As I sit in my hotel room in Brussels, slightly jet-lagged and counting the hours until I present my paper Total Involvement: Channeling Education through McLuhan at the McLuhan’s Philosophy of Media Centennial Conference (hosted by the Free University of Brussels), I began to follow the police assaults on the Occupy Oakland crowd via Twitter. Apparently, the police employed the old standards of tear gas an non-letal rounds on the crowd, driving them out of their territory temporarily and certainly causing quite a stir online.
At one point in my Twitter feed Xeni Jardin suggested that reports have surfaced that some police forces may begin to employ ‘sound cannons’ on #occupy crowds as an alternative to the more traditional means. If you’re not familiar with this technology, Xeni offers a look at it via an NPR piece back in 2005. Here’s an excerpt:
Several police departments across America are planning to try a new device that uses focused sound, turned way up. These so-called non-lethal acoustic devices are already in use by U.S. forces in Iraq — and some are already in place in areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.
These devices are more than just fancy speakers. California-based HPV Technologies recently demonstrated a “magnetic acoustic device” or MAD that can broadcast a targeted beam of sound for a more than mile. At close range, the sound from these devices can be terrifying and painful.
A look at a couple of photos shows how easily this technology can be employed.
This is the backside of the MRAD (Medium Range Acoustic Device). You can see the simplicity of the technology and how it might be easy and flexible to use in ‘crowd control’ situations. Like any technology there’s something positive and negative about that…it may prove to be more cost effective long-term and less-physically destructive, but it also might create a tendency for faster and more frequent employment. The tazer gave police a relatively non-lethal option for use in their work, but we’ve seen rampant abuse of the technology reported in the news. To give you a sense of just how easy it is to employ this device, and how militarized our nation’s police forces have become, you can see the MRAD mounted on an urban police vehicle here (although the photo may be Canadian…you get the idea):
Impressive, no? It’s almost as if Arnold Schwarzenegger was put in charge of acquisitions for someone’s local S.W.A.T. team. The key here, from a media ecology perspective, is the use of sound as a weapon. This is a very good example of McLuhan’s tetrad in action, especially to explain the property of Reversal. First an image of the tetrad:
I won’t go into the full explanation of the tetrad here. You can find more on that elsewhere if you want to look on your own. The idea of reversal is that a medium, pushed to its extreme, will reverse itself into an opposite form. In this case, sound is the key, with its relationship to the nature of acoustic (rather than visual) space. Walter Ong wrote in his book Orality and Literacy:
Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed (1961). Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from every directions at once; I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelopes me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence… You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight.
By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart. The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together.
Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Vision is a dissecting sense, sound is a unifying sense. The visual ideal is taking apart, while the auditory is putting together, harmony. The sound cannon pushes sound so far to the extreme that it flips itself, it reverses, and takes on the characteristic of the fragmented, visual environment. It takes apart crowds and dissects them. It seems like the expression ‘white noise’ might be appropriate, although that generally describes sound that has little recognizable character. ‘Blinding white noise’ might do the trick, completing the reversal and breaking up this post. Do you hear me?
UPDATE: Here’s a YouTube clip about the MRAD. They make the same point about the tazer that I did above.