Marshall McLuhan — The Man, The Mystery, The Life

For those who don’t know, today would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday.

McLuhan rocketed from an unknown academic to rockstar with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964.

Understanding Media contained the simple prophecy that electronic media of the twentieth century—at the time consisted of telephone, radio, movies, television but also includes things like the kindle, the internet, the ipad—were breaking the traditional limitations of text over our thoughts and senses. Thanks to McLuhan’s ability to turn a phrase, Understanding Media is a work more talked about than read. At the core of the book is a phrase that most have heard: “The medium is the message.”

“What’s been forgotten,” argues author Nicolas Carr in The Shallows, “is that McLuhan was not just acknowledging, and celebrating, the transformative power of new communication technology. He was also sounding a warning about the threat that power poses—and the risk of being oblivious that threat.

“The electric technology is within the gates,” McLuhan wrote “and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed.”

“McLuhan understood,” Carr continues “that whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information—the content—it carries.” With new mediums for communications come standard arguments. Enthusiasts praise the new content the technology allows, interpreting new methods as a way reduce the friction of information sharing. This, they argue, is good for democracy. Skeptics, on the other hand, condemn the content and see any assault against existing mediums as an effort to dumb down our culture.

Both, however, miss McLuhan’s point that in the long run the content of a medium—be it a television, radio, the internet, or even a kindle—matters less than the medium itself in influencing us (whether we realize it or not).

Carr argues “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals” and collectively as a society.

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather they “alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”

In Understanding, McLuhan proffered “A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” We see this today as newspapers transition to a digital world and how the medium—the internet—remakes the papers to fit its own standards. Not only have newspapers moved from physical to virtual but now they are hyperlinked, chunked, and embedded within noise. If we were alive (and healthy) McLuhan would argue these changes impact the way we understand the content.

McLuhan foresaw how all mass media would eventually be used for commercialization and consumerism:  “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.”

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Here is a clip from a 1968 CBC show featuring a popular debate between Norman Mailer and McLuhan. 

Before you decide if McLuhan was a genius or crackpot you should know that McLuhan suffered from a few cerebral tramas—including multiple strokes. One stroke was so bad he was given his last rites. Only a few months before the debate with Mailer, a tumor the size of an apple was removed from his brain. McLuhan’s stardom—and some argue his mind—started fading shortly after this video. 

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Perhaps nothing demonstrates McLuhan’s brilliance as well as his craziness as this 1969 interview with playboy. In the excerpt below, McLuhan describes his vision of cloud computing—he was well ahead of his time, keep in mind we’re talking 1969. Carr sums up this interview brilliantly: As is typical of McLuhan, there’s brilliance here, but there’s also a whole lot of bad craziness. At least I hope it’s bad craziness.

MCLUHAN: Automation and cybernation can play an essential role in smoothing the transition to the new society.

PLAYBOY: How?

MCLUHAN: The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness. Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.

PLAYBOY: How do you program an entire society – beneficially or otherwise?

MCLUHAN: There’s nothing at all difficult about putting computers in the position where they will be able to conduct carefully orchestrated programing of the sensory life of whole populations. I know it sounds rather science-fictional, but if you understood cybernetics you’d realize we could do it today. The computer could program the media to determine the given messages a people should hear in terms of their over-all needs, creating a total media experience absorbed and patterned by all the senses. We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. By such orchestrated interplay of all media, whole cultures could now be programed in order to improve and stabilize their emotional climate, just as we are beginning to learn how to maintain equilibrium among the world’s competing economies [ha! -Rough Type].

PLAYBOY: How does such environmental programing, however enlightened in intent, differ from Pavlovian brainwashing?

MCLUHAN: Your question reflects the usual panic of people confronted with unexplored technologies. I’m not saying such panic isn’t justified, or that such environmental programing couldn’t be brainwashing, or far worse – merely that such reactions are useless and distracting. Though I think the programing of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically, I don’t want to be in the position of a Hiroshima physicist extolling the potential of nuclear energy in the first days of August 1945. But an understanding of media’s effects constitutes a civil defense against media fallout.

The alarm of so many people, however, at the prospect of corporate programing’s creation of a complete service environment on this planet is rather like fearing that a municipal lighting system will deprive the individual of the right to adjust each light to his own favorite level of intensity. Computer technology can – and doubtless will – program entire environments to fulfill the social needs and sensory preferences of communities and nations. The content of that programing, however, depends on the nature of future societies – but that is in our own hands.

PLAYBOY: Is it really in our hands – or, by seeming to advocate the use of computers to manipulate the future of entire cultures, aren’t you actually encouraging man to abdicate control over his destiny?

MCLUHAN: First of all – and I’m sorry to have to repeat this disclaimer – I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends. Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn’t stop them, so why waste my time lamenting? As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, “I accept the Universe”: “She’d better.” I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress.

The point to remember here is that whenever we use or perceive any technological extension of ourselves, we necessarily embrace it. Whenever we watch a TV screen or read a book, we are absorbing these extensions of ourselves into our individual system and experiencing an automatic “closure” or displacement of perception; we can’t escape this perpetual embrace of our daily technology unless we escape the technology itself and flee to a hermit’s cave. By consistently embracing all these technologies, we inevitably relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. Thus, in order to make use of them at all, we must serve them as we do gods. The Eskimo is a servomechanism of his kayak, the cowboy of his horse, the businessman of his clock, the cyberneticist – and soon the entire world – of his computer. In other words, to the spoils belongs the victor …

The machine world reciprocates man’s devotion by rewarding him with goods and services and bounty. Man’s relationship with his machinery is thus inherently symbiotic. This has always been the case; it’s only in the electric age that man has an opportunity to recognize this marriage to his own technology. Electric technology is a qualitative extension of this age-old man-machine relationship; 20th Century man’s relationship to the computer is not by nature very different from prehistoric man’s relationship to his boat or to his wheel – with the important difference that all previous technologies or extensions of man were partial and fragmentary, whereas the electric is total and inclusive. Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull and his nerves outside his skin; new technology breeds new man. A recent cartoon portrayed a little boy telling his nonplused mother: “I’m going to be a computer when I grow up.” Humor is often prophecy.

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is worth the read.

If you’re interested in learning more about McLuhan, check out the McLuhan project (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/mcluhan/). Read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains to find out how the Internet is changing us.

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