“Understanding Media” turns 50

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s best known work, Understanding Media. To mark the occasion, I’m republishing some thoughts on the man and the book that originally appeared here in 2011. I also had an opportunity to chat about McLuhan’s legacy with Brooke Gladstone in a segment of On the Media airing this weekend, which you can listen to here. The image above is a detail from a MAD magazine cover.

One of my favorite YouTube videos is a clip from a 1968 Canadian TV show featuring a debate between Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan. The two men, both icons of the sixties, could hardly be more different. Leaning forward in his chair, Mailer is pugnacious, animated, engaged. McLuhan, abstracted and smiling wanly, seems to be on autopilot. He speaks in canned riddles. “The planet is no longer nature,” he declares, to Mailer’s uncomprehending stare; “it’s now the content of an art work.”

Watching McLuhan, you can’t quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose. Both impressions, it turns out, are valid. As the novelist Douglas Coupland argued in his recent biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, McLuhan’s mind was probably situated at the mild end of the autism spectrum. He also suffered from a couple of major cerebral traumas. In 1960, he had a stroke so severe that he was given his last rites. In 1967, just a few months before the Mailer debate, surgeons removed a tumor the size of a small apple from the base of his brain. A later procedure revealed that McLuhan had an extra artery pumping blood into his cranium.

Between the stroke and the tumor, McLuhan managed to write a pair of extravagantly original books. The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, explored the cultural and personal consequences of the invention of the printing press, arguing that Gutenberg’s invention shaped the modern mind. Two years later, Understanding Media extended the analysis to the electric media of the twentieth century, which, McLuhan argued, were destroying the individualist ethic of print culture and turning the world into a tightly networked global village. The ideas in both books drew heavily on the works of other thinkers, including such contemporaries as Harold Innis, Albert Lord, and Wyndham Lewis, but McLuhan’s synthesis was, in content and tone, unlike anything that had come before.

When you read McLuhan today, you find all sorts of reasons to be impressed by his insight into media’s far-reaching effects and by his anticipation of the course of technological progress. When he looked at a Xerox machine in 1966, he didn’t just see the ramifications of cheap photocopying, as great as they were. He foresaw the transformation of the book from a manufactured object into an information service: “Instead of the book as a fixed package of repeatable and uniform character suited to the market with pricing, the book is increasingly taking on the character of a service, an information service, and the book as an information service is tailor-made and custom-built.” That must have sounded outrageous a half century ago. Today, with books shedding their physical skins and turning into software programs, it sounds like a given.

You also realize that McLuhan got a whole lot wrong. One of his central assumptions was that electric communication technologies would displace the phonetic alphabet from the center of culture, a process that he felt was well under way in his own lifetime. “Our Western values, built on the written word, have already been considerably affected by the electric media of telephone, radio, and TV,” he wrote in Understanding Media. He believed that readers, because their attention is consumed by the act of interpreting the visual symbols of alphabetic letters, become alienated from their other senses, sacrifice their attachment to other people, and enter a world of abstraction, individualism, and rigorously linear thinking. This, for McLuhan, was the story of Western civilization, particularly after the arrival of Gutenberg’s press.

By freeing us from our single-minded focus on the written word, new technologies like the telephone and the television would, he argued, broaden our sensory and emotional engagement with the world and with others. We would become more integrated, more “holistic,” at both a sensory and a social level, and we would recoup some of our primal nature. But McLuhan failed to anticipate that, as the speed and capacity of communication networks grew, what they would end up transmitting more than anything else is text. The written word would invade electric media. If McLuhan were to come back to life today, the sight of people using their telephones as reading and writing devices would blow his mind. He would also be amazed to discover that the fuzzy, low-definition TV screens that he knew (and on which he based his famous distinction between hot and cold media) have been replaced by crystal-clear, high-definition monitors, which more often that not are crawling with the letters of the alphabet. Our senses are more dominated by the need to maintain a strong, narrow visual focus than ever before. Electric media are social media, but they are also media of isolation. If the medium is the message, then the message of electric media has turned out to be far different from what McLuhan supposed.

