This essay dedicated to Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) was first published in 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. It is both a critique and a celebration of McLuhan’s insightful thinking.
There’s a lot to be admired about the “prophet of the electronic age” who said “if it works it’s obsolete”. Marshall McLuhan coined the term the “Global Village”. He also produced classic phrases such as “the medium is the message”, “the medium is the massage”, and the “Age of Anxiety”. And he’s credited with conjuring “turn on, tune in, drop out”, over lunch with the 1960s advocate of LSD trips, Timothy Leary.
McLuhan was the archetypal-media studies guru. Not only was he an icon of the 1960s counterculture, he also went on to become the “patron saint” of the newly launched Wired Magazine in 1996. They identified with McLuhan’s vision of decentralized, personal, and liberating electronic technological development that transcends time and space. They warmed to his vision of how electronic media would wipe away contemporary society’s traditional values, attitudes and institutions.
There is after all, as Andrew Keen has pointed out, much in common between the wired generation’s utopianism and the communal ideals of the hippies. As McLuhan told Playboy Magazine in 1968:
The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.
McLuhan: still Wired
Still, for some good reasons, McLuhan remains an inspirational thinker to a new generation of youth. He appeals to those who want to break free from looking at the present in the rear-view mirror. He appeals to those who wish to create something completely different to what’s gone before and to those, including corporations and politicians, who wish to appear “in touch” and “cool”. In McLuhan’s words:
These kids are fed up with jobs and goals [traditional ones, anyway], and are determined to forget their own roles and involvement in society. They want nothing to do with our fragmented and specialist consumer society. Living in the transitional identity vacuum between two great antithetical cultures, they are desperately trying to discover themselves and fashion a mode of existence attuned to their new values; thus the stress on developing an “alternate life style.
In Wired‘s launch issue interview with a virtual McLuhan, whose consciousness they said had been preserved in a programmed bot, he says that the real message of media today is ubiquity. It is not something that we do. Rather it is something we are part of from the outside that excites all our senses. It is, he said through Wired‘s medium, as if we have amputated not our ears or our eyes, but ourselves, and then established a total prosthesis – an automaton – in our place. He (ok, his cyber-ghost) adds:
Postindustrial man has a network identity, or a net-ID. The role is now a temporary shift of state produced by a combination of environmental factors, like in a neural network. This possibility has always been latent in the concept of role, but in the machine age this was perceived as a danger, while today it is simply a game – we no longer see shifting roles as dangerous and taboo and therefore theatrically compelling. Rather, we follow these shifts as if we were doing a puzzle or kibitzing a chess game. Yes, the medium is the message, but this does not mean and never meant that the content of the medium is a conscious reflection on itself. The medium is the message because it creates the audience most suited to it. Electronic media create an audience whose shifting moods are as impersonal as the weather.
So, regardless that McLuhan’s name is no longer household fare (unlike, say, Warhol’s), his influence remains as significant among cyber-nerds as it was among beatniks. In fact his thinking is arguably more significant today, given the amount of hype that surrounds the cyberspace, Web 2.0 world.
So what was he really about?
He sought to explain the world through the prism of communication and its tools. He ruminated on the drivers of human progress from its primitive tribal, oral preliterate cultural forms through to the invention of phonetic language, the Gutenberg printing press and the modern electronic age. His work explored the relationship between technology, forms of thought and different types of human organisation.
He probed the relationship between the physical senses and tried to assess how their interaction in different ratios modified how we perceived ourselves and our world.
McLuhan’s insights were in many ways visionary and intuitive rather than theoretical. Sometimes they were comical. For instance, he tried to explain to readers of Playboy Magazine how it was not naked women or those in high-definition mini-skirts that turn us men on most, but women with glasses and open-mesh silk stockings. He rightly, in my view, suggested that us men tend to turn low definition images of women into our ideal form. In contrast high definition images (use your imagination) do not engage us to the same extent. He also once remarked:
I have no theories about anything. I make observations by the way of discovering contours, lines of force. I satirize at all times, and my hyperboles are as nothing compared to the events to which they refer.
