From Lance Strate’s trenchant 2008 article “Studying Media as Media“:
McLuhan’s emphasis on media effects has led some of his critics to label his approach as technological determinism. Technological determinism is a straw man used to caricature McLuhan as some sort of media Calvinist, and to dismiss his arguments without serious consideration. After all, most people get upset at the denial of free will, in theory as well as in practice. …
Free will does not mean freedom from limits, constraints, and outside influences. As [technology] diffusion researcher Everett Rogers puts it, innovations have consequences, and while some of the consequences may be desirable, others may be undesirable. And while some consequences may be direct effects of the introduction of a new technology, these in turn may lead to further indirect effects. And while some consequences may be anticipated, there will always be others that are unanticipated. Along the same lines, it may be true that a good part of what we call reality is a social construction, but the construction we end up with is not necessarily one that we intended to build. Moreover, only an intellectual divorced from everyday life could forget that construction begins with raw materials and the tools that shape them. Media are the stuff with which we build our social realities.
Other critics complain that media ecology scholars like McLuhan, Havelock, and Ong put forth a “Great Divide” theory, exaggerating the difference between orality and literacy, for example. And it is true that they see a great divide between orality and literacy. And a great divide between word and image. And a great divide between the alphabet, on the one hand, and pictographic and ideographic writing, on the other. And a great divide between clay tablets as a medium for writing and papyrus. And a great divide between parchment and paper. And a great divide between scribal copying and the printing press. And a great divide between typography and the electronic media. And now a great divide between virtuality and reality. I could continue to add to this list, but the point is that there are many divides, which suggests that no single one of them is all that great after all. The critics miss the point that media ecology scholars often work dialectically, using contrasts to understand media.
Without the drawing of distinctions, everything blurs.
Image: Fabian Mohr.