By S Parvez Manzoor
One of the most startling insights of our times is that communication is environment and that cultural change closely follows the march of information technology. Parvez Manzoor examines recent socio-philosophic thought that probes the dialectics of media communication and cultural environment:
I am in the position of Lous Pasteur telling doctors that the greatest enemy was quite invisible, and quite unrecognised by them. Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of a technological idiot. For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content”.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
When the unassuming Canadian professor of English and “media guru”, Marshall McLuhan, caught the attention of an unsuspecting world during the late sixties by his catchy, though quintessential, formulation The Medium is the Message, he was either instantly dismissed as a sensational crank or hailed as one of the most insightful philosophers of our technological age. McLuhan however was but the most publicly notorious representative of a host of social scientists, historians and philosophers who had been quietly working on the theme of communication and culture for over three decades. And his insight about the form and con- tent of media communication was like the proverbial tip of an iceberg: McLuhan’s apical discovery submerged a mountain of information and insight gained from many different disciplines.
The cumulative result of these efforts, we now know, is pointing towards a revolutionary theory which not only promises the dis-closure of the inter-relationship between culture and information media – and, in turn, between culture and knowledge, knowledge and technique or culture and values, as the case may be -but which might also lead towards a grand academic synthesis. The dialectics of technological innovation and historical change, undoubtedly the grandest theme of our age, may now be explained under the unitary theory of communication as environment. The implications of this insight, one need hardly emphasize, are likely to be far-reaching. Moreover, with electronic media increasingly shaping the cultural profile of all human societies, the import of this theory can hardly be other than prophetical. Despite the facile and gratuitous assertion of our generation that we are at the threshold of a new age – the age of information, it goes without saying that only through an understanding of the dynamics of cultural change and mass communication can we make any impact on our future situation. Without doubt, the coming information explosion is going to be as challenging for Muslim societies, merely following and reacting to outside change, as it will be for the progenitors of the change them- selves. Thus, needless to say, notwithstanding the almost criminal neglect of our intellectuals concerning the most exciting issues of our times – and the consequential, suicidal, state of unpreparedness in our societies – we are duty-bound not only to acquaint ourselves with the revolutionary notion of the ecology of information, even if the source of this concept is foreign to our milieu, but also to assess critically all its dependent insights from our own Islamic vantage-point. In the following pages we intend to follow just such a course.
Technology as Substance
For the past two centuries, the paramount concern of the Western intellectual tradition has been with the construction of a `grand theory’ of universal history (for our earlier remarks on this theme see: Eunuchs in the Harem of History: Afkar-Inquiry, January 1985).
In this intellectual order, where the study of history is inevitably engulfed by the elaboration of sociological schemes, the motif of technology as the agent of change has also been of overriding interest. Both Ellul and Mumford, for in- stance, recognise that technology modifies man’s behavioural and institutional patterns as well as reorganises his environment. Leaving aside eschatological hopes and fears that a technological reading of history inspires in these two very serious thinkers (our intellectual portrait of Jacques Ellul: The Metaphysician of Technology, (Afkar-Inquiry, May 1985) gives a fair indication of the extreme sense of anxiety that is also the unwanted by-product of the techno-historical consciousness), the main limitation of this pioneering though however is that the view of technology informing it at its core is essentially ontological.
Technology as Relationship
Thus, technology in the view of these thinkers, is a substance with which man interacts. Consequently, in his Technics and Civilization, Mumford characterizes the technical development of western civilization in terms of three, eotechnic, palaeotechnic and neotechnic, phases. This classification is based ultimately on the sources of energy that societies employ for executing technological task -a theme that has received added actuality even in our own times. Moreover technology for Ellul and Mumford is almost identical to mechanization. There is very little aware- ness of electronic technologies or of their role as shapers of environments in their thought. However, from an ecological perspective, which itself has been acquired through the consideration of the differences of mechanical and electronic media, one may perceive all technological change as environmental. One can thus distinguish between three types of technological environments: those serving an ecology of goods (manufacturing, factories etc.); those that serve an ecology of man (architecture, transportation networks) and those that serve an ecology of information (communication media).
