A Descent Into the Maelström
But one thing at a time. What is the story, which revolves around the Maelstrom, roughly about?
The story recounts the tale of a ship, manned by two brothers, which gets caught in a raging vortex. One of the brothers, the narrator of the story, shares his thoughts as the boat is dragged steadily into the abyss. Initially, he can only perceive the horror of the vortex. But in a slow-motion moment of clarity, he realizes, however, that the Maelström is as much an awe-inspiring as it is a fascinating phenomenon that can be studied and thereby understood.
Using an almost scientific, objective analysis and observation of the vortex and the objects that are drawn into it, he gradually begins to see more and more patterns. Patterns that help him develop a path of action for himself. In strong contrast to this is his brother, who loses his mind due to the seemingly endless complexity of the situation and thus becomes incapable of acting.
Energized by his observations, he decides to take action and escape the downward pull in a barrel of water. After a desperate attempt to save his brother, who has been blinded and incapacitated by panic, he bravely plunges into the spray. Finally, he accomplishes the seemingly impossible of getting a grip on the situation and actually escaping the vortex.So why was McLuhan so drawn to this story? Is there a message one could take away from it?
I believe that the story’s metaphor perfectly captures the ever-increasing technological whirlpool that humanity is caught in due to progress and innovation.
It visualizes a familiar scenario that we can all relate to. Maybe from conversations with previous generations, but also with ourselves: the feeling of being overwhelmed by the speed of change.
But in contrast to the powerlessness often experienced during those kind of moments, the story continues. It reveals a common thread that can be seen as a blueprint for behavior in complex situations. These situations are often characterized by uncertainty and incomplete information, and can easily overwhelm those who react impulsively or out of fear or emotion. Situations we encounter very often in our modern and complex society.
These are some of the lessons for dealing with seemingly overwhelming complexity that can be derived from this story:
Reviewing this list, it’s clear that many of these recommendations are relevant to navigating the complexities of modern life, which is increasingly shaped by technology. Perhaps this is why McLuhan was so captivated by the story.
Admitting that you are stuck in a complex situation from which there is no quick, easy way out can actually be quite helpful. It allows you to clear your head, look for more long-term, sustainable ways out, and most importantly, tackle those ways one step at a time. I think there is only one thing left to do: Mr. Poe and Mr. McLuhan, thank you sincerely for the stimulating conversation.