Jesuit Father John D. O’Brien shares some key points from a speech to Pontifical Lateran University rectors in 2009 given by Marshall McLuhan’s son, Eric, who has carried on his father’s work. Below is Fr. O’Brien’s reflection on McLuhan’s first point, “The electric crowd (or mass audience) is invisible, composed as it is of de facto intelligences with no bodies.”
McLuhan’s insight here is arguably the gravest concern from both a Catholic and a human point of view: the dis-incarnational aspect of the new electric culture. The union of body and mind is being divided as our minds live more in a more artificial virtual environment. Are we widening Descartes’ division between “res cogitans” and “res extensa”, that is, between the person as a thinking being and the person as a physical being. I suspect this dualism is at the root of many problems in western society, from how we understand our sexuality to how we do or do not serve our neighbour. The Catholic view, it bears repeating, is that each person is a composite being, a body and soul held in a unity.
Personally, I’m quite often leaning between the two extremes: either over-valuing matter or over-emphasizing my thinking. I often wonder if living in our “electric culture” requires that I supplement my time spent online, etc., with longer walks or time spent doing physical things — for this very reason. Perhaps McLuhan’s insight might even serve to argue that we members of the “electric culture” should frequent the Sacraments even moreso than our predecessors in the faith.