The revolutionary insight gained through this approach, elicited first by Harold Adan Innis but later elaborated by Marshall McLuhan, is that media and environment form a continuum and that man interacts through the new media-environment (instead of technology), restructuring in the process, the cultural bias of a society. Thus, the nature of man’s cultural environment is not spatial (environment is not what surrounds us) but relational. The radical view of the media philosophers is that it is what controls our relationship, almost tacitly as it were, with one another, rather than what surrounds us, that constitutes our culture. In the final resort, culture is indistinguishable from the ecology of information. Before we turn our attention to the two foremost proponents of this theory, namely Innis and McLuhan, it would be profitable to have a curso-ry look at the evidence produced by a number of disciplines which made the above theorization possible.
It is well-known that twentieth-century thought, psychological but also sociological and even historical, has been grappling with the problem that may be described as the `perceptual bias’. The most sensational discoveries in this respect, no doubt, were those of Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose well-known hypothesis of the ‘inquisitic relativity’ may today be justifiably construed as an early contribution to the `media dictates culture’ theme. Whorf, whose theories remain contentious to this day, challenges two of the most fundamental postulations of modern culture, namely that there are no boundaries to thought and that communication between two entirely different cultures is ultimately possible. He suggested, on the basis of evidence gathered from the study of the Hopi Indian language, that the underlying structure of the language used by a people almost totally controls the way in which they perceive the world and structure their experiences of it. The introduction of this new principle of relativity, namely that the same physical perception does not lead all observers to an identical picture of the universe, in some way anticipated the Innis-McLuhan theory of media because it asserted that medium (in this case linguistic tradition) and not sense-perception, affects man.
Orality vs Literacy
Another original thinker whose thought closely parallels as well as supplements the insights claimed by the media philosophers is Walter J Ong. Ong’s principal concern has been with the difference in thought-patterns and social structures between oral, pre- literate societies and the ones affected by the knowledge of writing. Synthesizing numerous strands of academic thought, Ong has been able to show that the technique of writing, once interiorised, wrought monumental changes in human consciousness. His Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), and The Presence of the Word (1967) are two of the most important works that have followed in the wake of McLuhan’s Understanding Media and Gutenberg Galaxy, though decidedly less categorical. Ong is also less prescriptive and involved than Innis-McLuhan. His meditation on the question of what values would distinguish a return to an aurally based society still constitutes an important contribution to the elaboration of the theme of information ecology. By raising the question of values, Ong has also been instrumental in bringing in the much–needed ethical dimension to the somewhat bland philosophy of the media, just as his identification of media phases with categories of Freudian psychology reflects the imaginativeness of his approach in the field.
Art and Visual Perception
From their own idiosyncratic perspective, art historians too have been gathering evidence that confirms the postulation of perceptual bias in our normal experience of the physical world. Art history has increasingly been showing a tendency to merge art with psychology. Some of the most commonly used text-books, such as Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception (1966), Gombrich’s Art and Illusion and Wolfflin’s Principles of Art history, reveal this trend. Similarly, Arnheim’s debate with Gombrich, whose emphasis on artistic convention rather than faithful sense-perception went against the tenets of gestalt psychology so ardently championed by the former, is too well-known to need any elaboration. We may simply be content to note that the existence of a perceptual bias on the cultural level is regarded as a real possibility in many art historical circles, just as it is a working hypothesis with many social anthropologists.
