Research Extract #3: McLuhan on zero

“The discovery of calculation by positional numbers rather than by merely additive numbers led, also, to the discovery of zero. Mere positions for 3 and 2 on the board created ambiguities about whether the number was 32 or 302. The need was to have a sign for the gaps between numbers. It was not till the thirteenth century that sifr, the Arab word for ‘gap’ or ’empty’, was Latinized and was added to our culture as ‘cipher’ (ziphrium) and finally became the Italian zero. Zero really meant a positional gap. It did not acquire the indispensable quality of  ‘infinity’ until the rise of perspective and ‘vanishing point’ in Renaissance painting. […] That both vanishing point and infinity were unknown in the Greek and Roman cultures can be explained as by-products of literacy. It was not until printing extended the visual faculty into very high precision, uniformity, and intensity of special order that the other could be restrained or depressed sufficiently to create the new awareness of infinity” (McLuhan, Understanding Media)


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