Why the Internet Needs a “Mad as Hell” Moment


This longish critical essay by Drew Reed is about both TV & the Internet. The author is right. McLuhan said that obsolesced media are re-purposed and become art forms, as for example TV obsolesced movies and legitimized them as art, and movies did the same to theatre. Now the Internet is doing that to TV, which by happenstance is experiencing a new “golden age”, while the Internet has become the medium of choice for stupidity. This is a short excerpt from the article that prominently mentions Marshall McLuhan and castigates the stupidization of the Internet, partly attributing it to the removal of gatekeepers like editors, directors and producers. Anyone can publish or upload anything to the Internet and the content that ends up there is mostly crap; finding the good stuff is a necessary skill and constitutes a part of information literacy. I have added my comments to the excerpt below in square backets [    ].


Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) in the movie Network (1976)

Waiting for the Internet’s ‘Mad as Hell’ Moment

Now that TV is the place for serious people with long attention spans, we’re really in trouble   –   by Drew Reed

[Marshall McLuhan] was a professor from Canada who was famous for his landmark 1964 book, Understanding Media, about TV and other media. In the title of the first chapter of the book, which has become probably the most famous chapter title ever, he stated that “the medium is the message” —  in other words, technology shapes human life. He also distinguished between “hot” and “cool” media: hot media exclude participation, cool media prompt higher levels of participation.

After devising this intriguing and potentially very useful system of media classification, he then uses it to analyze television in a perplexing, Freakonomics-y way: he calls it a “cool” medium. Why, Marshall, why? His case is a bit shaky. For instance, in relation to film (a hot medium, of course) the television image is lower quality. Therefore, TV is a cool medium. Huh? What happens when we invent the UHDTV 48 years later? His response is that the higher quality would make it a different medium. There you have it, folks. The TV you’re watching today isn’t really TV. [No – you said it yourself; it’s UHDTV, arguably a different medium created by different technologies. “The medium is the message!”]

McLuhan felt that television and “the electric age” brought people together, unlike writing — as well as earlier electronic media — which isolated and divided, and were therefore hot. TV, a cool medium, would foster greater participation (apparently the ability to channel surf counts as “greater participation”) [No Web 2.0 applications, especially social media, create greater participation.] and turn us all into one big happy global village. [No, “the global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable”. – McLuhan in the Playboy interview, 1969] Okay, so he wasn’t that sappy about it, but that was the basic idea.

But if “the medium is the message”, and technology controls our collective fate, would television really steer us toward greater participation in the societal decision making process? Or would it merely deliver bread and circuses, or at least just circuses, to our households at light speed? [How about both?]


Then, in the 1976 movie Network, Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) issued the line that’s been stuck in your head since you looked at the opening photo of this article: I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore! Why was he mad? Because he was “a human being, goddammit!” And he wanted everyone watching his show to shout out their windows that they were “mad as hell” too. If you don’t get the references, just click through the link above to watch the original clip.

Now, to be fair, the counter-cultural-ness of this was called into question somewhat by the fact that it was released by a major movie studio. But nonetheless, it struck a chord. A good chunk of the American people realized that by that point, the purpose of TV in practice was not to educate so much as to stupefy.


We’ve come full circle — or should I say say, full circus. The internet, the biggest revolution in written text since Gutenberg’s printing press, has perhaps undone much of the progress the printing press has made. There’s a universe of information at our fingertips, yet we seem nearly as susceptible to “bread and circuses” as we were in Roman times, when most people couldn’t even read.

Is the medium really the message? Are we masters of our fates, or is our course predetermined by our technological milieu? The answer is, as it has been throughout this essay, a little bit of both. Perhaps Rome would not have been taken over by Augustus if there had been a hashtag #EtTuBruti. Or perhaps people would be too busy tweeting about gladiator matches to care.

Or maybe technology is bad. Maybe today, without the mind-melting combination of TV and the internet, we’d be less distracted, and able to come up with more effective solutions to climate change and the fact that our society is founded on the physical impossibility of perpetual growth. Maybe we need just the right kind of technology; after all, no one complained about the printing press killing attention spans, but everyone complains about TV and the internet doing so. Or it could be that, no matter what kind of media we use, we’re subject to the same greed and ambition that eventually brought down the Roman Empire. All the technology in the world — or none of it — will never change the fact that we’re human, all too human.

Nevertheless, I still have a few shreds of hope left. Despite the TV/internet death cycle and absurdities like #catfish, humanity can get better, we can confront its long term issues, and technology has a role to play. But the internet needs a “mad as hell” moment. People need to be shaken out of their hashtags and convinced to pay attention to the things that matter.

It’s something so important that we might need to say it with old media, the way Network used film to comment on television. How about a TV show? After all, TV’s having a “golden age” right now, and the internet most certainly isn’t.

But somehow I have a feeling that the best we can hope for is a GIF file, or maybe a couple of tweets. Oh well. At least it makes for a catchy tagline: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m going to tweet about it!”

 Read the full article at medium.com here: http://tinyurl.com/m7npdc4


“Nothing is inevitable provided we are prepared to pay attention.” – Marshall McLuhan

Photo: Marshall McLuhan

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