Vision vs Touch
The notion of cultural bias in perception was raised from the status of a conjectural hypothesis to that of a full-fledged theory by another scholar of genius, William Ivins. In a remarkably succinct statement, Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions (1946), Ivins showed that the Greek perception of reality and art was `tactile’ rather than `visual’. Contrary to the most jealously guarded myth of Western civilization, Ivins argued that the Greek world-view actually hampered the development of art and sciences and that it fell on the lot of the Renaissance man to liberate the world from this ancient misconception. Greek states suggest they were constructed painstakingly by blind men whose sense of form could not encompass any vista of wider perspective. Ivins was indeed the first one to perceive art-productions pre- eminently as reflections of a perceptual bias. The unity of form and content in artistic expression and its cultural bias, the dominant note of media philosophers, thus found a powerful and independent exposition in the study of William M Ivins.
Interpretation or Interaction
Other exponents of the same insight have been psychologists such as FP Kilpatrick (Explorations in Transactional Psychology, ), James J Gibson (The Perception of the Visual World, ), or anthropologists like Edward Hall (The Silent Language,  and The Hidden dimension,  or even historian like Siegfried Giedion – a great philosopher of technology in his own right (Space, Time and Architecture,  and The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Architecture ). The common assumption with all these thinkers is that man uses his senses not essentially to interpret his environment but to interact with it. The clearest message among this group comes from Hall who says unequivocally: `Man’s relationship to his environment is a function of his sensory apparatus plus how this apparatus is conditioned to respond’. Thus, the cumulative thought of all the above-mentioned thinkers’ arguments is in the direction of buttressing one of the major tenets of McLuhan’s thought, namely that the quality and nature of a culture is determined by sensory worlds and the media that interpret them. With this summary, the stage is now set for us to encounter perhaps the more original and thoughtful, though decidedly lesser-known and less provocative, of the two arch philosophers of the media whose theories of the dynamics of information ecology have brought such sweeping changes in the modern consciousness of culture, technology and communication.
A Genuine Intellectual
Harold Innis was once hailed by the London Times Literary Supplement as `Canada’s first and perhaps only genuine intellectual’. He is best known however as one of the major names in Canadian economic history. All his theoretical insights concerning the role of the media have been derived from the vision of an economic historian. In fact, his intellectual development may be chart- ed as such: Innis the economic historian turned into Innis the cultural historian and then by the profound implications of his confusions became Innis the philosopher. Born in Ontario in 1894, Innis studied at McMaster University and later went to the University of Chicago to receive his Ph.D. The academic circles in America during the first few years after the First World War when Innis obtained his doctorate were dominated by the social thought of Thorstein Veblen, George Herbet Mead and Robert Ezra Park. Innis shows influences from all three: Veblen’s evolutionary theory of economic development, Mead’s concern with language, and Park’s pre-occupation with control mechanisms in culture may be detected as undergirding Innis thought. Innis started his academic career as an economic historian, writing such specific studies as The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), The Cod Fisheries and Essays in Canadian Economic History. This early period was followed by his `media bias’ phase when he wrote his seminal works, Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951). Innis died in 1952.
A deeply pessimistic, perhaps pre-monitory, strand of recent Western thought is much pre-occupied with the decline, decay and the eventual demise of civilisations. The disturbing insight that a culture begins to disintegrate when at the point of its highest creativity is the focus of Spengler and Toynbee’s historical thought. Even Hegel was fascinated by this idea. Following him, Innis discover in classical mythology the image that he thinks befits the theme of cultural decay. The image is that of Minerva’s owl. Minerva, one of the most trusted goddesses of Zeus, the legend has it, sprang fully-armed and full-grown from the head of Zeus, the supreme deity. She became the protector of the city and its professional artists and craftsmen. In her movement, she was preceded by her owl. Innis starts one of his most perceptive discourses by quoting Hegel: `Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dusk…’.Innis follows the flight of Minerva’s owl, as it were, in history, showing that the growth and decline of empires flows not from genius or faith or `will to power’ but from media! Minerva’s owl flies, Innis suggested with uncanny vision, over the route taken by the new form of communication – be it script, print, or as it is now, the computer. Innis was the first one to realize that genesis of a new culture as well as the march of cultures in history, follow in the footsteps of information technology.
