The luddite McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan was such a slyboots. He kills me. He continues to be known, of course, as the enthusiastic prophet of the coming electronic utopia, the guy who slathered intellectual grease on progress’s rails. The skeptical, sometimes dystopian, subtext of his work went largely unnoticed when he was alive, and it’s even more submerged today.

This weekend I was reading through Understanding Me, a collection of interviews with McLuhan, and I came upon this telling passage from a 1966 TV interview with the journalist Robert Fulford:

Fulford: What kind of world would you rather live in? Is there a period in the past or a possible period in the future you’d rather be in?

McLuhan: No, I’d rather be in any period at all as long as people are going to leave it alone for a while.

Fulford: But they’re not going to, are they?

McLuhan: No, and so the only alternative is to understand everything that’s going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can. I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. 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.

15 thoughts on “The luddite McLuhan

  1. Sergey Schetinin

    I remember reading William Gibson (who is credited with invention of virtual reality) and I was thinking the tech in the books was so cool. Later I started to look at the imagined and real gadgetry as mostly pointless waste of time, a sublimation of sorts. People want to think that “this new thing” will change everything, because we know that the old things didn’t change much.

    And then I stumble onto an old interview with William where he mentions VR and tells something like “I describe this most terrible thing and suddenly someone actually wants to make it a reality”. I wasn’t expecting that and always imagined that he was as much a technology fan as I was when reading his books, while in fact it should have been obvious that he wasn’t. Yet it took a change of my own perspective to see that.

  2. Ivo Quartiroli

    It’s hard to understand why McLuhan got that misunderstood, perhaps the collective wishful relating to technologies and media as saviours were too strong. We just are in denial of the other side of the coin regarding media/technologies. “Understanding Media” is one of the few books I reread from time to time and I can always find new insights. One of his pearls:

    “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism.”

    One more “The principle of numbness comes into play with electric technology, as with any other. We have to numb our central nervous system when it is extended and exposed, or we will die. Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition.”

    Hope the copyright holders don’t mind my quotes.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    I believe McLuhan was ’60s version of a type of person we see now, who decides that being an academic doesn’t pay well, while being a technology evangelist is a personal money-machine. So he then repackaged/reinvented his niche as being a guru/visionary of the New Media Age. Thus, pointing out his fuddy-duddy professor sayings contradict his popular persona, is merely noting this process.

    Somewhere I’ve got a book that talks about this from someone who was around the PR guys involved. It has several anecdotes about how McLuhan kept acting like a poor prof and they had to teach him the sort of expenses corporate consultants need to consider just part of doing business. He was apparently amazed at how much money executives would pay someone who sounded like they had deep insight into the future.

  4. mediumkool

    I have vague memories of MM answering the question of “how do you wish to be remembered?” with the answer “as a stick-in-the-mud”

    No doubt neurological data will shed some light on how cool media makes for dumb content and why we should all be a little less willing to surrender our selves to the net. Yet.

    With the brain working so hard at holding the image on the computer screen together there ain’t gonna be much thinking about the stuff formerly known as content going on.

    Message what message?

    What me worry? What me? Worry?

    At a fundamental neurological level it may be that there is a level of stupidity necessary for the perception of anything put on a computer screen.

    And it is this stupid[ity] that is making us Google and not the other way around.

  5. Kevin Kelly

    People also don’t remember how religious McLuhan was. He took his catholicism seriously, and was almost quasi-mystical. When we designated him the Patron Saint of Wired it was a two-way joke.

    I think his critique of technology survives because in the end he was non-judgmental. His eagerness to “understand” trumped his unease with the novelty. He was able to project both the virtues and vices.

    If critics of technology only understood this, they’d have a larger and more lasting audience.

    That is why I respect Nick as one of the best critics of tech working today. When he is at his best (like in the Sun interview) he can hold both sides in his mind, as McLuhan did, and illuminate the whole. (When he is at his worst, he’ll take the worst and poke you in the eye with it.)

    Elavating McLuhan above a wishy-washy both-sides lukewarmness was his embrace of a holistic view. He wasn’t eager to go there, but it was a unified view. A holistic view is also often missing from critiques of technology, and another reason McLuhan endures.