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Of course, the fact that some of his ideas didn’t pan out wouldn’t have bothered McLuhan much. He was far more interested in playing with ideas than nailing them down. He intended his writings to be “probes” into the present and the future. He wanted his words to knock readers out of their intellectual comfort zones, to get them to entertain the possibility that their accepted patterns of perception might need reordering. Fortunately for him, he arrived on the scene at a rare moment in history when large numbers of people wanted nothing more than to have their minds messed with.

McLuhan was a scholar of literature, with a doctorate from Cambridge, and his interpretation of the intellectual and social effects of media was richly allusive and erudite. But what particularly galvanized the public and the press was the weirdness of his prose. Perhaps a consequence of his unusual mind, he had a knack for writing sentences that sounded at once clinical and mystical. His books read like accounts of acid trips written by a bureaucrat. That kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic style made him a darling of the counterculture — the bearded and the Birkenstocked embraced him as a guru — but it alienated him from his colleagues in academia. To them, McLuhan was a celebrity-seeking charlatan.

Neither his fans nor his foes saw him clearly. The central fact of McLuhan’s life was his conversion, at the age of twenty-five, to Catholicism, and his subsequent devotion to the religion’s rituals and tenets. He became a daily mass-goer. Though he never discussed it, his faith forms the moral and intellectual backdrop to all his mature work. What lay in store, McLuhan believed, was the timelessness of eternity. The earthly conceptions of past, present, and future were by comparison of little consequence. His role as a thinker was not to celebrate or denigrate the world but simply to understand it, to recognize the patterns that would unlock history’s secrets and thus provide hints of God’s design. His job was not dissimilar, as he saw it, from that of the artist.

That’s not to say that McLuhan was without secular ambition. Coming of age at the dawn of mass media, he very much wanted to be famous. “I have no affection for the world,” he wrote to his brother in the late thirties, at the start of his academic career. But in the same letter he disclosed the “large dreams” he harbored for “the bedazzlement of men.” Modern media needed its own medium, the voice that would explain its transformative power to the world, and he would be it.

The tension between McLuhan’s craving for earthly attention and his distaste for the material world would never be resolved. Even as he came to be worshipped as a techno-utopian seer in the mid-sixties, he had already, writes Coupland, lost all hope “that the world might become a better place with new technology.” He heralded the global village, and was genuinely excited by its imminence and its possibilities, but he also saw its arrival as the death knell for the literary culture he revered. The electronically connected society would be the setting not for the further flourishing of civilization but for the return of tribalism, if on a vast new scale. “And as our senses [go] outside us,” he wrote, “Big Brother goes inside.” Always on display, always broadcasting, always watched, we would become mediated, technologically and socially, as never before. The intellectual detachment that characterizes the solitary thinker — and that was the hallmark of McLuhan’s own work — would be replaced by the communal excitements, and constraints, of what we have today come to call “interactivity.”

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McLuhan also saw, with biting clarity, how all mass media are fated to become tools of commercialism and consumerism — and hence instruments of control. The more intimately we weave media into our lives, the more tightly we become locked in a corporate embrace: “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.” Has a darker vision of modern media ever been expressed?

“Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it,” McLuhan explained during an uncharacteristically candid interview in 1966. “The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.” Though the founders of Wired magazine would posthumously appoint McLuhan as the “patron saint” of the digital revolution, the real McLuhan was as much a Luddite as a technophile. He would have found the collective banality of Facebook abhorrent, if also fascinating.

In the fall of 1979, McLuhan suffered another major stroke, but this was one from which he would not recover. Though he regained consciousness, he remained unable to read, write, or speak until his death a little more than a year later. A lover of words — his favorite book was Joyce’s Finnegans Wake — he died in a state of wordlessness. He had fulfilled his own prophecy and become post-literary.

Portions of this essay appeared originally in the New Republic. Photo of texters by Susan NYC.

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Transformations

From Christopher Ricks’s 1964 review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media:

The style is a viscous fog.

From the 2003 MIT Press anthology The New Media Reader:

Christopher Ricks, in a typical reply, wrote that “the style is a vicious fog.”

From Google, 2014:

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Googler for a day

I went to Google last week and talked about humans:

My thanks to Ann Farmer for making the arrangements and to Peter Norvig for the thoughtful introduction.