The Bias of Communication
Innis’ path to the realisation of the media’s capital role in the formation and dispersion of cultures, as mentioned earlier, crossed the terrain of economic history. The perennial question, what is the ultimate source of authority and power in a culture and how is it transmitted to the succeeding systems, made him look into the relationship of social institutions and communication media. By so doing, Innis also overstepped the traditional confines of economic history and joined the rank of philosophically-oriented historians of culture. The key to cultural change, Innis asserted, lies in the use of the pre-dominant medium of communication. It is not so much what is communicated but how specific communication media function, that creates the forms of power in a culture. The critical factor in the culture is the medium which determines its contents as a whole. In universal history, with a heavy western bias, let it be added without any diffidence, Innis discerns seven main stages of media transformation. The first information medium was the use of clay, the reed stylus and the cuneiform script that originated in Mesopotamia. It was followed by the Oral tradition of Greece in which he also sees the amalgamation of the written word after Plato. Later, papyrus, brush and pen combined with alphabet became the universal medium of communication. It had the greatest spatial dispersion. The written medium experienced a setback, of sorts, when the orally-conscious Church came to dominate the power pyramid of Western history. The Church withdrew to monasteries taking its parchment and pen, the most prestigious means of writing, with it. The whole civilisation, it appears, withdrew in some kind of mystical trance. After the twelfth century, paper and pen made the written word available on an unprecedented scale and made the waning of Church power possible. The introduction of he printing press and movable type started the process of secularisation in the West. Vernaculars replaced the ecclesiastical Latin; nationalism usurped the ecumenical state, revolutions and mechanization became the order of the day. With the mechanization of paper production and printing press, the boundaries of written language were stretched beyond anything experienced hitherto. The idiosyncratic medium of yesterday, still not obsolete, the newspaper, experienced its greatest expansion in human history. Literacy and populism were the outcome. Finally, we are once again returning to the oral media through the inventions of cinema, radio and TV. One might now add to the last category, the computer and the communication satellite as well. Such, roughly speaking, is the canvas of history as communication rather than chronology from which Innis draws his philosophic conclusions.
Space and Time
In this largely empirical historical scheme based on the role of communication media, Innis then introduces two key concepts, that of communication bias in terms of space and time that impart a normative, evaluative quality to his thought. Media, Innis suggests in his characteristic way, not only create the pathways of information in a culture, but by controlling the movement of communication they also determine a culture’s ecology of information. Thus, the unique and dialectical relationship between a people and the knowledge available to them is thus, in some real way, a function of their communication media, or media possess an inherent bias. Innis interprets this bias as spatial, when the medium is able to attain widespread dispersion in space, and consequently its influences extends over geographic regions other than the place of its origin. Societies acquire temporal bias when the media they command are characterised more by their durability than dispersion. Clay tablets that were used in Babylon, Innis observes, were difficult to carry over vast distances. In comparison, papyrus which was used by the Romans was easily transportable. It enabled official information to reach far-flung corners of the Roman empire and made possible the administration of distant rations. Babylonian culture thus imbued with a temporal bias, Rome was a culture with a sturdy spatial orientation. Innis’ characterization of spatial and temporal bias however is not value-neutral. In his view, spatially-oriented cultures tend to be secular, centralised, bureaucratic and imperialistic. Temporally – biased societies, on the contrary, ultimately become religious, legalistic, conservative. Orality, thus, favours temporal bias, whereas literacy produces spatial preferences. Writing, however, is too varied and comprehensive a human phenomenon to show only one single bias. In fact, in pursuing the theme of writing, Innis makes many perceptive observations. For instance, parchment, which after the collapse of Rome came to assume the dominant medium of writing, gave impetus to the rise of monasteries! The distinguishing quality of parchment is that it preserves well and thus is more suitable for permanent re- cords. Thus, its main use is confined to libraries and other centres of reference. However, the exorbitant demands of the parchment scripting and production required organised institutions – monasteries. Knowledge thus got monopolised in the Middle Ages. Other insights presented by Innis are no less impressive. The use of clay tablets in Mesopotamia, Innis notes further, produced conform writing, while the Egyptians who had easy access to papyrus introduced a pictographic form of writing. Clay, a material clumsy and difficult to handle, favoured a frugal and compact system, papyrus a more elaborate one. Not content with the mere postulation of the categories of space and time, Innis then elaborates his more evaluative concept of Homeostasis. Taking his cue from medical science, which defines homeostasis as the organic process by which the body maintains an equilibrium of energy resources, Innis argues that the actions of balanced media guarantee the existence of cultural homeostasis – an equilibrium of unstable and disruptive forces that tend to destroy every civilization. The modern West, in his view, is not characterised by that cultural equilibrium: it has too much of a robust spatial basis to be able to attain the state of cultural homeostasis.
