The medium is the mass age

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Marshall MacLuhan’s birthday, and the event was greeted by many as an opportunity to reflect on his life and works. McLuhan has become the prophet of modern media, his writings and phrases are cited everywhere as being eerily prescient. I was reminded of McLuhan this week for other reasons, as several news agencies reported on a study on memory published by the journal Science. According to the study, the way in which we remember things is changing thanks to the Internet, so we move factual memory to something that is more archival, we know where to go to find the information. This is very much a McLuhan topic, as he was interested in how changing media affects the way in which we remember things. In The Medium is the Massage (no, it’s not a typo, that is the title of the book), McLuhan wrote:

“In the “Republic,” Plato vigorously attacked the oral, poetized form as a vehicle for communicating knowledge. He pleaded for a more precise method of communication and classification (“The Ideas”), one which would favor the investigation of facts, principles of reality, human nature, and conduct. What the Greeks meant by “poetry” was radically different from what we mean by poetry. Their”poetic” expression was a product of a collective psyche and mind. The mimetic form, a technique that exploited rhythm, meter, and music, achieved the desired psychological response in the listener. Listeners could memorize with greater ease what was sung than what was said. Plato attacked this method because it discouraged disputation and argument. It was in his opinion the chief obstacle to abstract, speculative reasoning—he called it “a poison, and an enemy of the people.”

All throughout McLuhan’s work, one can see this as an important theme, in danger of over-simplifying the message, one key theme was how the medium changes cultural expression because it changes us. This places McLuhan in some sort of technological deterministic camp. It is difficult to measure tone with McLuhan, but he has been classed both as a technophile and a technophobe, but I would actually class him in a neutral position. He analysed what he saw, he did not make utopian or dystopian predictions, technology operates the way it does, and it will always change us. His statements predicted pain and struggle, but were rarely indicting or praising of what was happening. This passage in The Gutenberg Galaxy is indicative of this trend:

“An age in rapid transition is one which exists on the frontier between two cultures and between conflicting technologies.  Every moment of its consciousness is an act of translation of each of these cultures into the other.  Today we live on the frontier between five centuries of mechanism and the new electronics, between the homogenous and the simultaneous.  It is painful but fruitful”.

While he was more of an analyst of the changes in media and technology, he still held some “distaste” for the struggle of the shock in cultures, but argued that the end result might be positive. In an interview to Playboy, he commented:

” I don’t like to tell people what I think is good or bad about the social and psychic changes caused by new media, but if you insist on pinning me down about my own subjective reactions as I observe the reprimitivization of our culture, I would have to say that I view such upheavals with total personal dislike and dissatisfaction. I do see the prospect of a rich and creative retribalized society — free of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age — emerging from this traumatic period of culture clash; but I have nothing but distaste for the process of change.”

This is why I have been rather surprised by the hint of technophobia emanating from some of the articles I’ve read. Megan Garber wrote an excellent article about his legacy, but I tend to be slightly put off by the clear warnings against journalistic developments, particularly about social media. She wrote:

“And so are our media, made newly social. Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and all the rest swim with time’s flow, rather than attempting to stanch it. And they are, despite that but mostly because of it, increasingly defining our journalism. They are also, as it were, McLuhanesque. (Google+: extension of man.) Because if McLuhan is to be believed, the much-discussed and often-assumed human need for narrative — or, at least, our need for narrative that has explicit beginnings and endings — may be contingent. Which means that as conditions change, so may — so will — we. We may evolve past our need, in other words, for containment, for conclusions, for answers. “

I gather this is a bad thing for Garber, but I tend to disagree. It is true that we may be evolving beyond the need “for containment, for conclusions, for answers”, but this is not necessarily a negative corollary of our present existence. We cannot reduce lives to status updates, but I strongly believe that these can sometimes enrich social interaction. We can share more easily, this is not a positive or a negative thing, it is simply the new environment in which we communicate. This is already changing society, and this change is very McLuhian.

Another look at McLuhan’s legacy appeared in The Guardian, written by Douglas Coupland. This is a much more indicting look at technology viewed from McLuhan’s perspective, as Coupland cites some passages and describes them as “chilly”. He quotes this passage as particularly chilly:

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

I may be an unashamed technophile, but I failed to get any chills from that passage. True, it describes what may be happening with Google and Facebook, but I fail to see this as an absolute negative. In the end, I think that McLuhan’s powerful writing and visionary ideas about media will be used to support specific agendas. This is probably what I am doing right now.


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