But we shouldn’t let his tomfoolery fool us. He was a Canadian professor of literature and philosophy with a doctorate from Cambridge University in grammar, logic and rhetoric (otherwise known since antiquity as the Trivium).
He maintained that whereas the invention of the phonetic alphabet opened up closed societies, which had depended on the product of speech and ear, and then detribalised them, the modern electronic age would end our focus on the visual image (more later).
Viewing all forms of technology as media, or what amounts to extensions of ourselves, he was fascinated by the social consequences of innovations. He described, for instance, perhaps presumptuously, how the jet-plane’s speed rendered old national groupings of social organisation unworkable; perhaps the way Twitter supposedly does to national laws and institutions.
Picking up on a theme beloved by social media enthusiasts today who claim all PR is online (whether it is internet based or not), McLuhan stated:
Once a new technology comes into the social milieu it cannot cease to permeate that milieu until every institution is saturated. [Understanding Media, page 161]
He added, with some feel for its liberating potential, that typography:
…created a medium in which it was possible to speak out loud to the world itself, just as it was possible to circumnavigate the world of books previously locked up in a pluralistic world of monastic cells. [ibid pages 161/162]
So his focus was holistic, in the sense that he was interested in how typography, for instance, came to influence every phase of the arts and sciences.
McLuhan studied the dynamics of human communication at the level of experience. He looked at the relationship between how our senses perceive the world and how technological progress changes our mental processes and how we think. He tried to trace how different social organisations, beliefs and politics arose as a result of the mediating influence of new channels of communication.
His intention, though on this he falls short, was to explain how human consciousness developed.
McLuhan argued that the technology of a period creates the human environment. In that sense technology is not a neutral force, but a transformative one. In his view, media and the other tools humans invent are active forces that shape the human galaxy in unexpected ways.
Of course, he was right to point out that new technologies create new possibilities and new realities. The railways, for instance, brought the townspeople to the countryside and country folk to the towns. Railways opened the American West more than horse and cart ever did. Besides taking the travail out of travel, they narrowed the distance and time between places. They altered how we lived our lives in myriad ways, from commuting to holidays to the movement of freight. Later they served as highways for the high-speed telegraph.
McLuhan is perhaps best known today for saying that the medium is the message:
This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.
He saw media as being like a Russian Doll: the content of a medium is always another medium:
The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is to be asked, ‘What is the content of speech,’ it is necessary to say, ‘It is an actual process of thought which is itself nonverbal. [Understanding Media pages 23/24]
McLuhan over-eggs his media
The problem that McLuhan never really engaged was to try to explain the content of thought. According to him, the formative power of the media are the media themselves. But it is tautological to believe that thought’s content equals the media’s content and vice versa. Explaining things that way begs the question where ideas really spring from in the first place, and leaves the influence of the rest of society out of the picture. Surely, though, the two clearly shape each other.
Indeed and here is my big contention, and where it differs from the techno-Utopian view: thought shapes media more than media shapes thought. (Later, I will argue this a lot. But for now I will say that on the big stuff, we are not unlike, say, the Greeks in our thinking.)
That’s not how McLuhan saw it. He believed that we cannot remain immune from the influence of what we observe in the media. He said, and it is a compelling viewpoint, that humans make their tools and are then remade by them.
McLuhan as conflicted dystopian
The key intellectual issues in McLuhan-studies probably come down (as so often) to the irreconcilables in his thought. He was conflicted as to whether increased media was building a great society or destroying it.
McLuhan was supposedly interested (and here’s a useful explanation of what follows) in the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest and paleontologist who believed that God had created an evolutionary process, which had produced the “noosphere“. This was a sort of globalised consciousness (but also a spirituality) which God was pulling toward himself as a sort of final purpose of Creation. Give or take your appetite for this sort of thing, you can probably see how it fits the increasingly mediated world that McLuhan was pondering and is an idea of shattering (and maybe dangerous) optimism.