Monopoly of Knowledge
Another salient contribution made by Innis to philosophy of media is through his elucidation of the interaction between power mechanism in a society and its means of dispersing information. Knowledge in his opinion not only forms the key to power but constitutes the sub-structure of a civilization as well. As every medium gives the knowledge it conveys a certain character, it impresses its own imprint so to speak, the power within a culture ultimately resides in the communication media that it commands. `Monopoly of Knowledge’ is thus a favourite term with Innis. However, by it he means a number of things. This monopoly consists in the mode of knowledge, i.e. oral, written, printed etc., itself, just as it is made possible by the `monopoly of resources’. The ultimate expression of this monopoly is of course the restriction of knowledge to a special class of men. From the point of view of sociology of knowledge, who controls the communication media thus is not an abstract speculation. Summing up, we may say that Innis’ usage of monopoly of knowledge presupposes three factors: the constriction of knowledge to one single medium, the limitation imposed by the form of knowledge and the control exercised by a power hegemony.
Fighting an Empire
It is this monopoly of knowledge, Innis holds, that empowers and sustains empires. Empire, another idiosyncratic term of Innis’ lexicon, signifies the ability of a civilization to exercise and maintain its control over vast stretches of space and time. Empire, thus for Innis, is `an indication of the efficiency of communication’. In his Empire and Communication (1950), Innis pursues the theme of `media conflict’ in all the major empires since Sumer. It is the introduction of newer media, promising a different sort of monopoly of knowledge, that undermines the authority of power establishment in an empire. In fact, when the old medium is in the process of being replaced by a newer one, the old culture experiences its most dangerous phase of instability, even if the established order rarely shows any signs of such awareness. The greatest weakness of any civilization, according to this scheme of things, is its inability to detect, confront and challenge the dominant medium and its bias. Thus, new medium replaces the old one subversively. As a matter of fact, at first the new medium appeals only to those who are shut out of the existent information system. By their skilful use of the newer medium, not under the control of information monopoly, outsiders are able to wrest power from the established ruling class (one may mention as an interesting modern example of this phenomenon the last phase of the Iranian Revolution. By adroitly manipulating a new medium – the easily disposable tape cassette- which lay outside the reach of the information monopoly of the Shah’s regime, the entrenched dictator was toppled by an unarmed populace!). The story of human civilization thus is not the rise and fall of empires but the birth and death of information systems!
