Marshall Mcluhan & Technological Determinism: A Reappraisal

Posted by admin on October 2, 2011
This year marks the centenary of the birth of pioneering and often divisive media theorist Herbert Marshall Mcluhan, and to celebrate The Watershed in Bristol is hosting a season of seminars and films relating to his work.  With the contemporary rise of social media, the time is ripe for a reassessment of Mcluhan’s theories about how media technology shapes our existence.

David Cronenburg’s Videodrome

A key strand in Mcluhan’s thinking is the concept of technological determinism: he posits that the forms of communication technology that we have created for ourselves have not merely dictated the ways in which we communicate with each other, but that specific technologies are conducive to specific types of cognitive perception, self-conception and even to the entrenchment of specific ideologies and hegemonic codes.  The advent of the printing press and movable type, for example, is seen by Mcluhan as having fostered the characteristic trends in Western thought in the Modern era, i.e. capitalism, individualism, nationalism and so on.  Essentially, we can only think about things in the same way in which we communicate them, therefore the specific nature of a given form of communication technology has massive ramifications in terms of the way we perceive our society and understand our place in it.  It’s a line of thinking that should be familiar to fans of Saussure and semiotics, and the concept of language itself as an impersonal, independent entity, which through its organisation and coding restricts what we can express verbally and therefore cognitively, and through which, consequently, only certain, finite ideas and outlooks can become manifest.

So where does this lead us?  Yep, you guessed it: social media.  It seems almost trite to say that the internet has fundamentally altered the way we interact, but in light of Mcluhan’s work the social and cognitive determinism that can be attributed to Facebook and Twitter is immensely significant, and indeed his 1960s forecasting of a ‘Global Village,’ under which technology would furnish new forms of self-awareness and collectivism, has come to seem more than a little bit prophetic.  One pretty incredible example of social media’s functions is a piece of software recently adopted by a hedge fund in the States, which is based on logarithms that track the uses of certain words and phrases in tweets from certain parts of the world, and use them to predict general levels of emotional contentment or uneasiness, which can apparently then provide astonishingly accurate predictions of the infamously hair-triggered stock market and its fluctuations.  George Orwell eat your heart out.  Just how else internet-based social networking and the new avenues and manners of communication it offers have or will affect wider trends in social organisation and perception are clearly pertinent questions …..

More scenes from Videodrome:-

Professor Brian O’Blivion, McLuhan-like?

One Response to “Marshall Mcluhan & Technological Determinism: A Reappraisal”

  1. 1 Marshall Mcluhan & Technological Determinism: A Reappraisal ... | Marshall McLuhan and Social Media |

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