Electric speeds create centres everywhere. Margins cease to exist on this planet.
(Understand Media, 1964.)
Marshall McLuhan remains essential reading today primarily for two reasons. The first, of course, is that he was writing for and about today way back – worlds of past tense away – in the 60s and 70s. That is to say that McLuhan, in his philosophical examination of media and technology in the age of television and space exploration, seemed to extrapolate or intuit the effects, or emotional and sociological contours and lines of force, of our current internet epoch:
In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering. Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of “culture”, exactly as the primitive food-gather worked in equilibrium with his entire environment. Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and “workless” world, is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society.
If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?
That many passages in McLuhan seem almost uncannily to pre-empt the concerns and character of post-internet culture is a fact no less remarkable for the frequency with which it has been noted, particularly when one considers that many of us today have the sense of living in a world wholly altered from that of a mere decade or two ago. This degree of prophetic insight, not into the specific nature of the technologies themselves, but rather of the subtler social and emotional reconstituting of human nature engendered by them, is traditionally the preserve of the artist, as McLuhan himself points out:
In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral effects of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transformative impact occurs. He, then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand.
Art retains some essential link to its deep historical or pre-historical roots, where its function was magical, visionary, and oracular. The artist, or at any rate the artist accomplished enough to warrant the mantle, actively cultivates the still mysterious skill of heightened and passive receptivity, the ability to cultivate an intuition of things distant in time and space which resembles a cultural equivalent to the “spooky action at a distance” of the new physics that perturbed Einstein so much. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from the poetry of the era or eras which directly precede it. This is perhaps why McLuhan chose a mode of writing which was as much poetic in character as analytic; here, he adopts a striking image from Samuel Butler’s satirical utopia Erewhon: Or, Over the Range:
Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and evolve ever new forms.
McLuhan understood that electrical communication technologies were transforming the essential modes of human production and social activity into the instantaneous transfer of increasingly overwhelming volumes of visual, aural, textual, and tactile information – and that this transformation would utterly change the world in which we live – not merely in the obvious sense of altering the physical or social contours of the world, but rather in the far more profound and less visible sense of changing the dominant metaphors, sense ratios, and whole panoply of perceptual tools by which we experience, interpret, and hence define that world. McLuhan’s most significant and enduring achievement was thus not concerned simply with man’s relationship to media in the modern electrical age, but rather with our on-going relationship with tools, technology, and all mediums by which commodities, particularly ideas and information, are exchanged.
The boldness of his writing lay in its assertion these tools and media were not merely convenient adjuncts and servants to a lofty and autonomous human nature; rather, the tools and media themselves were an integral part of the crucible wherein that human nature and its underlying worldviews were formed. Beginning with language itself, no medium is the world, or even describes or represents the world in any kind of innocent or uncomplicated fashion. A speech, a painting, or a moving cine-camera, do not describe or represent the world according to some universal standard of fidelity or accuracy; rather each medium translates, limits, and alters its given subject according to certain properties intrinsic to itself. As each medium prioritises a certain sense, or a certain ratio of sense usage, it subtly engenders certain habits of mind and ways of viewing the world:
In this book, we are concerned with all forms of transport of goods and information, both as metaphor and exchange. Each form of transport not only carries, but translates and transforms, the sender, the receiver, and the message. The use of any kind of extension alters the pattern of interdependence among people, as it alters the ratios among our senses.
Elsewhere, McLuhan uses the myth of Midas to illustrate the degree to which technological mediums inevitable alter the messages that they transmit according to their own nature:
The classic curse of Midas, his power of translating all he touched into gold, is in some degree the character of any medium, including language. This myth draws attention to a magic aspect of all extensions of human sense and body; that is, to all technology whatever. All technology has the Midas touch.
This was the meaning of McLuhan’s iconic and controversial axiom THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. The idea that form can have a more profound impact on our minds than content is an idea that western intellectual culture is deeply resistant to. It does not sit well with our sense of ourselves as rational, self-determining beings that size up and coolly appraise the world, in full possession, in William Burroughs’ synonym for paranoia, of all the facts. We are extremely content-orientated, because the content is that which our rational, conscious faculties take direct cognisance of, and this gives us a heightened sense of control and self-determination. It is for this reason that we are reluctant to acknowledge in polite discourse the power that physical, rather than emotional or intellectual, attraction exerts over our lives. McLuhan, however, made bold to argue that the form of our technological mediums, like the world of advertising and physical attraction, contain a latent message, a twilight language, which operates below the threshold of our conscious and rational calculations. The oracular or prophetic artist channels this twilight language by instinct; the student of media attempts to study and articulate it at the level of conscious awareness.
