The Irony Behind Google’s Doodle Celebration of Marshall McLuhan


“The Media is the Message” – The Irony Behind Google’s Celebration of Marshall McLuhan

By Daniel Pantelo

[On July 21, 2017], Google celebrated the 106th birthday of Marshall McLuhan – an intellectual who pioneered the study of media theory with the famous declaration,” The medium is the message.” With the 3.5 billion people who ran Google searches [on that day] and saw Google’s doodle dedicated to McLuhan. Who is McLuhan and why is he important enough to deserve being celebrated by the most viewed webpage in the world? And what does Playboy Magazine have to do with any of this?

Let’s dive in...

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, a foundational work in media theory that many academics agree is responsible for laying the groundwork for contemporary media studies. Rather than focusing on the meaning of messages in media, McLuhan focuses on analyzing the medium itself. McLuhan argues that the actual structures and physical limitations of media create profound psychological and social consequences. Challenging conventional understandings of media, McLuhan defines media as,” any extension of ourselves,” (McLuhan) meaning that in addition to obvious examples of media like film, photographs, and radio, McLuhan also considers mediums like numbers, clothing, automobiles, and even electric lightbulbs. Although lightbulbs aren’t generally considered a form of media, McLuhan challenges conventional attitudes by arguing that technologies like lightbulbs, automobiles, and bicycles are examples of media because they are extensions of man that affect how we perceive the world in which we live. The lightbulb acts as a form of media because as its light illuminates the dark room, it functions as a device that allows us to process the visual information around us in a way that we normally wouldn’t.

At first, it seems like technology that extends man’s ability to experience and interpret the world is positive and desirable. However, McLuhan points out that the inherent tendency to focus on the messages within the media make us blind to the limits and structures imposed by the mediums themselves. For instance, the medium of writing is limited to the expression of speech, the medium of print is limited to the expression of writing, the medium of the telegraph is limited to the expression of print. Each medium that evolves from the last allows for less expressive possibilities and creates an increasingly restrictive form of communication. The telegraph, which technologically evolved from spoken word, profoundly restricts the amount of meaning that can be communicated compared to spoken word. With spoken word, communication is much more expressive and meaningful because of nuances like tone, verbal emphasis, accent, volume, and so on. With the telegraph, the expressive possibilities of spoken word are reduced to a technological format that chisels away at possibilities for expression. As a result, mediums enforce a format that demands conformity to technological structures which reduce our communicative possibilities, restrict meaning, and ultimately shrink the lens through which we perceive the world. A relevant example from today’s digital society is social media platforms like Twitter, which reduce expressive possibilities to 140 characters of text or expressing one’s self through the ‘re-tweeting’ of posts by others.

In a legendary interview with Playboy Magazine, McLuhan turned heads and brought media theory into the public domain when he expanded on this concept. At the time, Playboy Magazine was a lifestyle magazine that included popular long-form interviews that spotlighted unique ideas and intellectuals. McLuhan took advantage of this platform to inspire a wave of new interest in media theory that spurned the development of other intellectuals and the reorganization of departments at Universities…

***********[Follow the link below to read intervening content.]                                … Oh, and by the way, Marshall McLuhan predicted the internet before it became a thing. However, as we see, his ideas portray a very dim and gray outlook. Ironically, Google is the internet’s most powerful agent and the most influential purveyor of the state of narcissistic hypnosis in which we find ourselves in today. Yet yesterday, Google celebrated the man who fathered one of the most powerful critiques of their existence. (This excerpt is from a longer essay which can be read here )

Google’s McLuhan Tribute Doodle

3 Responses to “The Irony Behind Google’s Doodle Celebration of Marshall McLuhan”

  1. 1 Lou Dreisbach

    I feel like such a dinosaur – it’s a wonderful feeling. I first heard of Marshall in the 70’s when I read a lot of Yippie literature – Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, … but he was just a name then. I know about 100x more about him after reading what I just did. I love the light bulb situation, and it is a situation. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to strike up a conversation with a friend in the bar and they have their nose in the phone and seem actually annoyed that you are distracting them. But the irony of it all is that the same medium that annoys me is my first instinct to go looking for more information about Marshall.

    Like a dog chasing it’s tale (sic)

  2. 2 Terry Gordon

    The irony that Daniel and Lou speak of can play itself out in two ways: 1) None of the people who saw the MM Google Doodle move on from seeing it to reading MM and discovering his caution about what media inevitably do to us; 2) enough people who saw the doodle read MM carefully enough to understand his warning and form the critical mass capable of shutting Google down. I hope neither possibility plays out but that instead people and retain one of MM’s sayings: nothing is inevitable if there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

  3. Indeed, understanding the effects of Internet technologies on us is the first step in exercising agency over them, our only hope of using them without their using us, or at least having a choice in whether we will be used by them or resist them entirely. If only users will care enough to make the effort. Thanks, Terry.

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