My column in today’s Guardian looks at Marshall McLuhan’s second life as a prophet of internet media. A couple of my references had to be cut from the column for space reasons. Here’s the full text, with links.
Marshall McLuhan is back. The 1960s icon’s theories about “electric media” have new resonance now that the internet is becoming our all-purpose conduit for news, information and entertainment.
McLuhan was an obscure Canadian academic until the mid-Sixties, when his best-selling book Understanding Media turned him into a pop-culture phenomenon. His playfully radical ideas and deliberately disjointed prose perfectly reflected the spirit of the times, when the air was filled with revolutionary rhetoric and pot smoke. Tom Wolfe, in a 1965 article, suggested that McLuhan might be ”the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov.”
McLuhan’s central thesis, encapsulated in the famous phrase “the medium is the message,” was that the technologies through which we take in information—the media, broadly defined—become “extensions” of our bodies, exerting a profound influence over how we think and act. When an important new medium arrives, it can reshape who we are as individuals and as a society.
The electric media of television and computers, argued McLuhan, would liberate us from our dependence on the printed word. Print was what he called a “hot” medium, one that absorbed all of our attention and left little room for participation. The medium it had supplanted, the spoken word, was by contrast a “cool” medium that left plenty of space for participation.
Reading, to put it simply, is a lonely pursuit, while speech is a social one. So when we became readers, rather than listeners, we sacrificed our shared, tribal consciousness and became locked into private consciousness. Printed text, in McLuhan’s view, led to everything from the rise of individualism to the specialization of jobs in factories.
Electric media, being cool technologies that promote interaction, would bring back our lost tribal consciousness, McLuhan believed. But our tribes would no longer be small, isolated groups. Because the new media spanned the planet, we would become members of a “global village.”
When the communal Sixties collapsed into the self-indulgent Seventies, McLuhan fell out of favor. His theories came to be dismissed as the provocations of a huckster.
Today, his work seems current again. Kevin Kelly, one of Wired’s original editors, suggests that what McLuhan “was really talking about was the Internet—two decades before it appeared.” Paul Levinson, in his book Digital McLuhan, argues that McLuhan’s ideas help explain the “dynamic of increased and enlightened human control” that characterizes “our digital age.”
The internet does seem to represent the fulfillment of McLuhan’s vision, at least in some ways. As we’ve seen with the explosion of blogs, podcasts and homemade videos, the net encourages media participation on an unprecedented scale. If a global village is emerging, it’s on the web.
But it’s hard to imagine that McLuhan would be sanguine about today’s “electric media.” In fact, he’d probably have a hard time even recognizing them.
Television, which McLuhan saw as a cool medium, is rapidly turning into a hot one, with mammoth screens, high-definition images and surround sound. And computers, rather than freeing us from the printed word, have made text more ubiquitous than ever. Whether surfing the web, typing messages on our phones, or checking our BlackBerrys, we are wrapped in a cocoon of text that would have boggled McLuhan’s mind.
The internet doesn’t really fit into McLuhan’s “hot” and “cool” dichotomy. It is, as Scott Rosenberg wrote back in 1995, a “lukewarm” medium. It encourages participation but it also sucks up our attention and dominates our senses. When we gaze into a computer screen, we tune out everything else.
The temperature of media was not McLuhan’s only subject, nor even his most interesting one. Although he is often presented as a glorifier of technological progress, he painted a subtle, sometimes disturbing picture of the future. In one striking sentence from Understanding Media, he offered a dark view of the commercial exploitation of electric media: “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.”
McLuhan understood that as media become more interactive, they also become more potent tools for manipulation. They not only transmit information to us but gather information about us. In anticipating the Internet, McLuhan sounded a warning as much as a welcome.