Nicholas Carr on McLuhan at 100

19Jul11

 Technology has rendered humans less capable of reflective thinkingJULY 18, 2011

This week — Thursday, July 21, to be precise — marks the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth. Here are some thoughts on the man and his legacy.

One of my favorite YouTube videos is a clip from a 1968 Canadian TV show featuring a debate between Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan. The two men, both icons of the sixties, could hardly be more different. Leaning forward in his chair, Mailer is pugnacious, animated, engaged. McLuhan, abstracted and smiling wanly, seems to be on autopilot. He speaks in canned riddles. “The planet is no longer nature,” he declares, to Mailer’s uncomprehending stare; “it’s now the content of an art work.” Watch it here: http://tinyurl.com/3qhcz2b .

Watching McLuhan, you can’t quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose. Both impressions, it turns out, are valid. As the novelist Douglas Coupland argued in his recent biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, McLuhan’s mind was probably situated at the mild end of the autism spectrum. He also suffered from a couple of major cerebral traumas. In 1960, he had a stroke so severe that he was given his last rites. In 1967, just a few months before the Mailer debate, surgeons removed a tumor the size of a small apple from the base of his brain. A later procedure revealed that McLuhan had an extra artery pumping blood into his cranium.

Between the stroke and the tumor, McLuhan managed to write a pair of extravagantly original books. The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, explored the cultural and personal consequences of the invention of the printing press, arguing that Gutenberg’s invention shaped the modern mind. Two years later, Understanding Media extended the analysis to the electric media of the twentieth century, which, McLuhan argued, were destroying the individualist ethic of print culture and turning the world into a tightly networked global village. The ideas in both books drew heavily on the works of other thinkers, including such contemporaries as Harold Innis, Albert Lord, and Wyndham Lewis, but McLuhan’s synthesis was, in content and tone, unlike anything that had come before.

When you read McLuhan today, you find all sorts of reasons to be impressed by his insight into media’s far-reaching effects and by his anticipation of the course of technological progress. When he looked at a Xerox machine in 1966, he didn’t just see the ramifications of cheap photocopying, as great as they were. He foresaw the transformation of the book from a manufactured object into an information service: “Instead of the book as a fixed package of repeatable and uniform character suited to the market with pricing, the book is increasingly taking on the character of a service, an information service, and the book as an information service is tailor-made and custom-built.” That must have sounded outrageous a half century ago. Today, with books shedding their physical skins and turning into software programs, it sounds like a given.

You also realize that McLuhan got a whole lot wrong. One of his central assumptions was that electric communication technologies would displace the phonetic alphabet from the center of culture, a process that he felt was well under way in his own lifetime. “Our Western values, built on the written word, have already been considerably affected by the electric media of telephone, radio, and TV,” he wrote in Understanding Media. He believed that readers, because their attention is consumed by the act of interpreting the visual symbols of alphabetic letters, become alienated from their other senses, sacrifice their attachment to other people, and enter a world of abstraction, individualism, and rigorously linear thinking. This, for McLuhan, was the story of Western civilization, particularly after the arrival of Gutenberg’s press.

By freeing us from our single-minded focus on the written word, new technologies like the telephone and the television would, he argued, broaden our sensory and emotional engagement with the world and with others. We would become more integrated, more “holistic,” at both a sensory and a social level, and we would recoup some of our primal nature. But McLuhan failed to anticipate that, as the speed and capacity of communication networks grew, what they would end up transmitting more than anything else is text. The written word would invade electric media. If McLuhan were to come back to life today, the sight of people using their telephones as reading and writing devices would blow his mind. He would also be amazed to discover that the fuzzy, low-definition TV screens that he knew (and on which he based his famous distinction between hot and cold media) have been replaced by crystal-clear, high-definition monitors, which more often that not are crawling with the letters of the alphabet. Our senses are more dominated by the need to maintain a strong, narrow visual focus than ever before. Electric media are social media, but they are also media of isolation. If the medium is the message, then the message of electric media has turned out to be far different from what McLuhan supposed.

Read the rest here: http://tinyurl.com/3qhcz2b

    

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One Response to “Nicholas Carr on McLuhan at 100”

  1. 1 Edward Jhon

    As Nicholas G. Carr (aka Nick) completes his Afterword to his bestseller The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, HCL Technologies’ VP – Marketing Anubhav Saxena engages Nick in a conversation wherein they talk about Cloud consumerism, enterprises’ growing interest in Cloud, and Nick’s upcoming projects. http://bit.ly/ksQ2oS


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