“We live today in the Age of Information and Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men (sic) participate.” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.
As I was sloughing off books from ages ago, I pulled aside the three by Marshall McLuhan because I thought it would be interesting to get his take on our contemporary Twitterverse and I immediately found out that he saw it all coming more than 50 years ago. The McLuhan phrase you may recall is “the medium is the message,” and the fundamental concept is that media IS content, not simply a conduit for content. And the content is always another medium.
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he (sic) is an expert aware of the changes in sense perceptions.” McLuhan, 1964.
radical modernity in media and content, 1877
We naturally think of a stable order behind things (overlooking quantum mechanics) and rarely understand that when our media of connection change, that stable ordinarity is altered. Yes, the artists sense it because they are attuned, but we all feel it somewhere in the background. We feel the disconnect between our previous way of constructing reality and the new media. Most of the discord taking place in the political and cultural realm right now can be understood in this way. A struggle between the old and the new.
Sort of like when they switched from black figure ware to red figure ware 2500 years ago in Greece. Don’t mess with my figure/ground reality!
We are only a decade into the smartphone Facegoogle world, but it has already changed our relationships to each other, making them more instantaneous, and less tempered by anxiety-reducing sense perceptions like facial expressions or voice tones. This explains why we have MORE anxiety in a world that is safer and healthier than ever. Instantaneous media account for the decline in civility as well as the proliferation of magical thinking. Irony abounds as it was critical thinking and scientific method that made the technology that is now turning everyone into cavemen.
Write on your own wall!
There are plenty of people analyzing the effects of instant connection technology on society and individual anxiety and culture and politics. Here’s a recent example where the guy who invented the Facebook “Like” button is going through smartphone withdrawal symptoms.
The face of an addict. To an earlier medium.
What is interesting to me is that Marshall McLuhan had sussed it relatively completely more than 50 years ago. And not by following some hoary “tech equals crack” addiction/morality paradigm. “For most people, the electric age with its return to inclusive experience threatens their sense of self,” he said. In 1964.
Lonely? You have light at night. Light that didn’t exist ten years earlier. Light that is media.
McLuhan understood light as media. And now it turns out biophotons create consciousness.
A light. And a representation of a light, lit. Lit.
The current paranoia is the demise of democracy but I think McLuhan would recognize the problem as the atomization not of society or culture, but individualism itself. He saw individualism as a product of printing and perspective, expressed in both stridently individuated artistes and the military-industrial complex. Instantaneous electronic communication doesn’t break down social and cultural norms – those were broken centuries ago – it breaks down the individual – separating thought and feeling. “There is no ceteris paribus in the world of media and technology.” Nothing is unchanged.
One of my favorite insights from re-reading this book was that the Age of Information basically rewires our nervous system, “outs” it into the entire world. The internet can be thought of as an endocrine system for the human race. Personal hormonal imbalances become planet-wide hormonal outbursts. I’m sure you can think of an example.
McLuhan would have understood Her.
So check out this description of the Information Age from 53 years ago:
“Both time (as measured visually and segmentally) and space (as uniform, pictorial and enclosed) disappear in the electronic age of instant information. In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information-gathering. Today, information-gathering resumed the inclusive concept of ‘culture,’ exactly as the primitive food-gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment. Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and ‘workless’ world, is knowledge and insight into the creative process of life and society.”
Doesn’t that sound like something contemporary? It’s from 1964.
Architecture from 1964. Okay, so maybe we did have it all figured out then.
McLuhan’s genius was to understand the mechanics of media: form and content are not separate or even separable. Even that intriguing Guardian article about smartphone addiction and how our dopamine receptors are manipulated by tech giants, argues largely within a traditional form/content and figure/ground paradigm.
Are you messing with my figure/ground reality again? Next you’re gonna insist it has to be either a particle or a wave!
McLuhan’s view of the press as mosaic (communal and participatory) is eerily prescient. Over the last two years we have witnessed the media’s inability to restrain itself from feeding the flames of various public dumpster fires. All the calls to change behavior (moralistic approach) fail because the content and the conduit are inseparable.
I get it. I’m a media whore myself.
Again, McLuhan in 1964: “The press, in itself, presents the contradiction of an individualistic technology dedicated to shaping and revealing group attitudes.” The hallmark of each successive technological shift since typography is, for McLuhan, the tendency to divide and rule. Nationalism is a new hallmark of Renaissance politics following the spread of printing.
By the 17th century you could get elected king twice and still not get to keep the castle…
Our own new tribalisms can be seen as a condition of the current Twitterverse, magnified by our pre-Matrix inheritance and its assumption of a liberal industrial order rendered quaint by our hyperconnectivity. McLuhan argued that nationalism, while supported by the press, “has all of the electric media against it.” I took that as a mistake, until I found this bit later on: ”Telegraph and radio neutralized nationalism but evoked archaic tribal ghosts of the most vigorous brand.” Telegraph plus radio seems like our Facegoogle Twitterverse.
Headquarters of “all of the electric media.” Just ask the spambots trying to comment in Cyrillic below.
McLuhan, writing in the Cold War, observed the onset of the information war between East and West we are experiencing now. He anticipated the Russian hackers of today in a discussion of the history of weapons. “The Russians had only to adapt their traditions of the Eastern icon and image-building to the new electric media in order to be aggressively effective in the modern world of information.”
Crucially, McLuhan anticipated the role of “audience participation,” the extension of advertising algorithms across the literal spectrum of humanity thanks to the internet. “The product matters less as the audience participation increases.” He didn’t know about the internet but he understood the mechanism prior to the perfection of its mechanics. The content of Twitter and Facebook and Google are not stand-alones, they are other media.
Quantity supercedes entity.
Information Age. Data mining. User-based advertising. The inability to look away from the dumpster fire. Tribalisms in an era of maximal interconnectedness. Echo chambers. Lifelong learning in an age of automation. He anticipated it all.
This week I witnessed an actual dumpster fire. In real life. A dumpster, on fire. Not a metaphor!
McLuhan went backward as well as forward, noting the confluence of artist and media technologist in Samuel F.B. Morse, and the importance of radio and PA systems in the rise of Hitler, to which he added: “This is not to say that these media relayed his thoughts effectively to the German people. His thoughts were of very little consequence. Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization.”
The medium IS the message, more than ever.
P.S. now I have to re-read his subsequent works.
P.P.S. If you want to read more musings beyond my capabilities, check out this one from 2013 on the Quantum Mechanics of Culture.