The Sage of Aquarius
Though in this essay we have dwelt at some length on the dynamics of information ecology as presented by Harold Adam Innis, it is no secret that despite the greater profundity and perspicacity of his thought, it is his disciple and fellow Canadian, Herbert Marshall McLuhan, who has been crowned as the media philosopher par excellence of our age. McLuhan, moreover, has gained enormous notoriety, not least because of his hippie following, whereas his mentor Innis is relatively little known outside a close circle of scholars. Because of the greater awareness about McLuhan’s thought among the general public, we feel no compunctions at neglecting to present his ideas in as much detail as that of Innis. Moreover, since McLuhan’s strength also lies in the comprehensiveness of his theoretical insights, we’ll be content with a discussion of the implication of his ideas rather than a systematic presentation of his intellectual arguments. Born also in Canada (Edmonton, Alberta in 1911), McLuhan spent most of his boyhood in Winnipeg and took a degree at the University of Manitoba. After taking his doctorate at Cambridge, he spent most of his life teaching: at the University of Wisconsin (1936-37), St-Louis University (1937-44), Assumption University in Windsor (1944-46) and finally the University of Toronto (from 1946 to his death). His early The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) was as much dependent upon Innis’ method as upon his ideas (McLuhan himself called it “a footnote to the work of Harold Innis”). It is however a landmark. In it McLuhan combines seminal ideational insight with enough scholarship to have earned the critics’ verdict of it being his finest work. Though his next book, Understanding Media (1965) brought him the dubious distinction of being Pop Philosopher of the Vietnam generation, critics were not at all satisfied with this work. A single comment so aptly descriptive of McLuhan’s intellectual idiosyncrasies will be enough to put his thought and method in its proper place. This, for instance, is how Dwight MacDonald assessed Understanding Media: “A single page is impressive, two are `stimulating’, five raise serious doubts, ten confirm them, and long before the hardy reader has staggered to page 359 the accumulation of contradictions, non-sequiturs, facts that are distorted and facts that are not facts, exaggerations, and chronic rhetorical vagueness has numbed him to the insights”. McLuhan’s later works like The Medium is the Message (1967) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968) are popular syntheses that are found unread and undigested in paper-back edition on every shelf and require no comments.
Though one is struck by the similarities between Innis and McLuhan, the differences between them are also striking and substantial. Instead of the former’s categories of time and space, the latter chooses the direct sensory bias as an explanation of cultural variety. Innis thus concentrates on the institutional effects of media, whereas McLuhan’s focus in on perceptual and psychic effects. The two philosophers of environment differ in their conception of environment as well. For McLuhan, environments become perceptible not as much by their effects as by their interaction with other environments. For Innis, the major environment becomes visible though the reshuffling of power within the structure of a society. Despite his erudition and scholarly competence, however, Innis failed to articulate a total theory of what he was doing. It fell to McLuhan’s lot to compress the most comprehensive theory of the nature of technical change in a quintessential dictum: Medium is the Message.
The Electronic Illusion
McLuhan has been severely criticised for the `moral neutrality’ of his thought. Lewis Mumford, for instance, has claimed with justification that McLuhan’s `global village’ is a humbug. `Real communication’, says Mumford, `whether oral or written, ephemeral or permanent, is possible only between people who share a common culture – and speak the same language; and though this area can and should be enlarged by personally acquiring more languages and extending one’s cultural horizon through travel and active personal intercourse, the notion that it is possible to throw off all these limits is an electronic illusion’. McLuhan’s – and Innis’ – bias against the written word and in favour of oral communication does not cut much ice with Mumford either. Here is how he responds to the favourite McLuhanian scenario: ‘A population entirely dependent upon such controlled oral communication, even if it reached every human soul on the planet, would not merely be at the mercy of the Dominant Minority but would become increasingly illiterate and soon mutually unintelligible:… here in prospect is actually the electronic Tower of Babel’ (emphasis is mine). Even on philosophical grounds, McLuhan has been much indicted. For instance, his seminal insight and oft-quoted dictum, The Medium is the Message, has been castigated as being tautological!
