Thoughts About Innovation Inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s The Book of Probes


McLuhan book of probes

Even if you’ve never read Marshall McLuhan, you’re probably familiar with a couple of his ideas.  Two of most famous quotes are:

The medium is the message.


The human family now exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums.

Both of those quotes are around 50 years old now – McLuhan was remarkably prescient.  Over the weekend, I read The Book of Probes by McLuhan, which is a fantastic book.

The first 2/3 of the book has McLuhan quotes incorporated in photography/art by David Carson (including the images I’ve included in this post).  Check out this review by Miss Rosen for a view of this work as art.

The art is great, but for me the action is in McLuhan’s words – the probes.  Grant McCracken built on the idea of probes in his fantastic book Culturematic. Probes are ideas that trigger thoughts and actions.  McCracken talks about them as experiments – which resonates with me.

Here are some of McLuhan’s probes (in bold), followed by thoughts they triggered for me:

It is the framework that changes with new technology, and not just the picture within the frame.  This gets at McLuhan’s critical point – it’s another way of attacking the idea that the medium is the message.  McLuhan is basing much of his argument on the ideas of gestalt psychology – particularly the ideas of figure and ground.  The issue is that we can only see a figure in contrast to a background – so the ground is an essential part of what we see.  But in our minds, we only process the figure and take the ground for granted.

This is a critical innovation issue.   All of that ground that we’re taking for granted gives us great opportunities to innovate. If we change one of the things that everyone just accepts as “the way it is,” then we can change the world.

Marshall McLuhan and David Carson from The Book of Probes

Every technical innovation creates a new environment that alters the inner image or identity of entire cultures. Here’s another angle on the same point – new ideas change entire cultures! McLuhan’s focus on media did not mean that he was discounting content entirely. But he thought that if we only focused on content, we were missing the bigger picture.

Even in the old sense of a business, moving information far outranks “heavy” machinery. He as talking about the information economy 50 years ago!

Official culture still strives to force the new media to do the work of the old media. But the horseless carriage did not do the work of the horse; it abolished the horse and did what the horse could never do. This is a gross oversimplification, but this illustrates the problem of trying to fit new ideas into old business models.  New ideas need new business models, precisely because they are creating a completely new environment.

Any new technology, any extension or amplification of human faculties when given material embodiment, tends to create a new environment. This is as true of clothing as of speech, or script, of wheel. This process is more easily observed in our own time when several new environments have been created. In The Nature of Technology, Brian Arthur argues that “technology” is any useful idea.  You can see that thought as well in McLuhan’s probe – new clothing, speech, and words can all create new environments.  He also picks up the idea that this creation of new environments is accelerating, so now is a good time to be studying this phenomenon.

Marshall McLuhan and David Carson from The Book of Probes

Only by standing aside from any phenomenon and taking an overview can you discover its operative principles and lines of force. Ordinary men, however, when confronted by new environments, resort to the rear-view mirror. All collective nouns from McLuhan were gendered – sorry.  Anyway, this is an important point – we often try to evaluate new ideas by comparing them to what’s happened before, and this doesn’t work. We can’t extrapolate the past to predict the future.

The whole book is worth reading. I’ve read McLuhan before, but the big insight for me this time around is the figure-ground idea.  We make a staggering number of assumptions about the world just to make day-do-day life work correctly.  The advantage to doing this is that it makes it easier for us to coordinate action.  The disadvantage is that it means that many of the things that we take for granted are fixed, and will always stay the same.

If we can get better at teasing out these assumptions, it provides us with important innovation opportunities.


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