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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2019
The not-so-famous-anymore Marshall McLuhan - Canada's so-called "media prophet" - wrote his most well-known work on communications technology, in particular TV (and all its social and personal consequences), in the 1960s and 70s. Since then hordes of other writers (Neil Postman, Tom Wolf, Robert Fulford, Brian Fawcett, and most recently, Douglas Coupland as part of Penguin Books' "Extraordinary Canadians" series, edited by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul) have weighed in on what they think McLuhan got right, what he got wrong, and what his general impact has been.

Some of these "weighing-in"s praise for McLuhan for his dark, prophetic abilities concerning our technology-drenched, zombie-like internet culture, and others (like Fawcett) characterize McLuhan as a "blue-eyed enthusiast", an optimist, who thought the coming "Global Village" would be a utopian ultra-democracy where everyone got along and would be connected to each other better than ever.

McLuhan wrote in such a way (a cryptic, quasi-poetic way) that he set himself up to be interpreted in almost any way by anybody. The easiest thing to do with McLuhan, as a result, is to put words in his mouth. That's what I'll be doing here.

But before I go into what I think of him, I should say that Marshall McLuhan didn't put anything in perfectly unambiguous terms. That's why he's so easy to misunderstand, and therefore misinterpret. But that's not fair, either. If he's so easy to pin down, any interpretation might do. He's flexible that way. Perhaps the way a "prophet" should be: open to new, different, better, more fruitful examinations. An endless source of further commentary, like the Bible, Confucius, or any great philosophy and literature for that matter.

One thing that hardly ever goes mentioned about McLuhan was that he was a professor of English Literature. He was neither a technology or media specialist. He looked at the history of man and technology from the point of view of poetry, books, the Bible, and other "conservative" outlets (and if you object to the term "man and technology" don't get upset; McLuhan wasn't interested much in women, but I'll get to that).

Since McLuhan was a teacher his main concern was competition in the educational environment. This is why he talked so much about television. We can probably say, safely, that he was right to be concerned. If you throw the Internet in there with TV, it's not a stretch to say that those two pervasive media are about the biggest distractions around for one's education (not including, of course, the convenience of the Web for school research. That said, the Web is probably used more to get away from school stuff, not to engage with it even more. In my university classes people are often checking their Facebook and chatting on MSN, simultaneously, in between typing out notes on whatever the professor is blabbing on about. Actually, it's the note-taking/typing that comes in between the far-more-important Facebook chatting.).

But it wasn't just the quantity of time away from books and studying that McLuhan worried about, it was the quality of time. That is, with TV (and now the Internet) you don't just get the same old content you could have gotten from a book, you have a totally different sensory experience. It's just not the same. TV and the Web give you soundbites, video-clips and grammarless text, while reading requires your sustained attention and concentrated intellect. For McLuhan it wasn't just the content, but the form (or "medium") by which the content is shaped that mattered most. Hence his famous phrase "The Medium is the Message". He also rendered this phrase, expressing its metaphorical value (like a true English teacher) alternatively, "The medium is the massage" (as in it "massages your mind", conditions your brain), and "The medium is the mess-age" (as in "we're living in an increasingly messy and messed up world).

McLuhan's other famous (and famously misunderstood) phrase-turned-cliché was, of course, "The Global Village". What got misunderstood here was the sense that, since we now live in a world-sized "village" - often referred to as the "global community" and its "gloablized culture" (whatever that means) - well, it must be a happy, fun place. It is a "village" after all. Villages are quaint, peaceful places, right? Not for McLuhan. For him, a village is a savage place, full of primitives who hunt each other for sport and practice cannabalism. Sounds like Western, White-Man superiority, doesn't it? Well, that's McLuhan for you.

Without going on too much longer (this is the Internet, after all, a medium not-so-suited to long attention spans; although, this is exactly my point here) I'd like to mention something McLuhan did get right. Mcluhan believed that with electronic technology (starting with the telegraph, then radio, TV, and now the Internet, which he never got to see in action) re-tribalizes us. It conditions us socially like living a tribal village. We're an oral culture once again. Western Civilization is (was?) a reading and writing culture, but now, thanks to the new, ubiquitous technological atmosphere, we are once again slipping into the primitive darkness of the savage. This sounds a bit, well, racist almost, so what do I mean?

Most of us communicate over cell-phones, by texting, email, Facebook, MSN and other non-booklike technologies. Letter writing is pretty much dead, and with it, grammar too. McLuhan contrasted morphemic forms of writing with phonetic forms, the first being idiographic or symbolic (like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) and the second, the phonetic, being composed of an alphabet where the individual signs have only sounds, and not complex meanings like Chinese or Hebrew characters. Therefore, idiographic signs are more oral and the alphabet more visual. This seems counter-intuitive, I know, but run with me (and McLuhan). Western culture, since Plato and the ancient Greeks, has been a written and visual culture. Eastern cultures remained more "tribal" and oral. For the West (and you're told this in courses which compare Western and Eastern modes of expression; nothing to do with McLuhan) the world can be explained by a set of categories and objects. For the "East", the world is more fluid, more about process than substance. We often praise such down-to-earth, animistic cultures for not making the same mistakes as us uptight Westerners, since we fragment our thinking about the world into narrow categories like right and wrong, good and evil, male and female, just and unjust, civilized and savage. We're too analytical, we could learn a lot from cultures that are more in-tune with the Earth. I'm not saying there isn't some truth in this, but you recognize it as a common cliché.