    But the final reason is one that I have often joked about: McLuhan persists because no one reads him, which was his point! All you need — or get — are his aphorisms. McLuhan IS a bumper sticker.

  6. Linuxguru1968

    MM maybe the dead profit who predicted the electric utopia but Alvin Toffler is still alive and well selling technological dystopia:

    Alvin Toffler: The Thought Leader Interview. His new buzz word is “prosumerism”, the creation and exchange of products and consumers, outside the conventional monetary system. He thinks that some industries that depend on mass production of to generate wealth will under-go massive transformation or die. When Jackson Pollack threw paint fifty cents worth of paint on a five dollar canvas, he created something that people valued and paid money for. When you dig up a diamond you have something people will exchange other valuable items for. Is he saying there will be an information bartering system? I don’t think I could go into the market and buy bread with my old Linux disks!

  7. alan

    I second Kevin’s comment, “I respect Nick as one of the best critics of tech working today,” because Nick has developed a very comprehensive view of technology that encompasses both the challenges and the benefits.

    The interesting thing is that many experts tend to become linear in their approach. How deeply does one need to dig before the sky is lost to view?

    Nick’s on-going involvement with matters of technology have not blinded him to it’s shortcoming. In fact, his ability to maintain balance propels his success!

    Regards, Alan

  8. Linuxguru1968


    Nick’s unique take on IT technology is based on the fact that he was trained to be a writer not a computer generalist. Until recently, most commentary about IT came from technical people inside the industry rather than the content generators. Nick has become a social scientist observing and commenting about how IT is affecting culture without a built in bias that would result if he made his living off of one of the derivatives of the big IT monopolies: “Just how deep do you believe? Will you bite the hand that feeds? Will you chew until it bleeds? Can you get up off your knees? Are you brave enough to see? Do you want to change it?”

  9. alan

    As always Mr. Guru, greetings, not only a helpful comment but poetic to boot!

    I must add that being a writer or a social scientist guarantees certain skills but in my mind the gift/skill/ability to be successful originates elsewhere. The mystery of personal and professional biographies, somewhat more transparent in retrospect, both successful or not are hard to pull apart. Suffice it to say Mr. C is on a role and I would suggest one would need to look far back, or even further to establish why that might be the case!

    Regards, Alan

  10. Tom Lord

    @Kelly and @Carr

    I dunno, Kevin, do we really need more “non-judgemental”? Are you so sure about this “both sides” stuff? Why is “technology” a good word choice in what you wrote (I don’t see it).

    My god, man, you use the phrase “critics of technology”. What the hell are you talking about? Do you actually know *anybody* who is a critic of “technology”? Or do you only know of people who are critics of *particular technologies* (people whom you then go on to caricature as critics of *technology*).

    What solidarity you show, sir: Why if someone criticizes Google, then for all intents and purposes they criticize everything you stand for in the public sphere. “Technology”, you will have us subliminally accept, is entitled to receive nothing worse than non-threatening, so-called “balanced” criticism. And by technology, we must understand in the end, you mean the products and services of a few…

    At least as of the early 90s the valley had a few centers of thought. There was Sandhill and Stanford. There was the trenches. But there were also what I guess I’d call the “hill folk” – the ones with the big blast out parties up around Skyline Blvd. or La Honda: kind of at the intersection of a little bit of big money, a lot of exec-level talent, and some of the most influential geeks from the big growth in the 80s. It’s that last group, let’s call it the elite New Age Money crowd, that come to my mind when I think about McLuhen’s reception and impact in the industry.

    The New Age Money crowd was, back then, vital to a lot of the economic circuit. They held the larger and corner offices. The techies among them led the bread and butter projects of larger firms. They’re the one’s that insisted on buying purple furniture and cool schwag (from whence Google’s interior design comes – a self-parody phase of the fashion trend). They were the one’s booking private Dead shows to celebrate corporate milestones.

    In the circuit of capital flows: they were one of the primary sources of vetting of lower-class entrepreneurs for the capital class – the system of “social introductions”. (They weren’t the only source of vetting. There were also university professors shuffling through their grad students – things like that – but the New Age Money crowd was a big one. I think a lot of it was people wanting to follow the paradigm of Apple even though they weren’t entirely sure that there was really a paradigm there or what it might be. The key to success was something about good looks, high style, and embracing and neutering the counter-culture.