But McLuhan also seemed to accept a set of old-fashioned anxieties about the power of media. What’s not widely known is that, as a religious man, McLuhan was influenced by Pope Pius XII’s views. The Pope believed that the future of modern society and the stability of its inner life depended upon maintaining “an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual’s own reaction”. This prompted McLuhan to comment:
Failure in this respect has for centuries been typical and total for mankind. Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users. [Page 34, Understanding Media].
Indeed, that fits with what we have identified as one of McLuhan’s great faults: he over-estimated the media’s power and influence. That’s not to say they wield an insignificant influence in society, not at all. It is to say that I cannot agree with his media-centric view of the world, particularly when he starts trying to explain the success of the Nazi’s in Germany thus:
That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to the radio and to the public address systems. This is not to say that these media relayed his thoughts effectively to the German people. His thoughts were of very little consequence. Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilisation. [ibid page 262]
He said that radio encouraged “webs of deep tribal involvement” and that the message of radio was “one of violent, unified implosion and resonance”. He was saying: never mind the content, take a look instead at how something (radio, TV or the internet) engages our subliminal emotions because it represents a primitive extension of our nervous system that can strike long-hidden chords. In his words, in the non-visual world of subatomic physics, radio encouraged a newly found human involvement that bred anxiety and insecurity and unpredictability. Radio (for that read any new media) lowers our horizons and dulls our brains. If it were not so, we would never allow the media to influence us, said McLuhan. Therein lies a common theme that still dominates debate today about the destructive power of new technology.
Of course, he said that radio’s malevolent influence in Germany and places such as Russia did not stretch to the United States of America:
Radio, the medium that resuscitated the tribal and kinship webs of the European mind in the 1920s and 1930s did not work in England or America. There, the erosion of tribal bonds by the means of literacy and its industrial extensions had gone so far that radio did not achieve any notable tribal reactions. [ibid page 274]
But in the US and UK he turned his (over-serious) ire on TV instead. McLuhan worried that it wouldn’t help Johnny learn to read. He lamented that it gave Johnny a whole new set of perceptions instead, which he described as the “psychic and social disturbance created by the TV image”. He also accused TV of introducing a kind of rigor mortis into politics.
It is the extraordinary degree of audience participation in the TV medium that explains its failure to tackle hot issues. Howard K. Smith observed: ‘The networks are delighted if you go into a controversy in a country 14, 000 miles away. They don’t want real controversy, real dissent at home. [ibid pages 269/270]
He also worried, unnecessarily as it happens, about the impact of TV on the future of comics, national magazines, and the movies.
McLuhan really did believe in the power of the media to control society. He cited Fidel Castro as an example of the new “tribal chieftain who rules his country by a mass-participational TV dialog and feedback”. He said that Castro controlled his country on camera (not by force or fear or restricting free speech, mind you) by giving Cuban people the impression of being directly and intimately involved in the process of collective decision making. Arguably, Col Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong-il and Saddam Hussein tried the same trick and found it wanting.
McLuhan’s misplaced angst about the power and potential threats and corruption of society by new media has a long pedigree. It even turned Plato against written texts, which were a new fangled innovation in his time. He said they robbed us of our ability to use our memories and risked making us lazy. It also informed Cervantes’ hilarious character Don Quixote, who set out on his mad adventure having been first hypnotized into helplessness by trashy novels of gallantry and wandering Knights.
McLuhan’s pessimistic outlook that suggests we live in a “post-literate” society is mirrored today by people who argue that the internet is destroying our culture. Supposedly all today’s youth can do is scroll, skim and scan. Meanwhile the internet is undermining existing media, and reducing everybody’s capacity to concentrate and read books (see a useful critique of Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows, which is very much in the McLuhan clan of thought). And, yet, McLuhan’s writing also fuels bloated thinking of those who claim that the Arab Spring was sparked by the internet rather than home-grown discontent.
