DOA Q+A: Marshall McLuhan


Notable media scholar Marshall McLuhan is known for coining the phrase, "the medium is the message," and now, over 30 years since his death, another famous scholar in the field of biology and evolution, Charles Darwin, interviews McLuhan to get his thoughts on the future of media. The following is a mash-up of actual quotes and creative liberty as relayed by MEDIA guest editor Brian Monahan.

Charles Darwin: Marshall, you're famous for pointing out that media shapes society. You've also defined media as the technological extension of humans. Is the media the human? Or is media simply a tool that humans use?

Marshall McLuhan: Well, media is certainly more than a tool. When you are on the phone or broadcast in the air, you have no body. It is not so much the message as the sender that is sent. And nowadays there are far more ways for everyone to create, share and store electronic representations from self. I'm still not convinced that media has the soul of humans, but I hold out hope because that would mean immortality!

Darwin: I've said that natural selection favors not necessarily the smartest or the strongest of a species, but rather the most adaptable. Would you agree that human adaptability is key to survival given the rate of change of the media that surrounds them?

McLuhan: Absolutely! Forty years before Twitter, I predicted that the future of the book is the blurb. Adaptability to media change is key for the survival of civil society as well as the human species. Forty years ago I also foretold the danger of how, at the speed of light, policies and political parties yield their place to charismatic images.

Darwin: Over the years I have repeatedly pointed out that over the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. In your opinion, does the human species have the option to turn away from the fully mediated world we are creating?

McLuhan: No. Individuals can opt out, but the species has no choice. Many years ago, I described reading the morning newspaper as stepping into a warm bath. Now just looking at your mobile phone instantly connects you with your friends, family, colleagues, tastemakers and world actors in near real-time. Mastering these new tools is critical for individual success in the societies shaped by them.

Darwin: You've described a light bulb as a medium without content that creates an environment by its mere presence. Do Facebook and Google also shape our environment by their mere presence?

McLuhan: No doubt about it. Humans learn by experiencing consequences. Now our actions are documented and shared in perpetuity for all who care to see them. The deterrent effect of exposing bad behavior is probably the most powerful aspect of the digital media revolution.

Darwin: I travelled to the ends of the earth to find isolated populations. Forty years ago, you were saying how media was creating a global village. Does that mean social scientists looking to research distinct tribes in today's interconnected world should look for a new job?

McLuhan: Well, the clock is certainly ticking! The Arab Spring literally made me spin in my grave. Here we had some of the allegedly most insular societies use new media with great facility to remake their societies in just a matter of weeks. And from all appearances, it looks like the individuals who have developed new media skills are poised for individual success.

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