    Oh, yeah, rumor had it – no, really, this is what people in the trenches used to say – that it was the New Age Money crowd that were the high-level dealers in pot and designer drugs to the trenches (you had to get your LSD and shrooms in concert parking lots, just like everyone else, though).

    Well, you have to imagine this crowd, trying to live in two very different worlds: on the one hand they were, literally, board-facing and investor-facing: quite capable of being as straight-laced as anyone up around Harvard, at least for short periods. On the other hand, they were trying to preserve and extend the wealthy-side of the party culture that survived the late 60s and 70s. So, for example, namedropping at a party might range from Mssrs. Hewlett and Packard through, let’s say, Neil, and Bob and Jerry, and Terence.

    Social networking – of a sort – was pre-eminent. That was the main landscape of capital allocation. And in that, the main attitude was the “Vibe is King; a Cool Demo with a Trippy Story Counts”.

    A VC might ask “Hey, can we trust that guy?” and a good answer would be “Yeah: (a) a partied with him; (b) wait to you see this demo.”

    As is wont to happen – elites tend to not be natively slow-witted – the “social networking” culture developed pretenses of being a literary culture – mainly to give people something to talk about and the illusion that there was a coherent “movement” afoot among them. They tried to have something like a post-psychedelic, highly-monetized “salon” culture. Christopher Almighty [Alexander, of course], after all, hadn’t each and everyone one of them had a direct hand in the microcomputer revolution? This was a Big Thought community and you’re not to be admitted with anything less than Big Thoughts.

    Only, of course, it’s not that magic. 90% of that crowd *wasn’t* all that financially secure. Few of them had done much other than Yeoman’s work on a few fairly unmagical, unrevolutionary but successful projects. Most were pre-occupied more with their Accustomed Living Standards and their exit strategies from industry than with The Magic. But, of course, such banality – such unveiling – is not a topic of party conversation. Hence the hunger for a “salon” culture – a pretense of literacy.

    McLuhen, Nelson, random snippets of Sufi-ism — these were currency and signs of in-group recognition. It wasn’t important that anyone in the scene much read these things in depth or critically evaluated the issues around them. It was that one could drop a quote or a reference at a well-timed juncture in a cocktail conversation to break up an awkward junction of discourse or to hand-wave past a blatant unjustified claim in a demo (such as “this is useful”).

    This was to be the well-spring of “Computer Lib!” as used to be said, back in the day. Simultaneously, for some, it was either the taming or the preservation (or both) of the counter-culture beast. In any event, it would change the world and everyone could have as good a time as these party people once it was done and, anyway, bottom-line: the stock options are pure gold.

    Things fall apart and most of that old scene is gone. Well, dimmed – I’m sure there are still some relaxed New Age Money types hunkered in the hills gathering in small numbers around this or that fire. Mostly forgotten (wishfully or otherwise).


    p.s.: Nick, can you imagine the luck: A private, 15-or-so person audience concert, in a basement, folding chairs and no stage, one guitar, one amp, Daevid Allen (the Divided Alien, of Pothead Pixies fame). Just another Saturday Night.

  11. Ivo Quartiroli

    I appreciate McLuhan for the very reason that he didn’t have a coherent theory or thought system. He even contradicted himself here and there. However, as with poetry or teachings of mystics, we can get insights out of his words anyway. Like mystics, he can be misunderstood greatly. McLuhan titillates our minds in looking for our inner relationship with the media and, this is – for me – his most valuable contribution.

  12. Paul W. Homer

    Isn’t there a Chinese curse about “living” in interesting times?

    The older I get, the slower I want it to be, after all it’s no fun to be constantly falling behind and more than half of what’s new isn’t really “improved” is it.

  13. Heresiarch

    I rescued from cassette a talk by McLuhan from the late 1970s. Classic, confounding McLuhan: Rare McLuhan Audio.

    I’ve always thought that much of the frustration people feel when trying to assess McLuhan is that his observations seem rich with political implication, but it’s impossible to figure out what’s being implied.

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