Marshall McLuhan in his time & ours

05Feb12

Webs and whirligigs: Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours

He can’t be reduced to a handful of pithy quotes, but McLuhan has something to say about our new world of frayed ends rather than neat endings.   
Thursday, July 21 would have been the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist who was one of the most influential — or at least one of the most quoted — media thinkers of the 20th century. (And certainly the only one to feature, memorably, in Annie Hall, above.) To celebrate, we’re having a mini McLuhan Week here at the Lab. To kick us off, here’s our own Megan Garber.
 
Marshall McLuhan is best known — and to some extent exclusively known — for a maxim: “The medium is the message.” This is mostly unfortunate. McLuhan was the author of several books of varying forms, a pioneering intellectual celebrity, and the founder of a field; five words, plump and alliterative though they may be, are wildly inadequate. But McLuhan had, in his way, a sense of humor, and appreciated as much as anyone the absurdity of his own meta-maxim (M.M. = (M=M)), and ended up feeding and fighting his own reductive celebrity in pretty much equal measure. A lover of poetry, probes, and extremely bad puns, he named one of his later books The Medium Is the Massage.
 
Today, 100 years after his birth and nearly 50 after he gave us language that made “media” into a thing, McLuhan is a Media Guru of the first order, which is to say that he is often quoted and rarely read. (The second-most-famous McLuhanism: “You know nothing of my work!”) When he died in late 1980, obituaries remembered him, with no apparent irony, as the “apostle of the electronic age.” But what will he be for the digital? Do his insights, focused as they were on the vagaries of television, apply equally well to the brave new world of bytes and bits?
 
For all the “visionary” status we confer on him today, it’s worth remembering that McLuhan was constrained by his time as much as we are to our own: He wrote not just about Tribal Man and Graphic Man, about the cultural and cognitive effects of communication as they sweep the span of human history, but also aboutjukeboxes and miniskirts and magazines and hosiery. Women, to him, were pretty much accessories. And his thinking (to repeat: Tribal Man) was pretty much implicitly paternalistic. When he talked about a “global village” — another maybe-claim to web-visionary fame — he wasn’t talking about a world community where New Yorkers go jeans-shopping with Londoners and Guineans share sugar with Laotians and everyone finally meets at a communal table to sip artisanal tea and discuss newly localized world events; he was talking about an encroaching dystopia that renders Tribal Man — or, more accurately, re-tribalized humanity — increasingly connected to, and yet actually disconnected from, itself via the barely-contained buzz of electric wires. A global village, McLuhan feared, was one that would be populated by automatons.
 
But writing, as it filled us with notions of our own narrative nobility, inspired in us something else, too: a need — a desire, an impulse — for containment.
 
“What if he is right”? Tom Wolfe asked, ominously. “What…if…he…is…right”?
And: He was right, about not everything but a lot, which is why today he is a Media Guru and aYouTube sensation and a ubiquitous subject of biographies both cheeky and earnest and a fixture of culture both nerd and pop, which are increasingly the same thing. He is the patron saint of Wired. Today, as the “electronic” age zips and zaps into the digital, as we are spun by the centrifugal forces of a nascent revolution that we can’t fully perceive because we’re the ones doing the spinning, McLuhan’s theories seem epic and urgent and obvious all at the same time. And McLuhan himself — the teacher, the thinker, the darling of the media he both measured and mocked — seems both more relevant, and less so, than ever before.
 
More, because, as the tale goes, McLuhan pretty much foresaw this whole Internet business. But less, too, because whatever foreseeing he did arrived, as foresight tends to, prematurely. In the ’60s, at the height of his fame, McLuhan’s ideas were thrilling and shocking and, more generously, radical. Fifty years later, tempered by time, those same ideas have coalesced into conventionality (less generously: cliché). “The medium is the message” has been used to describe everything from cars to computers. I’m pretty sure I remember Bart Simpson writing it on a blackboard. McLuhan, controversial in his own time, has mainstreamed; the basic tenets of his thought — to the extent that his “thought,” an impressionistic assemblage of ideas that sweep and swoop and sometimes snap with self-contradiction, is a unit in the first place — have been, basically, accepted. We shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us. Yeah, definitely. But…now what? Read the rest here: http://tinyurl.com/3prk2sg
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