McLuhan on public vs private sphere
There is a rather lovely thought at the heart of McLuhan’s thought. This is that communication created individualism. Or, put another way: the mass media allowed both the public and – more surprisingly – the private sphere to flourish. It’s an over-egged thought, though.
He explains well how the media’s influence developed. He describes how script and papyrus were the mediators of the ancient world. But they lacked the reach to enable mass communication, and in so far as they were consumed by the mass, that was done in public when texts were read aloud. However, that changed with the advent of the mechanical revolution that began with the mechanization of phonetic script in the form of the Gutenberg press. It was this invention that was more important during the Renaissance than any rediscovery of the ancient text of rhetoric and the wisdom of the Greeks, he said.
What’s really interesting about McLuhan is his examination of how the public sphere became separated from the private one. I think it is true, as McLuhan says, that the modern private sphere – as distinct from its public counterpart – came into existence in the 13th century. He believed it came about with, and only because of, the introduction of mass media and the ability of people – for the first time – to read and think in silence in private.
I don’t dispute McLuhan’s view that in the age before the private sphere came into being, opinions and roles in society were mostly fixed by the fortunes of birth and the rigidities of the ancient or feudal hierarchies. That was a time when people knew their place. Until books and manuscripts were reproduced in large quantities on mechanical assembly lines, the means of communication did not have the power of extension to create a mass public. In McLuhan’s words:
Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment – it created the PUBLIC. (ibid, introduction)
But was it technology that sparked the paradigm shift? Or was it one factor among many, such as history, war, serendipity and culture? In his book Mind, Self and Society George Herbert Mead said that language was the content of our minds, and added that that “is only a development and product of social interaction.” His was a more rounded sociological approach that highlights, I suggest, how narrow McLuhan’s methods of thought were.
Besides, plenty of classical scholars argue convincingly that the Greeks invented the private sphere (the mind) and did it, in public, in theatres. They did it by starting to have characters addressing, as persons, individuals in their audience, as persons. The idea of private, separate interiorities, each of which has ideas, was (rather oddly) explored in public.
Of course, the planned effort to influence the public sphere by influencing the opinions of people in their private refuges cuts to the heart of what PR is about. Individuals and organisations have conflicting opinions, interests and experiences. In the public sphere such differences have to be reconciled in a battle of opinion for influence and power. Otherwise decisions-making cannot take place in a consensual manner.
I say, in contrast to McLuhan’s account, the rise to prominence of PR in the world can be accounted for by the clamour of an emergent public’s struggle for a voice in society’s affairs. In my view, the study, practice and arguably the perfection of rhetoric as a tool of persuasion, is firmly rooted in ancient Greece’s democratic forums. That was, after all, the period when opinions, reputations and winning debates determined outcomes for the first time in history. But as we know, ancient Greece’s democracies were a peculiar and temporary phenomenon. (I shall explore at another time how the public’s voice came to matter historically).
But there is something else missing in McLuhan’s narrative that should not go unremarked. There’s no mention of Max Weber’s protestant ethic and little said about Adam Smith’s or Karl Marx’s explanation for the formation of capitalism and the market economy. And when it comes to explaining the relationship between the modern public and private spheres, I suggest that Jürgen Habermas is much more useful than McLuhan.
So, McLuhan ignores the emergence of new social categories of civil society that separated the public from the private spheres. He gives scant attention to the emergence of the modern state, commerce, wage labour, and the formation of the nuclear family. Instead, McLuhan’s reviews the different mediums of exchange and communication, such as money, typography, film, radio and ads etc. and focuses his attention on how the phonetic alphabet magically created our state of mind, the modern state and world.
While I reject some of his reasoning, there’s no doubt that when books, pamphlets and newspapers became mass commodities which could be owned, reading in private became a mass pastime. This in turn changed how humans experienced the world of ideas. It also changed how they interacted with each other. It did, as McLuhan claims, encourage, if you like, the internalisation of the thought processes that a private and individualized outlook requires to take root in the human psyche. It created a new sphere of human existence from which major social changes in the fabric of society flowed.
