26: Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

Reviews of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man seem to follow roughly the same format: a brief overview of McLuhan’s life that characterizes him as a wacky, provincial English professor-turned-overnight-celebrity; a few vague references to his most famous dictums; and an extension of his work to today’s media, with an insistence that despite the passage of time, McLuhan’s work is still surprisingly fresh and new and relevant. 

Be that as it may (hey, I’m all for finding relevance, even if I don’t have the need to call someone a prophet), McLuhan’s language is as obtuse as it is lovely, which makes for hard slogging.  Since one of the things he’s known for is his tendency to write in aphorisms, I think the easiest way to summarize him here is to write out the three that gave me the most trouble, plus a fourth that gives me faith in humanity.

“the medium is the message”

This is the phrase McLuhan is probably most famous for.  Because it is so short, it’s also a hard one to wrap my head around, and McLuhan wasn’t much for giving careful explanations. The “is” doesn’t help, either, because it implies that the two things are equal – which is confusing because it implies a tautology.  The way that this makes sense to me is to think about the relationship between social media and communication forms: a tweet or a Facebook status update or a Tumblr post is radically different from a blog post both in length and content; with less space and a greater emphasis on visuals, whatever information you’re trying to convey in these smaller, more networked formats gets compressed, transformed, digested.  It’s less medium = message and more medium –> message.  And the most successful messages are those that are well-tailored to by synergistic with their medium.

“the content of any medium is always another medium”

Ok.  Thanks, McLuhan, for defining a word with itself.  He goes on to explain, however, in his chapter on radio, that “[t]he content of the press is literary statement, as the content of the book is speech, and the content of the movie is the novel.  So the effects of radio are quite independent of its programming.”  In a way, media are like a hall of mirrors or like Baudrillard’s simulacra, copies of copies of copies; or maybe, in a more subversive vein, like Judith Butler’s processes of translation.  They are telescoping, reflecting and repeating one another like a big, coordinated multimedia ad campaign.  And because of the time-space compression of newer media (see the blog-to-Twitter progression), older media are kept alive, at least for a time, within newer media: books within e-books within blogs and so on.

 “the bad news sells the good news”

Ever wonder why the news is always bad?  It’s because bad news draws the viewer in to gawk or recoil in horror at the spectacle, so that the good news – the advertisements that show you what you can buy to make the horror go away – can catch you at a vulnerable moment.  Thus, when McLuhan was writing, anyway, commercials and programming were combined into one big program, so that program flowed into ad flowed back into program.  The interesting thing is that because a series of commercials is really a set of fragmented, disconnected texts, programmers rely on viewers’ brains to fill in the gaps and connect the fragments into a larger coherent narrative.  Luckily, our brains are trained – ideologically, repetitively – to look for common threads, and to see nothing strange about a seamless integration of real life news, entertainment, and injunctions to consume.

Although “the medium is the message” seems to argue that content follows form, the telescoping nature of media seems to ensure that we stay on a technologically-mediated level playing field of reflected images, and the media themselves seem capable of sheer manipulation, I don’t think that McLuhan was necessarily a technological determinist.  I say this because of his discussion of bicycles:

“It was no accident that the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics, or that early airplanes seemed in some ways like bicycles.  The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution because all technologies are extensions of our physical being.”

Technologies may condition the way humans communicate, but human beings are still very much a part of the technological system; technological change is still “organic evolution” because technologies are “extensions of our physical being” and therefore humans, not technologies, control the direction and rate and quality of technological change.  To folks who fear that the culture industry is going to take over the world and we’ll wake up one day and find ourselves in the middle of Idiocracy, McLuhan argues that humans have the power to stop that kind of development from happening.  Which, if you think about it, was a necessary, albeit old school, message for Cold War America, presented in an interestingly old-fashioned print media-turned-celebrity package.

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