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<nettime> Technology, Language and Empires of the Mind
Newmedia on Tue, 24 Apr 2012 07:58:53 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Technology, Language and Empires of the Mind


In his 6 Sept. 1943 speech at Harvard (where he got an  honorary degree), 
Churchill delivered his famous "empires of the future will be  empires of the 
mind" phrase.

What this turned out to mean is that the  techniques of psychological 
warfare that had already become dominant in WW II  were about to become 
universal, in the name of "justice" and "law," as Churchill  saw  it.



The  resulting Cold War, also highlighted by Churchill's more-famous "Iron 
Curtain"  phrase, was aggressively fought as a CULTURAL war, in which one 
side promoted  "freedom" and the other promoted "peace," as the psychological 
"flags" around  which they attempted to build their *mental* empires.

Important aspects  of this psychological war for the "hearts and minds" of 
populations have been  detailed in books like (with more coming)  --





All  of this took place in the context of the radio/television world that 
Churchill  (and everyone else) lived in -- forcing the "belief structures" of 
this  *imperial* battle to conform to the beliefs and attitudes that were 
appropriate  to what McLuhan called the "electric media environment."  
Indeed, it was  these "media" that were most aggressively used to promote these  

Among the ideas that arose from this very well funded effort  to mobilize 
social science on behalf of "empires of the mind" were "complex  systems" 
(following the effort to construct "general systems") as the best way  to 
"model" society.  Complex systems research grew out of a fascination  with Chaos, 
which, in turn had been a recurring theme in the "modern" artistic  
expressions of the times.  The "anarchist" movement belongs to this period  of 
environmental chaos and, indeed, McLuhan originally titled his first book  
"Guide to Chaos."

Again, to use McLuhan's terms, the pre-electric media  environment, which 
McLuhan had termed the "Gutenberg Galaxy," had promoted  "concepts" that 
tended to be linear and bureaucratic, leading to the rise of  nation states and 
to the spread of "science" and with it technologically driven  
political-economy, including both capitalism and its various "successors" like  the 
"communism" envisaged by Karl Marx and others.  But these 19th century  (and 
earlier) sympathies were to be replaced by very different behaviors  and 

Gregory Bateson's 1972 Steps to an Ecology of Mind: A  Revolutionary 
Approach to Man's Understanding of Himself is an important  compilation from a 
senior WW II psychological warrior.  As was his 1967  speech "Conscious Purpose 
Versus Nature" at the Dialectics of Liberation  conference in London, 
sponsored by the Tavistock Institute, a "psychiatric"  think-tank which had 
itself been at the center of Britain's WW II psywar  efforts.

Many of Bateson's essays had first been delivered as keynotes at  meetings 
of the Institute of General Semantics.  General Semantics was a  movement 
that had been started by Polish Count Alfred Korzybski, who had  developed an 
elaborate system of "therapeutic" language use which was critical  because 
"the task ahead is gigantic if we are to avoid more personal, national,  and 
even international tragedies based on unpredictability, insecurity, fears,  
anxieties etc., which are steadily disorganizing the functioning of the 
human  nervous system" (from Preface to the 3rd edition of his Science and  

Korzybski's General Semantics, later promoted by S. I.  Hayakawa and Neil 
Postman (among others), had its origins in the early 20th  century 
fascination with the interaction between language and society,  particularly 
(according to Korzybski's own accounts) in the 1923 book The  Meaning of Meaning: A 
Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and the  Science of 
Symbolism, by C.K Ogden and I. A. Richards (who, incidentally,  had been an 
instructor to McLuhan at Cambridge.)

Ogden and Richards later  teamed up on the BASIC ENGLISH project, which re
ceived considerable support from  the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard 
University, as well as being promoted by  Churchill himself.  This recent book 
details some of the links between this  linguistic project and post-WW II 
imperialism  --


Again,  *all* of this -- Churchill, Korzybski, Bateson, Ogden, Richards 
etc. --  including the global push for total PSYWAR (and its supporting 
"complexity" and  related themes) are completely subsumed by the "environment" 
created by  analog/mass-market/propaganda media of radio and television.

But, we have  all lived in a very *different* environment for at least the 
past 20  years.  We are now in the DIGITAL era, whose characteristics are 
radically  different from the one that gave rise to these earlier "effects."

Yes,  superficially, or to use the terms of Gestalt psychology (which 
McLuhan was also  fond of), the "figures" of our lives still appear to be the 
same themes of  chaos/complexity that dominated in the *analog* media 
environment.   However, the "ground" of our experience has fundamentally changed.

Has  anyone successfully (or even partially, tentatively) tried to 
*contrast* the  effects of today's digital technology, along with its implications 
for language,  with the psychological warfare EMPIRES of the MIND approach 
that arose in the  earlier analog environment?

Mark Stahlman
Brooklyn NY  

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