Looking into McLuhan’s Lightbulb: Levinasian Ethics in Video Calling OR Why You Don’t Like Skype

I use Skype a bit. Some people really don’t like using Skype. I’ve had conversations with people along the lines of “it’s weird”, “it’s not real”, “it makes me feel uncomfortable”. What is the nature of these problems? I suggest it’s not just “tech bad”. Part of it stems from from idealized advertising images of Facetime etc which are, after all, experienced from a third person perspective. When someone – generally a loved one – is looking at you via the interface while you use the interface and talk to them, it’s not the experience of the smiling-beautiful-laughing people. But I don’t really want to talk about that – I want to go the other way. I want to say that if Skype makes you uncomfortable, or you don’t really like it, or there’s something weird in it, it’s because of something really important. It’s because it is a mediated but vital encounter with another person. This is what Emmanuel Levinas says is the most important thing in existence, that we only understand ourselves through our encounter with the other. Now, I suggest that the mediated encounter, in this case the Skype video call, is not artificial or simulated but contains the call of the other which Levinas says is so important. And that this is the thing which makes you feel weird about it. Furthermore, exploring this idea, thinking about the ethical proportions of the Skype interaction, leads us to rejecting rethinking Marshall McLuhan’s founding concept from Understanding Media… ALTOGETHER NOW #the medium is the message!#

Quickly, and recklessly, let me describe a big premise which underlies all this, one that I’m not going to go into properly here (mainly cause I’m still sorting it out). It’s to do with online interaction as being not different, or lesser, or worse than face-to-face embodied interaction. Digital dualism – the distinction between “online” and the “real world”, man, is no longer a thing. This is because (very very very simply, and recklessly again) the interface is language. The face of the other, in a Levinasian sense – i.e. as the starting event, situation of all ethics – is thus present in the interface. The interface is not a copy or a simulation or “unreal”. It’s immaterial, sure. But it’s not a “version” of the other. We do not live science fiction. The other is brought forth, appears, in language, in a way which is ethically commensurate to material face-to-face interaction. I’m going to perhaps confuse all this by taking about the face as it appears in the interface visually, but just bear in mind that really “the face” is a metaphor in Levinas for the body/skin/words of the other person.

So Skype. You don’t like it, it’s weird. But you use it. You have at least once used a video call. You still do (occasionally). Why not just phone? Economy/ease of access, sure. But undeniably, video calling provides the possibility of the face in a way which is more challenging than the phone call, because it is able to accommodate the sense that the self is created and questioned by the other. The problem of Skype, then, is actually to do with ethical responsibility. We have to acknowledge the immediacy of the face, of the other. We don’t always do this in the same way in face-to-face interaction. In fact, I’d go so far as to say face-to-face is a misnomer. I mean that face-to-face interaction doesn’t involve acknowledging the face – in this instance, the visage, the eyes and mouth on the front of the head – looking into it, seeing it, understanding that there is the other person – in the way that a video call privileges and establishes the command of the face. Sure, we can control the off/on of the encounter, but we can do that in a face-to-face encounter too (I can leave, not look you in the eye, make my excuses, put my fingers in my ears and run away.)

A video call on a laptop is an ethical moment because of the immediacy of the face and the ethical command it establishes. We are interpellated by the other in the mechanism of the interface. The relation of the two people in the encounter is granted an asymmetry which the phone call doesn’t retain, because of the distinction the interface provides between the person you have called and you. Think about it this way: you are smaller, in the corner of the screen, or non-existent. The picture of the other is huge, covers your whole screen. This is not the appearance of an image, but works as the primordial call of the other. The face moves, speaks, gestures. It says “Here I Am”. It is an instance of the ethical relation. The movements of the other onscreen are the call of the other, not the fixed image of an avatar. The other in the interface is always in the process of expression.

So that’s why you don’t really like Skype, but you want to use it. Because it provides the possibility of the face – that is, the ethical force of the other, calling to you, saying “you have a responsibility to me” – in all its immediacy. When you initiate a video call with someone, you sacrifice yourself to their presence, because you understand that you will be interpellated by them, by their gaze and their call. It is perhaps the very veracity of their being, not in terms of their audiovisual make up but as an ethical presence, which is what gets under our skin. It’s an apprehension of the oncoming breach of our comfortable sense of ego by the Other. In this way, Skyping is an ethical medium of communication which challenges the conception of the ego and the self in the most essential way.

What’s this got to do with McLuhan? I snuck the word medium in there just now. I’ve been wanting for a while to complain about address the ubiquity of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. As McLuhan draws attention to the idea that the form of media communication is important, he flattens the experience of communication. If an analysis is concentrated on the idea that the medium tells us what we need to know about the shape of society (*cough* Heidegger *cough*) then there is no room or possibility for the analysis of what goes on within, above and around the medium. In Levinasian terms, the relationship between sociality and the medium is fixed into a said (knowledge, content), despite apparently emphasizing the saying (performance, gesture). While McLuhan moves us away from being concerned with content, I suggest his argument does not in fact accommodate a suitable ethics for contemporary communication:

The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.

I would take issue with the above when thinking about the example of Skype and the ethical appeal found therein. What is the “content” of the medium? Is it the words spoken by the other? Or is it the video of their face? Or is it our interaction as a whole, my sacrifice and their call? There is an essential difficulty of distinguishing between, or making the same, the medium and message in mediated communication if we consider it through a Levinasian ethics. The medium of Skype can only accommodate the face, it can never fix or thematize its effect. The face is a message which breaches the medium, because it is a message which cannot ever be fully known (and is itself the ultimate medium/unmedium?) The “content” of a Skype interaction does not blind us to the character of the medium, but rather accommodates the very thing that constantly challenges media – the face, the ethical challenge, familiar-but-defamiliarized other. It is a challenge, is a “Here I am!” which is framed by the medium, but whose ethical character is present in the very content that the medium tries to accommodate – the vulnerability of the face. To say that we should be concerned with the medium as the ontology which displaces the epistemology of the message is to ignore the excess of ethics, that which is beyond both ontology and epistemology.

I can put this in a different way using McLuhan’s own terms. McLuhan’s metaphor of the light bulb is used to demonstrate “the medium is the message” in the first chapter of Understanding Media. The lightbulb is, for McLuhan, “pure information”, a “medium without a message”:

Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.

How does the metaphor of the light bulb work within my Levinasian challenge to McLuhan’s founding statement? If Skype is our lightbulb, and video images are content, then the face, the vulnerable outward looking face of the Other, formless alterity in the interface in front of us, is an excess which both incorporates and rejects the two. The ethical insistence of the face, the ethical moment, is irreducible to either medium or message. It is the very light of the light bulb that we look into. Sometimes accidentally we look into the light, where it irritates or concerns us; sometimes we look on purpose, a little mystified, knowing that it alters us. It produces spots in front of our eyes, an afterimage, a physiological effect of the light which is not its medium of pure information, nor is it the social conditions created by light. It is an embodied experience which breaches and temporarily interrupts our vision. The afterimage of staring into light is the excess, outside the medium of social functions which light allows and performs. The face in Skype, then, is the afterimage, made possible by the communication medium and the messages it circulates, but existing in an excessive space between, or above, these categories. When you Skype, you are staring into the light bulb, concerned by how bright it is, but willing to sacrifice, making the interruption into an act of responsibility, of ethics, of love.

Reference

McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/mcluhan.mediummessage.pdf