Thursday, July 21, 2011

Marshall McLuhan at 100: The Media Are Still the Messages (and more)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed academician, philosopher and media observer Marshall McLuhan. In reflecting on his life, it is stunning to see how his influence and his relevance have only grown in this era of "The Social Network." Consider that McLuhan coined now-common phrases such as "the medium is the message, "information overload" and "hot and cool media" decades before we would understand their full significance.

His watershed book, Understanding Media, was
written 20 years before the PC revolution and 30 years before the rise of the Internet. Yet his insights predicted how we would engage with the world through the wide variety of media available to us. In 1964, Understanding Media seemed to be the rantings of a crazy man. But in the light of the 21st century digital world, he makes perfect sense. One can argue that Understanding Media is the most important book ever written on communication. (I would accept that premise.)

Like many other future-oriented thinkers, such as H.G.
Wells and Louis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan accurately predicted many events. For example, he believed that printed books would become obsolete, killed off by television and by other electronic information technology (e-books, anyone?). In War and Peace in the Global Village, he predicted that a coming, vast electronic network (read: the Internet) would recreate "the world in the image of a global village" (another McLuhan phrase that has entered our lexicon). And quite a village it is: When Time magazine proclaimed Mark Zuckerberg the 2010 Man of of the Year, they noted that Facebook users around the world comprised "a social entity almost twice as large as the U.S. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest, behind only China and India."

Though he is somewhat forgotten today, McLuhan's popularity grew throughout the 1960s and 70s. His work was translated into more than 20 languages, he appeared in magazines
across the world. Embraced by the counter-culture and acknowledged somewhat by the mainstream, McLuhan had an hour-long TV special on NBC in 1967, a Playboy interview in 1969, and an appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, a cutting-edge TV show of the late 60s. However, McLuhan may be best remembered for his ironic cameo in Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar winner, Annie Hall, where Allen makes McLuhan appear magically just to settle an argument with a pedant in a movie queue.

McLuhan never claimed to be a crusader, and in fact, he never was. He was an observer and a documentarian. His various epigrams are testimony to this, and they have gained increased significance in today's media-encrusted world:
  • "A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding." (Think of all the media talking heads who provide much heat but little light.)
  • "All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values." (One example is that people who watch more news on TV than average believe that crime rates are higher than they actually are.)
  • "Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either." (Sesame Street, anyone?)
  • "Art is anything you can get away with." (McLuhan foreshadowed Warhol and Basquiat with that one.)
  • "Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be." (Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit as Exhibit A, Ronald Reagan. As Exhibit B -- Barack Obama.)
  • "The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man." (From fast food consumed in cars to the docks for our various electronic gear, he nailed this one.)
  • "There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew." (This statement was made before "Ecoimagination" became an advertising buzz phrase.)
  • "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us." (Is there any doubt that our perceptions have been influenced first by television and later -- today -- by Facebook? Our whole notion of what constitutes a "friend" is entirely different.)
McLuhan continued to influence even after his demise. In 1988, eight years after his death, his son published McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media. These questions resulted in the formulation of the following four laws of media, and how they affect us. Using cell phones as an example, here is how McLuhan's Laws manifest themselves:
  1. Extension/Enhancement: Every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user. What does the medium enhance or intensify? (In this case, the voice is enhanced.)
  2. Closure/Obsolescence: Because there is equilibrium in sensibility, when one area of experience is heightened or intensified, another is diminished or numbed. What is pushed aside or obsolesced by the new medium? (Answer: the telephone booth.)
  3. Reversal: Every form, pushed to the limit of its potential, reverses its characteristics. (In this case, the cell phone does not free us. Instead, it puts us on a leash because we are always accessible.)
  4. Retrieval: The content of any medium is an older medium. (Childhood yelling has become the content of cell phones, as we raise our voices to be heard.)
McLuhan found significance in the most mundane matters. For example, he could see how typography, with its specific variations of form and aesthetics, became forms of expression in themselves. Even print was not a monolithic medium to him.

So in this media-oriented world, where jeans have special pockets for iPods and the backpacks of most self-respecting kids are loaded with electronic gear, it is good to consider the visionary insights of Marshall McLuhan. His star grows ever so brightly, perhaps even directly proportional with the glow of display panels and their increasing influences on our lives and psyches.

Note: While I admire McLuhan greatly, I also direct you to this more critical article by Paul Seaman titled, "Marshall McLuhan: A Media Guru Reconsidered." While I don't agree with much of what Mr. Seaman has written, I appreciate his even-handed approach to McLuhan's legacy.

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