Marshall McLuhan & the Print-to-Digital Shift, Which Undermines Nationalism


Published on November 25th, 2013

– by Mark Bou Mansour

Do new media technologies just carry on the developments of print media? Or are new currents underway today? Marshal McLuhan argues the latter. McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher, media guru and intellectual celebrity ….  McLuhan is known for coining the phrase “the medium is the message”, popularizing the notion of “the global village”, and for pretty much revolutionizing the way we look at media’s role in shaping human societies. McLuhan, who is credited with quotes such as “diaper spelled backwards is repaid. Think about it” and “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say”, is also credited with predicting the internet thirty years before its commercialization.

In his game-changing book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, which we don’t have space be give justice here, McLuhan studies the way technology for documenting and communicating has influenced human cognition and societal structures throughout history from pre-alphabetic human tribes to the electronic age. He argues that electronic media, through its instantaneous movement of information across the world, has shrunk the globe, bringing all matters of social and political function under our awareness and so heightening our sense of responsibility. Electronic media has rendered the world into a “global village”, argues McLuhan, and the next medium –which we can say today is digital media- would continue that process by extending our consciousness across the globe.

McLuhan’s logic works well in describing our world today; we are not only conscious of events happening across the world, we react to them as well. When natural disaster strikes a country, world-wide relief efforts respond. When human rights are violated by a state, demonstrations are held at that state’s embassies in other countries. And when an internet craze comes along, the world Harlem shakes, then looks back in shame wondering where it all went wrong. In such a world, the horrors of a world war and mass genocide cannot go without resistance. The world becomes a tribe beating to the same drum, and although disagreements and conflicts exist, the disassociation, alienation, fear and hatred of people from other countries needed for a full-out global war cannot foster in a world interconnected by the internet.

At this point we can see what appears as a trajectory from print media to digital media. Print media consolidated geographic areas into imagined communities via language and by fostering a perception of simultaneous movement through linear time. Digital media shrinks and consolidates even larger geographic areas, arguably the whole world, via the language of the internet, simultaneity of online activity, and instantaneous sharing of information and context. The internet, however, goes beyond this. The reason McLuhan argues that new currents are underway is because he holds that electronic and digital media stem off from the trajectory initiated by print media and the book. This new direction is the major development challenging nationalism.

The wide-spread use of the book as a medium following the rise of the printing press, argues McLuhan, shaped human cognition into a visual-linear mode of thinking. Ideas and stories were communicated line by line. This had the effect of externalizing thought into a visible organized structure ordered by grammatical rules and conventions, thus making thought and cognition more objectively critiqueable, calculable, and logically linear. By emphasizing the visual and calculable, the sensuous and emotional become under emphasized and discredited as subjective. Human cognition becomes mechanical.  Thus, McLuhan explains, print technology made possible the trends of the modern period such as capitalism, democracy, individualism, and, surprise surprise, nationalism. Thus, the development of linearity in human experience and perception which we have been finding recurrent in our examination so far –linearity in relationships, in time, and now in cognition- and which made possible the notions of competition, progress, and the nation, can be traced back to the proliferation of the printing press. And it is this linearity, McLuhan contends, which is being challenged by the proliferation of electronic and digital media.

The wide-spread use of electronic media as a medium induces a step away from linear cognition. The constant bombardment of stimuli we are exposed to whether on our computers, phones, or tablets not only bring about a revitalizing of the audio-oral but also train us in web-like cognition with multi-tasking awareness. While adults criticize youngsters today for short-attention spans and lack of concentrated focus, what goes unnoticed are youngsters capacities to carry out several activities at once –chatting on several social services, listening to playlists, downloading content, working on a school assignment, following the latest tweets, and texting from their phones. Whereas the book required the reader to focus her attention from line to line, the internet requires the user to branch out her concentration like an inter-linked web.

The internet, thus, challenges nationalism not just by expanding communities beyond borders, but – just as the shift from religious community to the nation involved a metaphysical shift- by shifting experience to non-linearity. As linearity is undermined so are notions of nationalism, national or ideological historical progress, and ultimately the notion of a global war as socio-politico-economic advancement. (Read the rest here: )


3 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan & the Print-to-Digital Shift, Which Undermines Nationalism”

  1. Reblogged this on Media Psychology and commented:
    Here’s an interesting snippet discussing Marshall McLuhan’s theories and how media may lead to the end of nationalism due to a change in the linearity of human relationships and experience. It’s part of a larger post authored by Mark Bou Mansour at Catch21. Food for thought.


  1. 1 Marshall McLuhan & the Print-to-Digital Shift, Which Undermines … | World Media Information
  2. 2 Caltrops | The Sullen Bell

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