Finding Wisdom — Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

“Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.”Marshall McLuhan in the preface to The Mechanical Bride, 1951

One cannot fully comprehend modern human society without Marshall McLuhan, especially those of us who use the relatively new technologies borne of the television, the personal computer, the smartphone, social media, political spin and manipulation, social control, advertising, and digitized systems.  With McLuhan recent phenomena like Gamergate become intelligible.

He began as an earnest Canadian English teacher who found his intellectual pursuits influenced by the rise of new technologies–both historical and contemporaneous–that would soon transform mediums of literature, art, and learning and become what is now known as popular culture and mass media.  Along the way he also found himself bound up in both that popular culture and mass media which, as all artifacts of human narcissism, cannot help but be fascinated and thus flattered by those who study it.  Then for a while he was largely forgotten and ignored by these same artifacts of modern life once the freshness of his ideas passed and it became apparent that his observations were simply that, and not usually positive.

He introduced into the popular lexicon the phrase, via Dr. Timothy Leary, “tune in, turn on, drop out,” when commenting on advertising during a lunch the two had in New York City, with McLuhan substituting a pitch for psychedelic drugs in the lyrics of a popular Pepsi commercial tune at the time.  He is also remembered, at the height of his popularity, for this cameo in the Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall”:

But more significantly, McLuhan is known for establishing the link between modes of transmitting knowledge and the way they influence the structures of the mind, of how knowledge is viewed and used depending on the medium, and its effects on the individual and society, which were not originally anticipated.  His concepts have been summarized by the phrases “the medium is the message,” and “the medium is the massage.”  He also was the first to describe the manner in which the world is connected by various types of media using the phrase “global village,” and anticipated the Internet that we know today, years before it became a fact, describing how it would significantly alter all means of human understanding.

Among the significant works in McLuhan’s canon are The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), which was the work that brought him fame and fortune in this country, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with Quentin Fiore) (1967), War and Peace in the Global Village (with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel) (1968), From Cliché to Archetype (with Wilfred Watson) (1970), and the posthumous The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (with Bruce Powers) (1989).

My intent is not to delve deeply into McLuhan’s work.  There is a small McLuhan industry of academics in the world who both support and criticize his observations, as well as the interpretations of those observations.  The Wikipedia summary of McLuhan is excellent, as is the in-depth work of the McLuhan Galaxy blog here on WordPress.  There is also a website for his estate that has a wealth of information on his writings.

Instead, what I intend to do is summarize the essential wisdom and understanding in his work.  For it is apparent–and was apparent from the first time that I picked up his anthology of media as an undergraduate student and news editor of my college newspaper in 1972–that the insights he provided constituted both a deep understanding of the world that was to come, and that not understanding that world–and the essential wisdom of what he observed about it–would spell disaster for many of us who cared about the democratic ideal and the transmittal of knowledge.  To paraphrase one of Ray Bradbury’s short story characters, a people who fail to grasp the future will find themselves soon overtaken by it.

McLuhan’s approach that would mark him both as a modernist and an unconventional analyst began in The Mechanical Bride.  The quote found at the beginning of this post is from the preface to that work.  Here he addresses the rising popular culture with its armies hired by corporations and political organizations all dedicated to manipulating the way people think.  The book is filled with advertisements, comics, and articles of the time related to the various essays in the book, which are designed to be read in any order that the reader decides.  His rhetorical position, in lieu of outrage or the tone of the reformist, is to use humor and amusement.  He uses the analogy of Edgar Allen Poe’s character in the story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” who finds himself in the grip of the whirlpool from which he cannot escape, and has no choice but to ride it out and use it for his own amusement.  Unable to reverse the new machine of persuasion and manipulation, he takes the position of exposing the obvious motivations behind the content in the examples provided, and therefore makes the reader aware of what is being attempted.

