Paul Levinson: Digital McLuhan

August 13th, 2001 | Category: Interviews

Paul LevinsonPaul Levinson is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University and also writes writes Science Fiction, popular and scholarly non-fiction. His novel The Silk Code won the Locus award for Best First Novel of 1999. His Digital McLuhan updates a great deal of Marshall McLuhan’s media theory in the context of the new wired world. As Kevin Kelly says, “Paul Levinson completes McLuhan’s pioneering work. Read this book if you want to decipher life on the screen.”

Roy Christopher: Your book Digital McLuhan applies a great many of McLuhan’s more forward-thinking ideas to the digital age of the internet. Is there anything he missed by a long shot?

Paul Levinson: McLuhan didn’t miss much. He certainly got the decentralization (log on from anywhere in the world) and integration (prior media become the new content) of the Internet completely right.

If he missed anything, it’s the unevenness with which these technological revolutions occur. Even today, there are millions of Americans — and, of course, many more throughout the world — who do not log on, who are not part of the digital age. In McLuhan’s highly charged, condensed view of history and progress, the electronic age simply remakes the world into a global village. In reality, the “re-making” can take a long time.

RC: What, in your experience or conjecture, could be considered “post-McLuhan”?

PL: As I discuss at the end of Digital McLuhan, the reversal of media determinism — the increasing human control over our technologies — can be considered “post-McLuhan.”

Actually, this was with us all along. We have always been in control, more or less, But in the age of mass media in which McLuhan wrote, we had less control over our communication than, say, in the manuscript age. After all, the average person even today has little or no imput into radio and TV.

But the Internet empowers individuals. The notion of technology being in the driver’s seat becomes absurd when we can drive the Internet any time we want, by uploading a new page to our Web site.

RC: Science Fiction authors are often considered by scholarly types as the true beacons of the next age. What are your aims as a Sci-Fi author?

PL: My aims as a science fiction author are to inspire, entertain, explore, and inform. I want to inspire my readers to do what they can to help us get further out into space (hence my novel, Borrowed Tides), to think about how we came about as a species (hence my novel, The Silk Code), to contemplate the paradoxes of time travel (thus, my “Loose Ends” stories). I’d like this to also be entertaining for them — I want my readers to smile, get excited, have tears in their eyes, sigh with contentment, as they get caught up in my characters and stories. (I’m always delighted to hear that one of my novels kept someone up all night.) And I also want to explore new areas of science — and philosophy — in my fiction. For example, do bacteria help make us intelligent (I explore this in The Consciousness Plague, to be published by Tor in 2002 — my next Phil D’Amato novel). Or, is our DNA all the result of natural selection, or has it been deliberately manipulated in the past (I explore this in The Silk Code). Finally, I hope my science fiction informs. I try to pack lots of scientific and historical detail into my novels (for example, The Consciousness Plague has a section on Lindisfarne). If this helps convey a little information, arcane or otherwise, to my readers, I’m happy.

RC: Can you give a brief overview of what your next book, RealSpace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, On and Off Planet will entail?

RealSpace begins with a critique of cyberspace, and the need for physical navigation of the real world (what we call transportation). Our flesh and our science require full face-to-face interaction for many things – ranging from walking hand in hand along the shore, to physically testing a new environment. RealSpace then segues into the special need we have to physically move off this planet and out into space. This part of the book entails an analysis of what didn’t go right with space programs thus far, and how to get it right in the future, and why. Briefly, the most profound reasons are as much philosophic, even spiritual, as scientific: we’ll never know truly who we are, until we better understand our place in the universe. And we can’t know that from just down here on Earth.

RC: Anything else you’re working on that you’d like to mention?

PL: Well, I already mentioned The Consciousness Plague, due out from Tor in March 2002.

New novels I’m now writing include a time travel story involving Socrates, and a new Phil D’Amato novel in which privacy — endangering of — is one of the main issues.

Nonfiction: after RealSpace, I expect to be writing a book on the cellphone, pros and cons. Among its not often mentioned values is that it gets us out into the world — that is, away from our desks. This coincides with what I say about the importance of actually walking through the world, in RealSpace. And one more little treat (at least, for me — and I hope for my readers): I just finished a little essay, “Naked Bodies, Three Showings A Week, No Commercials: The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph over non-Network TV” for a new anthology (This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos) edited by David Lavery and to be published by Wallflower/Columbia University Press in 2002.

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