Amanda Griscom on McLuhan's Message
Three interviews with Marshall McLuhan
"Service environment's the thing in place of political policies. Or so it seems. Now remember I should always add in anything I say that that is the way it seems at the moment."
- Marshall McLuhan, Lecture, 1970
"It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system." - Marshall McLuhan
DISKUSSIONSTEMA - The Media is the Message
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born July 21, 1911 Edmonton Alberta of Scottish-Irish Episcopalean heritage. As a Canadian educator in mass communications he probed many concepts about media and society stimulated by his observations of American advertising. He was a professor of English literature, who all of a sudden at the age of 40 started writing a series of profoundly modern books about media, technology, and communications. He died on the last day of 1980 succumbing to a cerebral stroke which plagued the last year of his life.
McLuhan wasn't a philosopher - he was a sociologist with a flair for trend-spotting. If he were alive today he would probably be writing books contradicting what he said 30 or 40 years ago. As it was, he came up with the global village prophecy, which has turned out to be at least partly true, the "end of the book" prophecy, which has turned out to be totally false, and a great slogan - "The medium is the message" - which works a lot better for television than it does for the Internet.
Umberto Eco, interviewed in The Wired
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian mass communications scholar who achieved international celebrity in the sixties with his glittering aphorisms--"the medium is the message" and "the global village"--was a charismatic, controversial figure. He won many supporters and offended many critics with his theories about "hot" and "cold," "low definition" and "high definition" media, and the psychic and social effects of new media technologies, as epitomized today by the convergence of digital and analog media.
By the seventies his influence had faded. Today, in the nineties there has been a resurgence of interest in his ideas. The "global village," once only an influential catch-phrase, has become a political and social reality. With the arrival of the Internet, World Wide Web, and interactive technology, the world has shrunk to an infinite number of communities reflecting business, social, and personal interests which receive and send information instantly and inexpensively.
From the beginning of his career, the Canadian professor with a doctorate from Cambridge stood outside the academic mainstream for which he had little patience.
The natural incompatibility of originality and academia was probably especially difficult to overcome for McLuhan, who had received his early education in North American public schools, which, then as now, offered few advantages to their most talented students. By the time he arrived at Cambridge, McLuhan had acquired what is perhaps the defining trait of autodidacts - a kernel of personal crankiness and a resistance to established authority.
In his role
as social, political, and economic analyst, McLuhan was a clown. His speeches
and public pronouncements helped give rise to a generation of affluent
futurists and business consultants skilled at telling executives what
they liked to hear, but McLuhan's own predictions and business ideas were
often hilariously ill-conceived.
McLuhan is obviously a precursor, even though I would qualify him more as a poet than a historian, a master of intellectual collage rather than a systematic analyst. As he himself said, he was an explorer rather than an explainer.
Clearly, my classification resembles his in so far as each historical period is governed by major shifts in the technologies of transmission. But in my view, these apparently different historical stages are more like successive geological strata than quantum shifts from one "medium" to the next. For example, I have written a book examining the history of how people have looked at images: traveling "through" images to God in the age of idols (the "logosphere"), contemplating "beyond" images during the age of art (the "graphosphere"), and now controlling images for their own sake (the very recent "visual" age of the "videosphere").
McLuhan located the primacy of the visual in the age of print, whereas I would say that "seeing" is a constant practice in human history that is differentially influenced by the dominant mediosphere.
I also feel
that McLuhan blurred over some fairly complex issues in his famous "the
medium is the message" sound bite. The term "medium" can
be unpacked into a channel (i.e., a technology such as film), or a code
(such as music or a natural language), or a message (the semantic content
of an act of communication such as a promise). By reducing medium to a
channel-eye view, McLuhan overemphasizes the technology behind cultural
change at the expense of the usage that the messages and codes make of
that technology. Semioticians do the opposite - they glorify the code
at the expense of what it is really used for in a specific milieu.
Régis Debray intervjuad i The Wired
According to [McLuhan's] thesis, subliminal effects are engendered by repeatedly scanning lines of print presented in a standardized format. Habitual book readers are so subjectively conditioned by these effects that they are incapable of recognizing them, The bizarre typographical format of The Gutenberg Galaxy is presumably designed to counteract this conditioning and to jolt the reader out of his accustomed mental ruts, McLuhan attributes his own awareness of and ability to withstand the quasi-hypnotic power of print to the advent of new audio-visual and electronic media. By affecting our senses and conditioning our perception diffrerently, he holds, the new media have begun to break the bookish spell that held literate members of Western society in thrall during the past five centuries. It is noteworthy that McLuhan, while presenting his thesis in an unconventional format, tends to undermine it at the same time by drawing heavily for substantiation on conventional literature.
It is simply untrue that foreign relations have been replaced by public relations. Contrary to Marshall McLuhan's edict that the medium is the message, the message always mattered more than the medium: The Ayatollah Khomeini, living in exile in Paris, used audio cassettes to spread the message of his sermons back home to Iran. East Europeans, eager for the riches and freedom of capitalism, used radio to communicate their revolution. Corazon Aquino offered videotaped messages to anyone who contributed a blank cassette to her 1986 campaign. Students hoping to escape repression in China used the fax machine to relay information about [End Page 115] their pro-democracy movement. With Red Army tanks poised to topple a nascent democracy, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak called out the faithful by computer to surround Boris Yeltsin's White House in a sea of human guards. Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatistas guerrilla group challenging Mexican rule in the Chiapas region, is said to write his communiqués on a laptop computer plugged into the lighter socket of an old pickup truck. [...]
If history brings a conviction about the primacy of leadership, so too does it leave a certainty that technology is often feared or praised beyond its deserved legacy. To this end, mastering a new technology is a fundamental prerequisite of strong leadership. For all the thresholds crossed by new technologies, individual skills of leadership in the selling of public policy matter most.