McLuhan 50 Years Later

First published December 20, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

My daughter, who is in her senior year of high school, recently wrote an essay on Marshall McLuhan. She asked me to give my thoughts on McLuhan’s theories of media. To be honest, I hadn’t given McLuhan much thought since my college days, when I had packed away “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” for what I thought would likely be forever. I always found the title ironic. This book does many things, but promoting “understanding” is not one of them. It’s one of the more incomprehensible texts I’ve ever encountered.

My daughter’s essay caused me to dig up my half-formed understanding of what McLuhan was trying to say. I also tried to update that understanding from the early ‘60s, when it was written, to a half-century later, in the world we currently live in.

Consider this passage from McLuhan, written exactly 50 years ago: The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness—will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.

(See, I told you it was incomprehensible!)

The key thing to understand here is that McLuhan foretold something that I believe is unfolding before our eyes: The media we interact with are changing our patterns of cognition – not the message, but the medium itself. We are changing how we think. And that, in turn, is changing our society. While we focus on the messages we receive, we fail to notice that the ways we receive those messages are changing everything we know, forever. Twitter, Facebook, Google, the xBox and Youtube – all are co-conspirators in a wholesale rewiring of our world.

Now, to borrow from McLuhan’s own terminology, no one in our Global Village could ignore the horrific unfolding of events in Connecticut last week. But the channels we received the content through also affected our intellectual and visceral connection with that content. Watching parents search desperately for their children on television was a very different experience from catching the latest CNN update delivered via my iPhone.

When we watched through “hot” media, we connected at an immediate and emotional level. When the message was delivered through “cool” media, we stood somewhat apart, framing the messaging and interpreting it, abstracted at some length from the sights and sounds of what was unfolding. Because of the emotional connection afforded by the “hot” media, the terror of Newtown was also our own.

McLuhan foretold this as well: Unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.

My daughter is graduating next June. The world she will inherit will bear little resemblance to the one I stepped into, fresh from my own graduation in 1979. It is smaller, faster, more connected and, in many ways, more terrifying. But, has the world changed as much as it seems, or is it just the way we perceive that world? And, in that perception, are we the ones unleashing the change?

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