Massage Received: From McLuhan to the Digital Age (More about The Age of Earthquakes)


The Medium is the Massage. Marshall McLuhan’s ground-breaking paperback is the encapsulation of how technology and design impacted 1960s culture. Now 50 years on, SHUMON BASAR, DOUGLAS COUPLAND and HANS ULRICH OBRIST write for BBC Arts about why Planet Earth needs a new self-help book for the digital age. Their answer to McLuhan is The Age of Earthquakes.

A Page from The Medium is the Massage

We’ve made our own ‘experimental paperback’ entitled The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present. Wondering what McLuhan would have made of our always-connected world has led us to other interesting questions. The key difference is that while the McLuhan/Fiore/Agel book charted the impact of 1960s electric technology on culture. The Age of Earthquakes tours the impact of digital technology – in particular the Internet – on our brains, our relationships to each other and even changes in our planet.

The Age of Earthquakes is also born from an extensive collaboration (between novelist Douglas Coupland, cultural critic Shumon Basar, contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, graphic designer Wayne Daly and 35 visual artists from all over the world).

We wanted to update what Quention Fiore described as “a dialogue between the computer and the book” back in 1967. We were also inspired by McLuhan’s 1964 pronouncement that, “the paperback itself has become a vast mosaic world in depth… a transformation of book culture into something else.”

In The Age of Earthquakes, this ‘something else’ is our current culture of addiction to screens, big and small. We’ve culled visual clutter from smartphones and computer monitors then arranged them on the pages of our paperback. We’ve stolen aphorisms, slogans and spam from the Internet, which we then set in the same neutral modern font. They miraculously transform into poetry. All this is rendered in the same monochrome aura of The Medium is the Massage.

It goes to show that embedded in the DNA of the simple paperback is an enduring technology. An ‘operating system’ that’s resilient and open to continual cultural renewal, absorbing what’s around it.

Often, it takes the medium of a previous era to fully capture the contemporary moment we live in. We call this 21st century moment, ‘The Extreme Present.’

What’s that, you may ask.

‘The Extreme Present’ defines the current historical instant when the future seems to be happening much faster than we ever thought it would. Symptoms include your life not feeling like a story anymore; you not feeling like an individual any longer; waiting for something smarter than us — and dreading what that might be.

We’ll never know if McLuhan/Fiore/Agel would ‘LIKE’ our homage to their intrepid and innovative intelligence. Or if they’d rather start a Twitter feud. Worse still, resort to a YouTube outburst. Ideally, they’d pat us on the back, and paraphrase something Agel said 50 years go: “Boys, it’s a book that shows what’s happening when what’s happening is happening. It predicts the present.” (Source:                                                                                                                                                                  Pages from The Age of Earthquakes

2 Responses to “Massage Received: From McLuhan to the Digital Age (More about The Age of Earthquakes)”

  1. 1 Malcolm Dean

    I don’t think going online is “a purely solitary activity.” Simply visit any local coffee shop or game emporium, and you’ll see people discussing their online experiences as they happen.

    Malcolm Dean


  2. I agree with you. Just because you can’t see the other person(s) (unless you’re using Skype or Google Hangouts), doesn’t mean that online activity can’t be social and even communal. The Internet is all about connecting with others. “Technology may transmit information (from Mars, from targets, from consumers) but only people can craft relationships. Learning Technologies are all about relationships and community, a fact that has so far eluded much public discussion.” – Ferdi Serim


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