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Navigation and the “inner GPS”

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Navigation is the most elemental of our skills — “Where am I?” was the first question a creature had to answer — and it’s the one that gives us our tightest connection to the world. The loss of navigational sense is also often the first sign of a mind in decay. Last week, the Nobel Committee announced that this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine will go to three scientists — John O’Keefe and the couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser — whose work has revealed the intricate biological underpinnings of our talent for getting around. O’Keefe discovered the brain’s place cells, which map out particular places, and the Mosers discovered the brain’s grid cells, which give us a general sense of spatial reckoning.

Here’s how I sum up the work of O’Keefe and the Mosers in the “World and Screen” chapter of The Glass Cage:

In a landmark study conducted at University College London in the early 1970s, John O’Keefe and Jonathan Dostrovsky monitored the brains of lab rats as the rodents moved about an enclosed area. As a rat became familiar with the space, individual neurons in its hippocampus—a part of the brain that plays a central role in memory formation—would begin to fire every time the animal passed a certain spot. These location-keyed neurons, which the scientists dubbed “place cells” and which have since been found in the brains of other mammals, including humans, can be thought of as the signposts the brain uses to mark out a territory. Every time you enter a new place, whether a city square or the kitchen of a neighbor’s house, the area is quickly mapped out with place cells. The cells, as O’Keefe has explained, appear to be activated by a variety of sensory signals, including visual, auditory, and tactile cues, “each of which can be perceived when the animal is in a particular part of the environment.”

More recently, in 2005, a team of Norwegian neuroscientists, led by the couple Edvard and May-Britt Moser, discovered a different set of neurons involved in charting, measuring, and navigating space, which they named “grid cells.” Located in the entorhinal cortex, a region closely related to the hippocampus, the cells create in the brain a precise geographic grid of space, consisting of an array of regularly spaced, equilateral triangles. The Mosers compared the grid to a sheet of graph paper in the mind, on which an animal’s location is traced as it moves about. Whereas place cells map out specific locations, grid cells provide a more abstract map of space that remains the same wherever an animal goes, providing an inner sense of dead reckoning. (Grid cells have been found in the brains of several mammal species; recent experiments with brain-implanted electrodes indicate that humans have them too.) Working in tandem, and drawing on signals from other neurons that monitor bodily direction and motion, place and grid cells act, in the words of the science writer James Gorman, “as a kind of built-in navigation system that is at the very heart of how animals know where they are, where they are going and where they have been.”

If “Where am I?” is the first question a creature had to answer, that suggests something else about us, something very important: memory and navigational sense may, at their source, be one and the same. The first things an animal had to remember were locational: Where’s my home? Where’s that source of food? Where are those predators? So memory may have emerged to aid in navigation. That’s something that both O’Keefe and the Mosers have thought about, and that Edvard Moser has begun to explore scientifically:

In addition to their role in navigation, the specialized cells appear to be involved more generally in the formation of memories, particularly memories of events and experiences. In fact, O’Keefe and the Mosers, as well as other scientists, have begun to theorize that the “mental travel” of memory is governed by the same brain systems that enable us to get around in the world. In a 2013 article in Nature Neuroscience, Edvard Moser and his colleague György Buzsáki provided extensive experimental evidence that “the neuronal mechanisms that evolved to define the spatial relationship among landmarks can also serve to embody associations among objects, events and other types of factual information.” Out of such associations we weave the memories of our lives. It may well be that the brain’s navigational sense — its ancient, intricate way of plotting and recording movement through space — is the evolutionary font of all memory.

That would certainly help explain why early memory loss in dementia often manifests itself in a loss of navigational sense.

It was revealing that, when journalists reported on the Nobel last week, they often summed up the scientists’ breakthroughs as involving the discovery of “the brain’s GPS” or our “inner GPS.” That’s a great example of how we often draw on recent technologies as metaphors for the workings of our bodies and minds. Of course, our brains are not receiving signals from satellites (at least not yet); they’re receiving a rich mix of sensory signals about the physical world. The danger in the metaphor is that, in implying a fundamental similarity between an external navigation system and an internal one, it also suggests that which system we use doesn’t matter. Either will get you where you want to go. Lost in the metaphor is the elemental quality of our navigational skill — its importance in connecting us to the world, in giving us a sense of place, and its possible importance to the healthy working of memory. One thing the work of O’Keefe and the Mosers tells us is that the ability to answer the question “Where am I?” through one’s own resources may not be as dispensable a skill as we assume.

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