McLuhan thus argued that the latent message of the phonetic alphabet and the printing press had effectively created the worldview of the pre-electrical, mechanical age. It had drawn human psychology out of the collectivist, organic, animistic consciousness of the tribe, and ushered it gradually into the perspective of the individual and specialist; the nature of the alphabet and the printing press being to engender a view of reality that stresses its linearity and capacity to be broken down into individual component stages. Hence, from these habits of mind, the scientist acquires his tendency to privilege reductionism and repeatability, and the age of the machine acquires the assembly line and its presiding metaphor of nature as a mechanism. But in the subtly utopian narrative that underlies Understanding Media’s mosaic of ideas and epigrams, man is returning, by the paradoxical route of electrical high technology, back to the interdependent, organicist consciousness of the tribal village:
Now in the electric age of decentralized power and information we begin to chafe under the uniformity of clock-time. In this age of space time we seek multiplicity, rather than repeatability, of rhythms. This is the difference between marching soldiers and ballet……In our electric century the mechanical time-kept city looks like an aggregation of somnambulists and zombies, made familiar in the early part of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
At present the mechanical begins to yield to organic unity under conditions of electric speeds. Man now can back at two or three thousand years of varying degrees of mechanization with full awareness of the mechanical as an interlude between two great organic periods of culture. In 1911 the Italian sculptor Boccioni said, “We are primitives of an unknown culture”.
The Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin speculated that human consciousness would gradually become more and more interconnected, until the point where it formed a fully unified film of collective consciousness that enveloped the entire globe. De Chardin called this group mind the noosphere. The noosphere must have seemed like one of the more exotic aspects of de Chardin’s attempt to synthesize Christian eschatology and evolutionary theory in its own time; today it is another spooky reflection at a distance of the internet. McLuhan’s utopian optimism similarly pointed towards a mystical union or collectivisation of human consciousness:
It is equally conceivable that the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness, in making consciousness-without-walls, might render language walls obsolescent. Languages are stuttering extensions of our five senses, in varying ratios and wavelengths. An immediate simulation of consciousness would by-pass speech in a kind of massive extrasensory perception, just as global thermostats could by-pass those extensions of skin and body that we call houses.
In is with this spirit of utopian optimism that we address the primary value of reading McLuhan today. Much of what he wrote in the sixties that appeared addressed perhaps in a spirit of rhetorical amplification, or even, in the preferred expression of that time, an outright put-on, seems self-evident and even tame today. The mind-altering and worldview transforming nature of our on-going symbiosis with technology has become an unavoidable daylight language; and yet its future effects, or where precisely it is taking us, remains deep below the conscious threshold. The power of the medium over the message is readily apparent, in a decidedly negative light, to all of us who have lost days of our lives clicking beyond all meaningful engagement with content. De Chardin’s extended planetary consciousness and McLuhan’s consciousness-without-walls are a reality; the group mind exists, and we are making it, just as surely as it is making us. Within this particularly intense period of technological hybridisation, various utopian and dystopian possibilities assert themselves as reflections at a distance of a future perhaps already immanent in our current technological interactions. We see the contours of a saner, more inclusive, interconnected, and voluntary collectivism emerging in the subversive practise of indiscriminately sharing things with strangers. Yet, at the same time, we see spiralling addiction, trivia, and numbness; increased surveillance from governments, and from corporations a very unnerving attempt to harvest the individual’s stream of consciousness, as concretised by its search engine history. We are, as McLuhan asserted, translating our entire lives into the spiritual medium of information; but whether that spiritual information will ultimately be reduced into a series of points and vectors in a decidedly profane market-place remains to be seen.
In order to understand evolution we had to stand apart from its normal or routine operations. We are not evolving according the pressures imposed by the environment alone, but rather according to a peculiar subset of the natural environment which we call culture and technology. We are cultural and technological mutants, involved, sometimes consciously but more often blindly, in the process of what we are to become. Understanding Media is foundational text for self-aware cultural mutants; it still has the power to lift a little of the scales from our eyes regarding the subtle power of our tools and mediums over their putative masters. This is an awareness which is very valuable for us to cultivate, in the words of the old media koan, NOW, MORE THAN EVER:
Cultures like ours, poised at the point of transformation, engender both tragic and comic awareness in great abundance. It is the maximal interplay of diverse forms of perception and experience that makes great the cultures of the fifth century, the sixteenth century, and the twentieth century. But few people have enjoyed living in these intense periods when all that ensures familiarity and security dissolves and is reconfigured in a few decades.
The McLuhan quotations are from Understanding Media, Routledge Classics edition, 2001. The pictures from The Medium is the Massage were found at: