McLuhan 50 Years Later

by , Dec 20, 2012, 11:29 AM
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My daughter, who is in her senior year of high school, recently wrote an essay on Marshall McLuhan. She asked me to give my thoughts on McLuhan’s theories of media. To be honest, I hadn’t given McLuhan much thought since my college days, when I had packed away "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” for what I thought would likely be forever. I always found the title ironic. This book does many things, but promoting “understanding” is not one of them. It’s one of the more incomprehensible texts I’ve ever encountered.

My daughter’s essay caused me to dig up my half-formed understanding of what McLuhan was trying to say. I also tried to update that understanding from the early ‘60s, when it was written, to a half-century later, in the world we currently live in.

Consider this passage from McLuhan, written exactly 50 years ago: The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness—will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.

(See, I told you it was incomprehensible!)

The key thing to understand here is that McLuhan foretold something that I believe is unfolding before our eyes: The media we interact with are changing our patterns of cognition – not the message, but the medium itself. We are changing how we think. And that, in turn, is changing our society. While we focus on the messages we receive, we fail to notice that the ways we receive those messages are changing everything we know, forever. Twitter, Facebook, Google, the xBox and Youtube – all are co-conspirators in a wholesale rewiring of our world.

Now, to borrow from McLuhan’s own terminology, no one in our Global Village could ignore the horrific unfolding of events in Connecticut last week. But the channels we received the content through also affected our intellectual and visceral connection with that content. Watching parents search desperately for their children on television was a very different experience from catching the latest CNN update delivered via my iPhone. 

When we watched through “hot” media, we connected at an immediate and emotional level. When the message was delivered through “cool” media, we stood somewhat apart, framing the messaging and interpreting it, abstracted at some length from the sights and sounds of what was unfolding. Because of the emotional connection afforded by the “hot” media, the terror of Newtown was also our own.

McLuhan foretold this as well: Unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.

My daughter is graduating next June. The world she will inherit will bear little resemblance to the one I stepped into, fresh from my own graduation in 1979. It is smaller, faster, more connected and, in many ways, more terrifying. But, has the world changed as much as it seems, or is it just the way we perceive that world? And, in that perception, are we the ones unleashing the change?

7 comments on "McLuhan 50 Years Later".

  1. Scott Freeland from AutoTrader.com
    commented on: December 20, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.
    Great dig. Compels me to share the great McLuhan cameo from Annie Hall: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wWUc8BZgWE
  2. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand
    commented on: December 20, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.
    This is an eye opener. Of course back in the day we studied McLuhan in basic comm courses. But it had all been put to the back burner of my brain. Now I'll have to go back and at least review the Cliff notes (talk about an anachronism). On a side note, too bad it was your daughter who came to you about McLuhan. If it were someone less close, you could have pulled out an Annie Hall scene.
  3. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand
    commented on: December 20, 2012 at 12:13 p.m.
    Scott beat me to it.
  4. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting
    commented on: December 20, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.
    Thanks Jonathon and Scott..probably my favorite Woody Allen moment ever!
  5. Steven Osborne from Osborne pike
    commented on: December 21, 2012 at 5:51 a.m.
    I picked up 'Understanding Media' whilst on holiday a few years ago from a friend's bookshelf. He studied design at Penn State so I guess he had to try to 'understand' it for real, whereas I was just browsing for pleasure. As you say the title was a bit over-promising on the understanding front, up there with any book that promises to make semiotics 'simple'. But through the fog of his arcane prose, I did realise that McLuhan was saying something profound, and like many others I immediately wanted to know what he would have made of the internet. As you point out 'the medium is the message' proves to be a truly great insight, with huge implications for how society will operate in the future, precisely because new media causes new ways to think, independently of its content. I gave a talk recently on Augmented Reality, and after initial doubts used the 'talking ads' clip from Minority Report as an introduction. Spielberg had really done his homework on the technologies that might be in play in 2054, and presented a dystopian vision of the information age that we have just entered. I really don't know how the multiplicity of new media forms will affect the society which my kids will soon have to navigate. But it sure seems like media studies might shake off its image as 'not a real subject' and become the new rocket science.
  6. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging
    commented on: December 24, 2012 at 5:49 a.m.
    McLuhan was right in general, but wrong about television, which has passed its peak. What he missed was the deadening effect of copyright law on real public involvement. The important and growing media today are things like social media and most recently photo sharing, which lack "Big Media" gatekeepers.
  7. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion
    commented on: December 31, 2012 at 2:50 p.m.
    Thanks for the Annie Hall clip -- had forgotten that wonderful bit. And thanks for the thoughts on McLuhan. Happy New Media Year.

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