Does digital kill the individual?
It is perhaps ironic that McLuhan, a devout Catholic, who was worshiped by the individualists attending the Summer of Love festivals, where God was proclaimed dead, should be the bearer of the news of the imminent demise of individualism. The modern dilemma that troubled McLuhan most was that while the printing press had made individualism possible, the electronic age rendered it dead. He described the present period as one of transition toward retribalization.
Society, he said, was moving from individualism to “corporate interdependence”. But he warned that instantaneous mass communication and mass consumerism were creating a new crisis in human history. The changes were moving faster than people’s ability to cope. With such observations (or probes as he called them) he caught in the embryo the emerging angst of what became the anti-globalisation lobby.
He described advertising as a “self-liquidating form of mass entertainment”, and said that it created the impression that a woman could “iron shirts without hating her husband”. He observed that far more time and thought went into creating them than was expended on writing features and editorials. He wrote:
They (advertisements) are subliminal pills for the subconscious in order to exercise an hypnotic spell, especially on sociologists. [Understanding Media 202/203]
This is all pretty much what we see in Moan (sorry, Noam) Chomsky and Naomi Klein.
Indeed, he also seems to have seen the pitfalls of identity politics, with its Tyranny of Small Differences and the endless modern litany of “memory, identity and loss”:
As man is tribally metamorphosed by the electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities, and in the process unleash tremendous violence.
He also perhaps overstated the changes, while capturing something worth noting, when he said provokingly:
Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious. Our technologies, like our private senses, now demand an interplay and ratio that makes rational co-existence possible. As long as our technologies were as slow as the wheel or the alphabet or money, the fact that they were separate, closed systems was socially and physically supportable. This is not true now when sight and sound and movement are simultaneous and global in extent. [Marshall McLuhan, “The Gutenberg Galaxy, page 5]
He saw the media as an extensions of our senses. And, just as many social media buffs describe the internet and cloud computing as a near-sentient network, McLuhan said that electronic media was a sort of planetary-wide nervous system that produced a group or global consciousness. Of course, in reality, computers even at their most advanced and most highly networked are not anything like a human brain or conscious of anything whatsoever.
Nevertheless, from many angles, he correctly foresaw how the demarcation line between our private and public lives would increasingly become blurred. He said that a century of electronic media had reduced time and space in a planetary embrace that had caused the implosion of human society. He said of the electronic age:
All our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right of privacy and the sanctity of the individual; as they yield to the intensities of the new technology’s electric circus, it seems to the average citizen that the sky is falling in.
He also sensed in 1964, in a visionary flow of thought that makes him sound like a 21st-century Google executive director, that:
Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extension of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media [Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, page 19]
McLuhan thought that the new electronic interdependence would recreate the world in the image of a global village.
Interestingly, there is much insight into New Age angst and rage against the machine sentiments buried in McLuhan’s thinking:
This book (The Gutenberg Galaxy) will try to explain why print culture confers on man a language of thought which leaves him quite unready to face the language of his own-electo-magnetic technology.
..certainly the electromagnetic discoveries have recreated the simultaneous “field” in all human affairs so that the human family now exists under conditions of a “global village.” We live in a single constricted space resonant of tribal drums. [Gutenberg Galaxy, pages 30/31]
The problem here is that McLuhan pits man’s creation against man: as in the machine strikes back. Moreover, the logical implication of his notion of the “global village”, a useful expression if ever there was one, is that national divisions in a globalised world would dissolve (it was very much in tune with John Lennon’s Imagine, except that McLuhan believed in Heaven above and Hell below us). But, paradoxically, our increasingly globalised economy has more nations today than ever; certainly there’s many more than when McLuhan was writing in the 1960s.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that Marshall McLuhan books should not be read. On the contrary, they remain classics worthy of exploration for the many insights they contain. But that’s no reason to buy into his main technological determinist message.