A Descent Into the Maelström

  • technology
  • critical-engineering
  • media
  • literature

While reading through Marshall McLuhan’s biography recently, I became aware of an interesting short story by Edgar Allan Poe: «A Descent into the Maelström». McLuhan seemed fascinated by this story because he saw it as a kind of metaphor for how to stay afloat in the eternally spinning vortex of modern technologies and media. Since then, I’ve observed for myself that this metaphor can be a helpful anchor and calming mantra for keeping cool in the technology and software landscape, which is so often driven by hypes and big money interests.

But one thing at a time. What is the story, which revolves around the Maelstrom, roughly about?

A Descent into the Maelström is an 1841 short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In the tale, a man recounts how he survived a shipwreck and a whirlpool. It has been … labeled an early form of science fiction.

I asked DALL-E to visualize some parts of the plot. This is what it came up with…
I asked DALL-E to visualize some parts of the plot. This is what it came up with…

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.

It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first.

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.

I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that, as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent — the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere — the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.

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.

I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water.

Edgar Allan Poe|A Descent into the Maelstrom
So why was McLuhan so drawn to this story? Is there a message one could take away from it?
Harry Clarke's illustration for "A Descent into the Maelström" (1919)
Harry Clarke's illustration for "A Descent into the Maelström" (1919)

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.

Potential Insights

These are some of the lessons for dealing with seemingly overwhelming complexity that can be derived from this story:

Remain calm and observe the apparent chaos with curiosity - you might poke ways out of it.
Resist the temptation to take the first and seemingly easiest way out. Instead, delve deeper and strive to understand.
Keep a clear head and don’t let negative emotions cloud your judgment.
Look for both positive and negative patterns. Then experiment with positive patterns to see what actually works and what doesn’t
Be critical and optimistic. Question your assumptions critically but don’t let negativity stop you from swimming to the top.
Once you have a proven theory, be bold and take action. Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith.

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.