The End of Writing
McLuhan has also had a fair share of admirers, most of whom have followed him slavishly. Drawing heavily on the insights provided by the Media Sage, the German journalist and debater Hans Magnus Enzenberger, for instance, claims that all written literature is bourgeois and individualistic. That it is a ‘monologue means of communication’ and that it favours `caste thinking’. The very act of writing, claims Enzenberger, calls for an unnatural posture! Moreover, `the aesthetics of written literature express a clear contempt for life: pauses, slips of the tongue, hesitation and repetitions are regarded as violation of the rules’. Not only in the protracted process of learning to write a waste for Enzenberger, writing also `tends to blot out, with the aid of formalised calligraphy, the real contradictions of life’! TV camera and the microphone, the same author notes with relish, are abolishing the class character of the written form of communication. ‘The live interview, the debate and the demonstration do not demand and do not allow either orthography or calligraphy’. Though Enzenberger speaks in terms of the `egalitarian’ nature of the modern electronic media and is even anxious to explain them in terms of `emancipation’ from time, it is incontestable that, if taken to its logical conclusion, Enzenberger would have to accept as the ideal man a creature without memory, tradition or history and living solely in the present!
Information and Cybernetics
Through their insight that information controls society, the media philosophers, especially Innis, come very close to formulating a `cybernetic’ theory of history and environment. Norbert Wiener, who coined the term from the Greek Kubernetes (meaning “steersman”), defines cybernetics as `the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society’. Though Wiener, him- self a mathematician who developed a theory of information by which one could interact more effectively with the computer, developed serious doubts about the `Pythagoras of the modern age, the computer, his name has come to be associated with it.
Besides his justly famous Cybernetics (1948), Wiener came to be known chiefly as a humanist and a concerned social theorist. In his brief collection of essays, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) he probed with great humanity and perspicacity, the various implications of the computer and the new routings of information that the computer creates. To concentrate only on the humanistic thought of this sensitive scientist: Wiener likens the introduction of the computer into a social system to a process which is at once desirable because of the demands of the society and yet precarious and uncertain in its outcome. The computer does not threaten Wiener with some vague very real possibility that we humans might be unable to maintain a conceptual, and hence implicitly moral and social, control over the machine. If we let the computer define its own territory, without first analyzing the more likely consequences, he suggests, `we may witness a series of capitulations of man to the machine that far out-scale anything previously suggested by history’!
Within this disturbing yet prophetic note, we may take leave of the media philosophers, this time merely noting that the insights supplied by them will have to be filtered through the Islamic consciousness before these can be applied to a Muslim historical context. Though a succeeding article will attempt to evaluate the Islamic implications of our knowledge of the dynamics of information ecology, suffice it to say here that Muslim thinkers have not been altogether oblivious of the importance of communication media in determining the cultural profile of the Muslim civilisation.
The ‘phenomenology of the communication media’, even the confusion of form and meaning in a communicational environment has been a favourite theme with the Sufis. Some of these topics must become subjects of further reflection in the light of above discussion. Moreover, though it is not for a Muslim to deliberate upon the nature of the most sacred and excellent communication medium of them all, the Divine Scripture which is also a Noble Recitation, it is legitimate to enquire into its role in Muslim history and consciousness.
Could it be that, because of some special act of Divine rahma, the Qur’an, which has been venerate in Muslim consciousness both as an oral recitation and as a written discourse, has been instrumental in conferring on the Muslim culture that special quality of homeostasis which is the envy of other cultures?
Could the harmony and spiritual equilibrium of Muslim culture be a gift of the Qur’an whose orality and literacy are both equally part and parcel of Muslim consciousness?
With respect to the Qur’an, the propitious equilibrium of spatial and temporal biases in Islam must be regarded as an established fact. The question which Muslims have to answer, however, is how best to devise institutional setups that would help us maintain this precious balance. How, for instance, in the teaching of the Qur’an, can equal emphasis be given to its aural as well as visual ambience? These and a host of other questions may legitimately – and profitably -be deliberated in the light of our knowledge of the ecology of information. For, no one need dispute the words of William Kuhns, whose incisive The Post-Industrial Prophets: Interpretations of Technology has been so useful in producing this synopsis, that `Media can liberate or confine man; just knowing that may one day make the difference’.