "natural" and "artificial", and of "reality" and "simulacrum", have lost all meaning. Indeed, he seems to desire, through technology, to further obliterate these distinctions, to a frighteningly thoroughgoing extent not yet possible.
The Internet may well be taking us into a brave new world. But Kerckhove need only have a passing acquaintance with the writings of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Aldous Huxley, Jacques Ellul, or George Grant to know the major lineaments of the critique of technological dystopia, of the impending "air-conditioned nightmare", of the encroaching "universal, homogeneous world-state". Humanity is most fundamentally menaced by the total loss of rootedness, and of reduction to the homuncular existence of "the Last Man". Maybe de Kerckhove interprets dystopia as utopia. Some commentators (like Philip Marchand) have pointed to a crypto-traditionalist aspect in McLuhan's own thought, which de Kerckhove seems to have laboured to expunge. The embrace of "technomania" and "Netmania", without consideration of ends, by those who, although they often appear to be serious, reflective, and decent persons, may amount to another "treason of the thinkers", in a century full of various such betrayals.
Mark Wegierski is a freelance writer, most recently published in Telos.