Marshall McLuhan on New Forms and Old Assumptions (1960)


by    –   30 December, 2011

What the golden age of television has to do with human nature and today’s Internet intellectuals.

It seems fitting that we conclude the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan with one of his timeless and remarkably timely observations, which in just 30 seconds manages to capture in 1960 a folly of human nature that rings all the more true in 2011 as we trek forward into this constantly evolving media landscape.

Marshall McLuhan 1960 from bob stein on Vimeo.

“When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.”

What McLuhan gets at, of course, could also be said not only of media but also of media theory itself, especially today. As Internet scholar Evgeny Morozov writes in The New Republic:

 ‘Our Internet intellectuals lack the intellectual ambition, and the basic erudition, to connect their thinking with earlier traditions of social and technological criticism. They desperately need to believe that their every thought is unprecedented. Sometimes it seems as if intellectual life doesn’t really thrill them at all. They never stoop to the lowly task of producing expansive and expository essays, where they could develop their ideas at length, by means of argument and learning, and fully engage with their critics. Instead they blog, and tweet, and consult, and give conference talks—modes of discourse that are mostly impervious to serious critique.”

[Editorial comment – the above quote from Morozov is simply not true. There is an abundance of good scholarly work published in old media form (books and articles), as well as on the Internet, about the Internet, computer-mediated communication and new media. It is not difficult to find. – AlexK]

So, where does this leave us as we round out McLuhan’s centennial? With more questions than answers, no doubt, but the questions about the future of information abundancethe future of journalism, and the future of the Internet might be a good place to start.

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2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan on New Forms and Old Assumptions (1960)”

  1. I think the comment is true, because even when written in book form, the content is still written to avoid being substantiated. If that comment weren’t true, I wouldn’t have clicked in to read this.

    • That’s not the way scholarship works. Scholarly works don’t even get published if they are not deemed to contribute something of value for the scholarly community of interest. Commercial publishers, including university presses, also only publish books after they are peer reviewed by other experts who work in the relevant field or discipline. That applies to general non-fiction books as well in history, biography, science, etc. You can be sure that the recently published biography of Steve Jobs was reviewed extensively by people who were privy to the inner workings of Apple Corporation, as well as those who knew Jobs personally. Once a book is published, it is subject to critical review in journals, magazines, newspapers and on the Internet. Author errors are identified and books are either panned or endorsed and recommended. It is erroneous to suggest that written works are not “substantiated” if they’re worth being examined at all (a lot that gets published is not)……AlexK

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