Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Connected Minds, New Integration: An Interview with Derrick De Kerckhove

Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Connected Minds, New Integration: An Interview with Derrick De Kerckhove

Article excerpt

Dr. Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology and professor of French language at the University of Toronto, keeps a close watch on the impact of computer communications. He is the author of The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality (Toronto: Somerville House, 1995). Dr. de Kerckhove was interviewed in late June by Compass associate editor Mary Rose Donnelly. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.

Mary Rose Donnelly: You've talked about the printing press and the effect it had on culture and civilization. Are today's technologies having $$ Illegible Word $$ effects?

Derrick de Kerckhove: What I have worked on particularly is the impact of the alphabet on creating a private consciousness and a kind of closed-in psychological realm. That was part of the reason why the Reformation was followed by so many splits in the churches. Different people grabbed control of the meaning of the old scriptures. Oral language is controlled by both the receiver and the sender, whereas writing is completely controlled by the individual. The elaboration of its meaning is entirely private property. So taking control of language via the alphabet was one of the most powerful individualizing effects of writing. And it shattered the unity of the oral church.

Today we have seen several shifts in the relationship between the word and people. Radio gave power back to tribal chiefs, except this time without the old model of dialogue between the tribe and the chief. Here the chief has no dialogue, but issues orders as a dictator. The renewal of fundamentalism in Islam comes from the use of cassettes and radio and electrifying the minarets. Television also represents a form of guarding the word, one that leaves very little critical judgement to the viewer. This is very different from the effects of books.

Mary Rose Donnelly: In that the communication is one-way?

Derrick de Kerckhove: Yes, television is a one-way medium, and that is very critical in comparing it with computers. What you watch on your television screen is basically not your responsibility, except for the zapper if you have one. For a long time we didn't have a zapper, but even a zapper is a minimal form of response. It's a raw form of criticism.

The most powerful screen is one where you're responsible for the content with the machine, and that's the computer. At the computer screen you negotiate the meaning with the machine and whatever appears on your screen is part machine and part your stuff. You share meaning with a very powerful accelerating device. The writing system used in the West that was developed by the Greeks and the Romans had a fantastically powerful accelerating effect on language, on the one hand, and on individual minds on the other. People could start thinking on their own and do more thinking than when they were simply learning all the oral lore by rote.

Now we're not only having our minds accelerated by computers, but we also have these computers connected to one another by telephone, so that we connect minds together for the first time in the history of technology. We've always connected minds together in a physical way--people gathering together generate some form of mental consensus that you can call a form of connected mind. But now that you do it by the accelerated media of computer networks, you have a situation of connected minds with huge access to information of different kinds, and that has to create new conditions. I'm not quite sure what religious consequence will attend that sort of change. I'm still working on that.

Mary Rose Donnelly: What are your thoughts so far?

Derrick de Kerckhove: For the moment I'm quizzical about it all. I'm not sure that there's a whole lot of spirituality online. I don't think that technology does that. What it does is favour a certain kind of connection over another. …

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