He then moved on in The Gutenberg Galaxy, which was awarded Canada’s highest literary prize for non-fiction, to look at the development of different mediums of transmitting information.  He traced the effect of the transformation from the oral to print to visual mediums, like television on human understanding, and anticipated new mass electronic media.  This came at a time, in the early 1960s, that saw a rapid expansion of literacy, the consumer acceptance of television, and the mass introduction of paperback books.  While the effect of television was just beginning to be realized (the “vast wasteland”), mass electronic media that combined all of the capabilities of previous media was still the topic of science fiction.  Yet McLuhan successfully identified the emerging computerization of data and its future possible role, characterizing it as the “global village.”  It is also here that we find the first use of the term “surfing” to describe a means of electronically navigating to find information.  In the global village, unlike in the world of print, knowledge would become individualized and fragmented.

Unlike the world of phonetic written language based on movable type, the electronic global village would undermine the preciseness of language and understanding that print was able to enforce.  For McLuhan, the process of the medium of books and other written mediums was an individual one between author and reader that fostered–and made possible–such civilizing concepts as objective analysis, democracy, and individual rights.  Print moved the human species from mere tribal, mythical, and parochial concerns to those that transcended the shackles of human understanding.  The effects on cognition by the electronic global village, he posited, would once again transform the world around us in unexpected ways from this level of stability.  Technology itself possesses no morality, it shapes society’s and the individual’s self-conception.

Thus, it is soon that we are brought to his most popular and influential, if not fully coherent work, in Understanding Media.  Here we are introduced to the McLuhan Equation, which is summarized popularly by the phrase “the medium is the message”–a further development of the thesis regarding media that he wrote about in The Gutenberg Galaxy.  This equation has been largely misunderstood, oftentimes in the most extreme ways, of positing that the content of the medium being used doesn’t matter.  This is not true.  What McLuhan was observing, instead, was that content is a medium of its own, but the manner in which it is conveyed also has its own dynamism and effect.  The means of conveyance comes with its own message that may alter the way that people think and learn, that will influence the way in which the content is received.

For example, I am sitting at my desk writing this post.  The medium in which it is being transmitted to you, the reader, is via the web that is accessed by your PC, laptop, notepad, or smartphone.  Having been raised and disciplined in an educational environment that requires focus, concentration, and constant fact-checking, my content is presented in the form of the essay.  The medium in which my ideas are transmitted, however, undermines such discipline.

You may scan this post, mark it for further reading when you have a chance, and then move on to other things like looking at the weather for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, perhaps doing some shopping on-line in advance of the end of year holiday rush, take a look at headline news–which invariably nowadays is selected based on how and who is presenting the information to reinforce your personal worldview–and then continue surfing for some other bit of information.  During this process you will be bombarded by ads and other forms of information designed to draw your attention.  The content for each of these items is different and will affect you in different ways, but the medium in which it is presented provides you with that information in a linear, immediate, and flat manner.  No attempt is made to filter much of that information for accuracy or significance.  The brain registers it all as if it all has equal value.

To elaborate on his concepts he introduced the concept of “hot” and “cool” media.  Hot media, such as books, movies, and lectures, engage the individual through one primary sense, require immersion and analytical thought.  Cool media are those like television and, in our own day, gaming and the internet, which provide substantial stimulus and, oftentimes, active participation by the user involving many senses.  His later works, which on the whole are less compelling but which provide many elements of significance and insight, elaborate on these foundations.  In particular, The Medium is the Massage, describes the ability of different media to engage the user and massage the senses.  The additional speculations on the global village, in particular the means in which communication and propaganda has been used to justify war, and what they would look like, have proved prescient.

To wonder about social and political polarization, neo-Medieval forms of thinking, or the basest motivations of the human psyche reemerging given the effect of this technology, which reinforces individuation, alienation, and fragmentation, is to ignore the elephant in the room.  It is not that these forms of dysfunction have not survived throughout the modern era, given that all mediums exist simultaneously.  It is that they have not been transmitted and influenced human agency so quickly, effectively, and widely.  This is also the crux of the issue regarding net neutrality and other forms of surveillance, behavioral advertising, and social control by both business and government.

Taken with other contemporaneous and subsequent works such as those of B. F. Skinner, Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders, the recent work in social psychology by Albert Bandura, McLuhan’s work provides a great deal of insight into how media both reflects the society at large and, at the same time, influences it as well.  We must be aware of the ways in which we are manipulated and influenced by those whose sole goal is to have us do their bidding.  The nature of democracy and human autonomy depends on it.