Not a fan of media theorist Marshall ‘the medium is the message’ McLuhan? Okay, I don’t go in for the technological determinism either, but you can’t deny that the man was uncannily prescient when it came to predicting how our culture would develop – a ‘global village’, electric technology ‘reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life’ – and how these changes would be feared – ‘we drive into the future using only our rear view mirror’. He even divined the demise of print culture, and ‘electronic interdependence’.
So there’s all that, which surely loans him a few seconds of your time, and then there’s this:
Ahem. I’ve been thinking a lot about McLuhan because I’ve been teaching a course on online media.
At first, I thought about him in relation to convergence: the way all forms of media are starting to closely resemble each other (see 3AW for instance, where you can now watch videos of radio personalities on air).
McLuhan wrote about the effects of technology on culture and our relations within that culture. He posited that technology created new environments that then shaped our cultural patterns, but we didn’t have the objectivity required to perceive these patterns. Instead, we’re lured by the content – a breaking story here, a blog post there – rather than looking at the medium and how it’s shaping and changing our world, our thought patterns, our interactions, which, even now, are being shaped by the internet. Or this may be what McLuhan had said, if he lived to see the web.
So, some extrapolation is needed. In the past, when print was the dominant medium, if we imagined writing a story, we’d imagine a story with a beginning, middle and an end, the easily recognisable three-act structure. But the web, with its multimedia, interactivity and non-linearity, is changing the way we write, create, communicate and structure. How do you write a story if you know your potential audience now expects more than the singular and linear?
A couple of days after this profundity, I happened across a video of McLuhan, an excerpt of a much longer documentary from 1970. Watch as McLuhan and Tom Wolfe sit in McLuhan’s backyard, chatting about oral traditions in deck chairs on a sunny lawn – it’s utterly surreal:
I was reminded of McLuhan again last week when researching abstract notions of news and its value, and came across a video where Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia co-creator) and Andrew Keen (author and ‘educator, entrepreneur and internet cultural critic’) debated whether the internet had killed print journalism. (Watch from 3:10 to see Keen, but be warned: actual viewing may cause heart palpitations.)
Now, I’m sort of of the opinion that Keen should be banned from ever penning another book because 1) he sees no cultural value online, and 2) he cites Judith Miller and Thomas Friedman as journalistic pillars of society – and yet, this uncritical view of content reminds me of McLuhan and the idea that it’s the medium that matters. Writers like Keen, for instance, are possessed of the idea that the paper and news is authoritative and collective, while the screen is individual and narcissistic – without any critique of the information delivered or how it’s delivered.
This morning I came across an article about Douglas Coupland’s new book: Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, about McLuhan, his genius and that unavoidable question: ‘how are new media changing the way we think?’ Coupland writes:
One must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or I.B.M., but rather by studying arcane 16th-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.
Ten years ago, there weren’t many writers touting McLuhan’s genius; the internet has changed that. Was he so very revolutionary, or did he simply look backwards, analysing how humans have historically reacted to major changes in technology? Evgeny Morozov’s review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains begins with a fascinating analogy predating McLuhan:
In 1889 the Spectator published an article, “The Intellectual Effects of Electricity,” intended to provoke its Victorian readers. Robert Cecil, the prime minister, had recently given a speech to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in which “he admitted that only the future could prove whether the effect of the discovery of electricity… would tell for good or evil.” The authors attacked him for being soft on electricity. Its material effects were welcome—“imagine the hundred million of ploughing oxen now toiling in Asia, with their labour superseded by electric accumulators!”—but its intellectual effects were not.
Electricity had led to the telegraph, which in turn saw “a vast diffusion of what is called ‘news,’ the recording of every event, and especially of every crime.” Foreshadowing Marshall McLuhan by almost a century, the magazine deplored a world that was “for purposes of ‘intelligence’ reduced to a village” in which “a catastrophe caused by a jerry-builder of New York wakes in two hours the sensation of pity throughout the civilised world.” And while “certainly it increases nimbleness of mind… it does this at a price. All men are compelled to think of all things, at the same time, on imperfect information, and with too little interval for reflection.”
Maybe it’s unfair to lump McLuhan in with the likes of Keen and Carr. After all, McLuhan focused on the social and cultural shifts of technology (as opposed to ‘the micro-levels of neuroscience’), and he’s been dead for 31 years – who can say what he would have made of the web.
If McLuhan is trying to tell me something from beyond the grave, it may just be: ‘It is the framework which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame.’ I’ll have to think on that a while.