Cell Phones, Telephones & the Ideas of Marshall McLuhan


By Eric Scheske

My first cell phone was the Motorola RAZR V3. That was in 2005.

I didn’t use it a lot at first, but it made me more accessible to my clients. I would often use it to return calls while walking, so I could exercise and earn money at the same time.

I did this the third day I had the phone, walking back to the office after lunch. I called the client at Point A and ended the call a half mile later, at Point B.

After I hung up, I felt like I was waking from a deep daydream. For a moment, I couldn’t even remember what route I had taken from Point A to B, though I had walked the route over a hundred times.

Since then, I’ve grown more used to walking and phoning, but I found that first experience a little unnerving.

How do you like to multitask?

I like multitasking if it’s the right kind. Reading a book while waiting for laundry to dry: smart multitasking. Reading a book while interviewing for a job: dumb multitasking. Ordering a Pabst while the head on your Guinness settles: fun multitasking.

What about multitasking with the cell phone?

Everyone has heard the debate about driving and cell phones. One study says that cell phone driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. The National Safety Council’s website declares there’s “No Safe Way to Use a Cell Phone and Drive,” then links to a white paper about the “cognitive distraction” of cell phone use and noting that “hands-free” doesn’t make much difference.

Yet hands-free cell phone use is still legal in all 50 states and most states even allow hand-held cell phone use while driving. Tons of people still use their phones while driving and claim it doesn’t affect them and oppose laws to make it illegal.

I don’t want to enter that debate here, but I will admit to missing an obvious left-hand turn once while using my cell phone. I also remember my dream-walking experience. Those two experiences combined make me think phoning and driving is about as safe as spitting on Chuck Norris.

But why? I can talk with a passenger and drive. I can listen to the radio and drive. I can even listen to the radio, drink a Big Gulp, and bop my head to the beat while I drive.

Why not chat on the phone?

Enter Marshall McLuhan

A household name in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan has been largely forgotten today [Untrue!]. His central theory is that human modes of thinking are altered by media. Media are “extensions” of ourselves, things that add themselves on to what we already are, and when we use them, they change us in some way, often psychologically. The simplest example is the saying, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

His most famous saying is, “the medium is the message,” by which he means the important part of a medium is the medium itself. The important thing about books isn’t their content (their “message”). The important thing is their “bookness”: how does the act of reading from a book, or the fact that we have books instead of scrolls, affect how we think, live, and behave?

It’s too bad he’s been forgotten [only by this guy!]. I think he would’ve diagnosed the cell phone/driving issue quickly.

In his magnum opusUnderstanding Media (1964), McLuhan wrote: “The telephone demands complete participation.” He pointed out that some people could scarcely talk to their best friends on the phone without becoming angry, precisely because it’s such a demanding medium.

Basically, McLuhan said, the telephone is a jealous taskmaster:

Why should we feel compelled to answer a ringing public phone when we know the call cannot concern us? Why does a phone ringing on the stage create instant tension? Why is that tension so very much less for an unanswered phone in a movie scene? The answer to all of these questions is simply that the phone is a participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity.”

As a further example, he mentioned a postal incident in 1949, in which a “psychotic veteran, Howard B. Unruh” went on a mad rampage in Camden, killed thirteen people, then barricaded himself in his house and exchanged gunfire with police. A reporter called Howard on the phone. He stopped firing and answered,

“This Howard?”
“Yes. . . .”
“Why are you killing people?”“I don’t know. I can’t answer that yet. I’ll have to talk to you later. I’m too busy now.”

The Headset: Revolt against the taskmaster

The telephone, McLuhan said, is a very cool (as in “cold”) medium.

“Hot” media and “cool” media were McLuhan’s buzz dichotomy. A hot medium is one that intensely extends one of our senses. The radio is a hot medium: ear only, and a lot of it. But it leaves the other senses free to do what they want.

The telephone, on the other hand, is an extremely cool medium. The ear doesn’t receive much information, forcing the user to participate, to fill in the gaps.

I think McLuhan was right. You ever wonder why you have to say “uh-huh” frequently during an otherwise-monopolized phone conversation? It’s because the medium demands your participation.
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