Prophet of TV age still has something to tell us about our wired world



Graham Harman is an associate professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo

Marshall Mcluhan said the background effect of a medium is key, not its content. The Canadian theorist’s message is as valid as ever today.

Mcluhan saw that new communication technologies would retrieve an earlier tribal existence.

Marshall McLuhan, the great Canadian media theorist, was born in 1911and died in 1980 from complications of a stroke. We are now in his centennial year, which is being marked with celebrations around the world.

In the 1960s, McLuhan surged from obscurity as a professor of English literature at the University of Toronto through his classic book Understanding Media, which made him a prophet of the television age.

The novelty of McLuhan’s approach, based on his detailed study of ancient grammar and rhetoric, was to say that the background effects of new media are more important than the visible content of those media. For example, McLuhan controversially held that the good or bad content of television programmes was irrelevant compared with the subtler effects of watching television at all.

As he put it in a famous interview with Playboy, the content of a television show is no more important than the graffiti on the atomic bomb. This is what McLuhan meant by his famous phrase “the medium is the message”. We are too focused on the overt content of new media and fail to notice their invisible background effects.

Radio is a “hot” medium, meaning its information is very defined and leaves few shadowy areas for listeners to provide anything themselves. The radio consumer merely sits passively and listens. Hot media, which include printed documents as well as radio, favour assertive and even explosive personalities. According to McLuhan, Adolf Hitler’s charisma was perfectly suited for the radio age, but he would have flopped on 1960s television, where the good looks of John F. Kennedy were ideal.

Unlike radio, television is a “cold” medium with its flickering images of limited size, which require the viewer to participate more actively. For this reason, cold media tend to be hypnotic. Television promotes understated celebrities of few words rather than the articulate fast talkers of radio.

But nothing stays the same temperature forever. For McLuhan, the heating of media is the engine of history. Cars begin as a tool for efficient time saving in daily travel. But multiply the number of cars, thereby “heating up” the medium, and cars soon become a nightmarish tool wasting our time in traffic and parking. McLuhan calls this the reversal of the overheated medium.

Democratic countries begin by claiming that everyone is equal, but eventually the crushing mass of humans ensures our wish to stand out in some way from the mob. Democracies begin to worship music and sports celebrities and obscenely wealthy tycoons, raising such people to a greater peak of superiority than the old aristocracy could have dreamed.

Along with such reversals, McLuhan also discussed “retrievals”.

Perhaps McLuhan’s most important example of retrieval was his concept of the “global village”. Most of modern history showed a movement towards greater personal individuality and the spatial, cultural, and linguistic distinctiveness of specific nation states.

As early as the 1960s, McLuhan saw that new communication technologies would tend to reverse this process, retrieving an earlier form of tribal existence.

In today’s, world we are immersed in a stream of cosmopolitan tabloid gossip, and have instant contact via Facebook with people distant in space or emerging from deep in our pasts. If we were paying attention on the proper night, we could even read a Pakistani man as he live-tweeted the assault that killed Osama bin Laden. The global village is upon us.

Fortunately, McLuhan was not a technological determinist, as his critics sometimes charge. True, he believed we are more shaped by background conditions of our society than by our conscious political decisions. But McLuhan said we were free to reshape those conditions.

The reversal of the television age, or the Google age, or the coming age of genetic manipulation, is not something to be passively awaited. For McLuhan, it is the very mission of all artists and inventors.

– 31 Jul, 2011, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

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