McLuhan’s web

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.

7 thoughts on “McLuhan’s web

  1. Tom Lord

    There was a time when the study of marketing was the study of how to influence purchasing decisions: to encourage one purchase choice over another.

    Things have changed. Now, marketing includes the study of how to influence customer behavior in general, with no particular purchase agenda. There is a new kind of product:

    The new kind of product is a “captive population” — a set of “users” whose behavior can be influenced to capture fairly arbitrary amounts of the user’s attention and to interrogate the user to extract fairly arbitrary ranges of information.

    If one has built such a captive population — e.g., by creating a Web 2.0 site with unclear revenue model — and the size of the population is good, the information extracted interesting for the purposes of still further downstream marketing efforts — then you should run, not walk, to the nearest financeer (if you’re looking for an exit strategy). In your pitch, just mention the extracted information, the size of the population, and some metrics about the quantity of attention and attenuation of behavior you can extract. There is no need to explain the “content” of your web service although the investors will (probably) want to make sure it isn’t porn or poker. You’ll be rolling in dough in no time.

    Perhaps there is a legal response to these new kinds of business to be found in the concept of an “attractive nusiance”.


  2. Sam


    Thanks for bringing up McLuhan & Levinson (Levinson link’s busted).

    I’m reviewing smartphones right now. The difference between the text-y Blackberry class (along with its clones) and the 4th-generation iPhone’s humane interface runs parallel to the audio-visual expansion of the ‘Net from its recent textual emphasis.

    While killing newsprint, the ‘Net seems to be recognizing our “Aural Tradition”.

  3. PaulLev

    PS – I just looked at your printed article in the Guardian. Wasn’t very nice of them to cut the reference to my Digital McLuhan – seeing as how the Kevin Kelly reference, which was included, comes from his blurb on the back of my Digital McLuhan book! :)

  4. Linuxguru1968

    Ray Bradbury predicted this in Fahrenheit 451 in 1953 in a scene in which Guy Montag’s wife is participating in an interactive program on the wall TV. What everyone seems to be missing is the emergence of (what I call) Interactive On Demand Discrete Asynchronous Media(IODDAM). People under 25 spend more time on Myspace and Youtube than they do watching TV. On the web you can define your own content selection and delivery schedule rather than the waiting for corporate media to serve it up to you. Bradbury seems to have beat Marshall in predicting this. What’s next? Google running the fire department and the library?

  5. Bertil

    Regarging Google and the Fire Departement, well: what would you do if you have a problem in your house, and don’t know what to do about it?

    But I don’t understand the last part: wasn’t it Google responsability from the start, to run the Library?

  6. Syven

    Elephants can sense the tsunami’s that humans do not, and that is the way I describe how McLuhan was so prescient about the media world. The internet simply is the ultimate end form that McLuhan extrapolated through non-linear means.

    If McLuhan was alive today, he wouldn’t say “I told you so”, he would probably say “Why are you people still not thinking for yourselves?”…because one of his probes was for us to individually contemplate what it means to be an extension of ourselves. I am truly without body parts as I write this. He worked hard to provide a lens to view the electronic age, but he didn’t mean to figure it at an individual level for us. That is our personal job.

    I take heed of McLuhan’s warning and I don’t describe that warning as prophetic but simply an ability to learn to see and the sense the world in extended boundary, to see what it means to step outside that boundary.

    Today social media IMHO is an enslavement, the very enslavement that McLuhan warned us about, thoughts need clothing today and we call them blogs, but thinking is best naked, and if I have to describe what I have just said there, McLuhan would be furious, because like his father, he wanted to teach, and to teach he said is not about telling or entertaining, it is about thinking these things for yourself. I like the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti for exactly the same reasons. he put the onus on us, not for someone else to figure this out for us.

    The irony of McLuhan is that for all his talk about identity and tribalism, he walked right into the heart of the media jungle. The last years of his life were rather tragic, first strokes deprived him of the one thing he loved, which is to think at personal and deeper level than people most actually do, and then he left this world probably thinking that the tribal mentality he warned us about had won and that his specialism was not appreciated. The lesson here is never to underestimate a single soul, no matter how much we deem to judge them in the present moment.

    It is appreciated today because we at subconscious level, at that level where linear thought denies us, recognize his depth of his warnings (and it was a warning for us to wake up at the personal level), but at the linear level, that sustained point of view which is horrified by anyone who thinks out aloud or uses aphorisms or incomplete (therefore creating cool rather than hot media), would try to dress McLuhan as talking about how the internet liberates us. The reason the internet does not liberate us is when memes or pluralistic ignorance exist, and we help them to live and we do so because in stead of thinking out aloud, today we twitter – and how much easier is life when we reduce it to a sound-bite – we therefore cease to be our living poets, we become lines of poetry.

    The internet only liberates us when we are able to question it, probe it, examine it or as McLuhan said “what is little understood about the electronic age is that it angelizes man, disembodies him. Turns him into software”. That is hardly what a modern day blogger wants to hear, so both McLuhan and Krishnamurti examined environments themselves and then asked us not to be simply parrots of them, but to arrive at individually useful answers, that we can serve to better our own lives.

    Otherwise we are in enslavement of media and McLuhan described this in this way “The media tend to make everybody puny, while offering them the opportunity to be supermen”. If there is shades of Nietszche in that statement, it is because McLuhan above all was very well read man, who also said “There’s no participation in just telling, that’s simply for consumers – they sit there and swallow it, or not…”

    In other words, if media helps us to discover at the most personal level, we have utilized it intelligently, but if we simply merged with it, then we are truly a mechanical extension of our central nervous system rather living beings who have escaped tribalism and therefore escaping our self-imposed meek boundary on our own intelligence.

    I think out aloud online like this because I understand that this is what McLuhan respected, but what McLuhan expected is the tribal or ritualistic or branded things people are going to do, what McLuhan did best of all, is the groundwork to enable us to see media and ask ourselves a very basic and fundamental question, so our intent becomes not to explain our point of view but to explore and find out “what does it [the age of information] mean to me…”.

    As for me, I have no apologies – if I have spent this much time thinking out aloud, it behooves me to personally reread afterwards what it is that I think I wrote. Otherwise it all a bit like someone hearing “Does I.T. matter?” and blaming Nick Carr for saying it. What do people ever expect to learn by pointing the finger outwards or as McLuhan also once said “a moral point of view often serves as a substitute for understanding in technological matters…”.


Comments are closed.