So what is it McLuhan got right? Look at text messages. Look at emails. Look at YouTube comments. What do you notice? Besides profanity. Well, almost no grammar. Copious amounts of slang, abbreviations (lol, omg, lmao...) and, just like ancient hieroglyphs, emoticons. Emoticons are the new way of conveying meaning. This is the electronic, "tribal", "oral" way of communicating. Nothing could be further from reading and writing - as it was handed down from Plato to the printing press to now - than this new, truncated form of communicating, if we can call it communicating.

Attention spans are shot. A common expression now is "that makes my brain hurt", meaning, "When you talk about book-stuff, I can't (I don't want to) understand...Hand me my iPod."

I probably sound like a real prude. And maybe I am. But our Western inheritance (read: democracy, philosophy, literature, history) is under serious threat. Not from the outside (terrorism, communism, climate change) but from our own shrinking attention spans. Citizenship is weak, and "global citizenship" is not good substitute. The global-citizenry, via the Internet, is more interested withdrawing into their own private "communities", based on their narrow, private interests, hobbies, fetishes, etc. This isn't a unifying thing. The Internet does not unify: it helps you escape from unification.

Websites like this one - based on words and sentences that actually have grammar - are good. But they're good precisely because they're not typical of the Internet. What is typical of the Web is crap. This Medium truly is the Mess Age.

More to come. My laptop battery is dying. Gee, what would McLuhan say about that?: Friggin' technology...
Comments

Alamir

Alamir

2008-09-13 19:43:36

I agree that we've become a culture based on bringing out fast concepts/ideas/facts/entertainment. I'd just like to add to your arguement a sort of tangent that what we need is a balance. It's been a dream of mine that one day we could swallow a pill or receive a chip that gave us all the information on the world that we've gathered as fast as possible. I don't think this dream is uncommon, for example the popular Matrix movie has a scene where Neo learns all there is to know about Kung-Fu in a fraction of a section.
However, this goal negates our need to span things out or "slow time down" then I think we've wasted our efforts. Let me first list a few things that desire an increase in time for each of sense: For
sound we need white-noise, for visual we need space, for touch ambiance, for mentality we need meditation and our physical body needs rest. These are aspects of life that we desire an increase of time for.
We arguably work harder and faster to increase the time for these leisures. It has to be a balance of the two. I don't see why someone would want to save time for anything else. We must come to terms with the fact that knowledge is extensive, and beyond our current brain's capacity. Questions will be unresolved... eventually we need to stop gathering these quick-facts and ask "so what?" However, I think society is reaching an imbalance of simply entertaining the brain with more ideas/second than allowing time to realize if we've gotten any closer to achieve the goals we hoped for by acquiring these facts (For example "why are we here?"). Without doing so, these quick facts merely become trivia suitable for an episode of Jeopardy.

Sorrel

Sorrel

2008-09-13 22:53:10

Interesting content, but for someone who seems to be advocating traditional literacy (by that I mean not giving way to the degenerative characteristics of communication) you made an interesting choice in your writing style (and by that I mean a whole lot of asides in brackets, fragment sentences and colloquiallistic phrases that made me question the sensibility of it all. But beyond that, ignore the cattiness of my comment; I quite liked this article and agree with you (and McLuhan).

Hogan

Hogan

2008-09-18 00:55:37

I don't have the time at the moment to add the implied "Part 2" of this piece, so in the meantime I'll just respond to the thoughtful comments above.

Sorrel, you're right to point out the irony in my writing style, given the topic (traditional writing vs. electronified writing). The reason I write that way - conversational, fluid, digressive - is because I think its best to strike a balance between the purely content-driven, linear, logical form of "perfect" writing, with a nice-sounding, casual, spoken (oral!) style. There's nothing worse than reading the overly-mechanical language in, say, an instruction manual, or, for that matter, the dry academic tone of a scholarly essay. Writing should sound good, have good form and style, as well as have interesting content.

Which brings me to Alamir's comment. You're right, too. We need a balance. And like I said, the balance I was going for was to have what I think is important content - something worth thinking about - and good style - something entertaining.

Harold Innis, the Canadian political economist and communications theorist (and Marshall McLuhan's main influence (in fact, McLuhan once said that his own work was but "a footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences)), also stressed the need for a balance between written and oral forms of communication.

The Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul, too, puts a great deal of emphasis on oral communication: on speaking to an audience in plain language, in forceful, clear, accessible language. His written work is infused with this "oral" style as well, but he says his favorite mode of communication is to engage with an audience.

For my part, as someone who sometimes performs poetry (though more often I tell stories and just plain rant) on stage about once a week, I agree that engaging with a crowd is one of the best ways of communicating ideas to a real public: talking TO them, not over their heads, as if I, the performer on stage, had some transcendental talent that elevates me beyond and above them, and that they should therefore look up to me because I have something they don't, making them wonder, "How does he do it?"...(but I digress; I'll write an article about it).



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