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From the Editors: Consider the Snowflake

In his introduction to the 1994 reissue of media scholar Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Lewis Lapham prepared two parallel lists delineating cultural textures resulting from different forms of dominant media. The first list falls under the heading Print and includes words McLuhan repeatedly returns to when describing the culture that began with Gutenberg’s press. The words in his second column, Electronic Media, characterize the contours of the world as its media are transformed by electricity (telegraph, radio, and especially television) in the twentieth century, creating the postmodern environment.  A reading of these lists, from left to right, goes something like this: sequence/simultaneity, visual/tactile, composition/improvisation…

In compiling these lists of what he describes as antonyms, Lapham draws our attention to McLuhan’s fundamental argument: shifts in cultural patterns and modes of thinking are produced by different media and technologies. McLuhan’s thought, combined with Lapham’s insightful introduction, got us to thinking about our conversation with Kazys Varnelis in the last issue of The Straddler. Varnelis argues that we are in the midst of another shift, brought about by networked computers. The result has been the supplanting of the postmodern by what Varnelis terms “network culture.” Perhaps a third column in the McLuhan/Lapham configuration is therefore in order:

Print     Electronic Media  Network Culture
visual tactile agile
active reactive interactive
soliloquy chorus crowd
center margin cloud
complete incomplete replete
syntax mosaic snowflake

Why a snowflake on the last line? In Understanding Media, McLuhan offered the example of the airline executive, whose collection of pebbles from around the world symbolized the “implosive” effects of technology—in this case, air travel—or what McLuhan described as “the mosaic or iconic principle of simultaneous touch.” Thanks to advancements in air travel, the executive could reach into his collection and touch many distinct and distant points at one time, perhaps without having to leave his desk.

Today the Internet serves as our primary vehicle for implosion or touch. But a mosaic it isn’t. Consider the snowflake, which in today’s culture can be used to describe any manner of network: the organization of corporate structures, a particular means of warehousing data, the shape of social networks, and so on.

A snowflake’s salient features, of course, are its intricate complexity and its fragility. The experience of awaiting the return of a downed network (of almost any kind) is all too familiar in our age, as is the anxious investigation into what, if anything (beyond time and energy), has been lost during the outage. How this ever-present complexity and fragility shapes our world, and our thinking, is a question worth asking. So too is the question of what is lost when so much of our time is spent tracing the interiors of intermingling snowflakes, with less time spent considering the consequences wrought by the blizzards in which they’re carried.

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