The Skin of Culture:
Essays on Media & Technology from the Word of Derrick de Kerchkhove

by Derrick DeKerckhove, Christopher Dewdney,
246 pages,
ISBN: 1895897459

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Wired In
by Ted Whittaker

I'D DEARLY LOVE TO KNOW how they put this book together: the author, the putative editor/writer of the introduction (the poet Christopher Dewdney), perhaps the publisher's purchasing or co-ordinating editor (the title page calls The Skin of Culture, a bit grandly, "A Patrick Crean Book"), the copy editor, the proofreader.

Derrick de Kerckhove's text does have its little flaws. At his best, de Kerckhove writes informally, as if he were speaking. But because his subjects are often esoteric -- most usually the effects of computers and allied machinery on our minds and bodies -- his prose gets tangled in thickets of jargon and is burred with small, annoying grammatical errors that his editors should have caught.

De Kerckhove believes that the progress of the current electronic revolution is inevitable, will be universal, and can be mostly worthwhile. We're told that the alphabet has been the greatest influence on humanity "until the discovery of electricity." Now that the latter has been harnessed to run computers and computers trained to do so many chores, we're about to evert -- as a race, de Kerckhove claims -- our nervous systems and become what we behold: our beloved technics. "We are being sucked into a richly textured electronic vortex," he writes. And "... 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." These, and a number of other of de Kerckhove's similarly breathy statements, at least toy with recognizable brands of insanity that stem from not yet outworn Faustian impulses.

De Kerckhove doesn't contradict himself, but he does repeat and repeat in our ears his few big notions: that the speed and diversity of technological change are not fearsome but welcome, that we shall be able to gain therefrom the opportunity to be as gods. His generalized hubris aside, what de Kerckhove almost entirely lacks is even the most rudimentary class analysis. Why should anyone believe that poverty will disappear as the haves get more and more cosily on-line with each other, continuing to comer the planet's dwindling resources? (Our author does alight delicately on the side of the angels with the briefly expressed opinion that political correctness may be a healthy reaction to the intrusions of genetic engineering.) Again, de Kerckhove on electronic money transfers is both instructive and infuriating. Money is indeed becoming so light it's turning into pure energy, as he says; but that's only true for big money. Those who are fascinated by this metamorphosis sit on enough of it not to care how real and weighty it can be to those oppressed by its lack.

De Kerckhove grabs insights from media magi with biases and obsessions about the wired present and future that complement his. The book's end notes are a useful set of references to these people's published work (nothing earlier than the major texts of Harold Innis is mentioned there). In the text, references are made to many heterogeneous disciplines: the history and theory of literacy; the most upto-date psychological journalism concerning the disquieting impact on humans of various electronic communications media.

De Kerckhove (the intellectual heir to Marshall McLuhan and current director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto) is strongest -- least gee-whizzish -- when ruminating about our species' alteration by or adaptation to written language. He (and perhaps everyone else he admires and cites as if they were his neighbours) is on shakier ground when he insists on soldering unproven values onto his predictions. His clumsy prose then makes obvious the difficulties of grappling with inadequately understood applied science. He uses noisome coinages -- "telecracy, cyberculture, on-line self, cyborg ecologies" -- and pops out outrageously solipsistic observations concerning the options for vice or virtue the new media present. (Surprise. They're not qualitatively different from those generated by the invention of the printing press or the steam engine.)

Here are a few examples of de Kerckhove's unfinished thought, which can have all the earnest liberal goopiness of a Royal Bank newsletter: "Today we can do anything we want, so we first need to know what we want."; "Whatever we can do now to prevent global seizure [of the Internet] must be considered"; "The violence of the few is the result of the insensitivity of the many." That last one is just great. De Kerckhove adduces no evidence about other primates to temper his faith in "the endless [sic] depth of human creativity in science, art and technology." Sure, we all wear the skin of culture (de Kerckhove's clever metaphor for design), but our new machines do not entirely grow that, not yet. Cyberculture remains an oxymoron. De Kerckhove considers that, in the near future, ignorance may even be more useful than knowledge, since "With real expert systems, improved by sophisticated neural networks with rapid learning curves, you don't need to be an expert in anything." Whatever happened to knowledge, or even the getting of wisdom -- the ability to judge knowledge -- as an end in itself'? It is not difficult to find current complaints about the low level of conversation on the Internet or about the silliness of video games. Because we can talk to each other, even face to electronic face, around the world does not mean the level of intelligence present will automatically rise. Most smart people simply will not habitually talk to or in other ways deal with stupid people, unless someone pays them to; the hierarchies will remain.

We are for the most part mischievous, vengeful, truculent monkeys, collectively good at inventing tools; but we are screwed right through our nasty, brutish, and short historic consciousness by a decidedly modest ability to see the big moral picture, to make global connections (and, too often, even personal ones) between cause and effect. It won't do to assume, as de Kerckhove does, sloping around purblind in his millenarian virtual reality, that just because we must, we will make the proper decisions for ourselves or for others, even if our computers, our neural networks, our Datagloves show us ever so elegantly how the numbers add up. Nothing will seduce us to change. Demographic projections should be meditated upon coincidentally with accounts of the behaviour of overcrowded rats. We haven't shaped up very well so far, even in enlightened self-interest. Why would we do so now, or even tomorrow?


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