Marshall McLuhan, Media, & the Ecology of the Digital Age


Marshall’s Media Ecologies

For four decades, Marshall McLuhan has been the Bob Dylan of the communication academy. In the late 1960s, Tom Wolfe entertained the thought that McLuhan might be “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov . . . the most famous man his country ever produced.” Woody Allen gave him a cameo in the movie Annie HallWired magazine named him its “patron saint,” and bands from Genesis to Radio Free Vestibule have written him tributes. He is more than an intellectual; he is an icon. But Marshall McLuhan, who passed away in 1980, always seemed an unlikely candidate for oracular status.

Born in Alberta, Canada, in 1911, McLuhan was what every concerned father calls a “permanent student.” He received his first undergraduate degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1933 and took ten years to get his Ph.D. He was a professor his entire professional life, a bookish man with a love for classic literature and an unholy affection for James Joyce’s treatise Finnegan’s Wake; but McLuhan was also Delphic—a prophet for the electronic age—and his aphoristic predictions transcended the academy to seize the imagination of the mainstream.

To oversimplify, McLuhan’s great insight was to see media in its broadest sense: as ecology. The word “medium” (from which “media” was derived), refers to “an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on.” And that’s the key. McLuhan’s claim was that the intervening substances we use—phonetic letters, radio broadcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, and whispers—are just as important as the messages they convey.

As McLuhan famously put it, the medium is the message; and if, as he claimed, all media are extensions of man, then we are not just the passive recipients of media but a critical part of media itself. This makes media an ecosystem—like a marsh, savannah, or swamp—that surrounds us, consumes us, and works us over in every imaginable way. McLuhan writes, “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns of environments elude easy perception.”

And the advent of electronic media in the twentieth century may be the biggest shock to that ecosystem in at least 500 years. McLuhan comments, “The new media are not ways of relating us to the old ‘real’ world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.”

Whereas the printed word is just an extension of the eye, and the spoken word an extension of the ear, McLuhan claimed that electronic media are an extension of man’s central nervous system—all inclusive and limitless, interactive and multi-sensory. Their nature—light, electricity!—grants them power to impact not simply individual locales, but entire nations in real time, transforming the world from a mass of separate villages to one global village with shared experience and imagery.

Obviously, McLuhan’s volumes of work are too extensive and nuanced to treat comprehensively in one essay, but his basic analysis forces us to ask questions. What are our environments and their boundaries? How do we identify these complex interactions and view our ecosystem in new and interesting ways?

This is an extract from a longer essay titled Marshall McLuhan, Media, & the Ecology of the Digital Age in SALVO Magazine. Read the rest via the Wayback Machine here:

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