Thursday, July 19, 2007

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

Sierra Club


By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth, will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. We must serve our electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which we once served our coracle, our canoe, our typography, and all other extensions of our physical organs. But, there is a difference here. Those previous technologies were partial and fragmentary. The electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as private consciousness. With the new media, however, it is now possible to store and to translate everything; and as for speed, that is no problem. No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier.


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Lecture: Is the Medium Still the Message?
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Mcluhan, Understanding Media - The Extensions of Man, 1963


Marshall McLuhan was born to Elsie and Herbert in Edmonton, Alberta Canada of Scottish-Irish heritage. A conservative Catholic Canadian academic who was one of the founders of critical media studies (see below). He became a pop culture figure in the 1960's with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964) and The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with designer Quentin Fiore, Random House, 1967). Famous for coining the phrases "The medium is the message" and "the global village," McLuhan was one of the early purveyors of the sound bite. He asserted that each different medium affects the individual and society in distinct and pervasive ways, further classifying some media as "hot"--media which engaged one's senses in a high intensity, exclusive way, such as typography, radio, and film--and "cool"--media which were of lower resolution or intensity, and therefore required more interaction from the viewer, such as the telephone and the television. While many of his pronouncements and theories were impenetrable, if not absurd, McLuhan's central message that to understand today's world, one must actively study the effects of media, remains ever more true in the Electronic Age. McLuhan died December 31, 1980 of a cerebral stroke which plagued the last year of his life.

Media Studies

A Communication science which studies the nature and effects of media upon individuals and society. A cross-disciplinary field, media studies uses techniques from psychology, art theory, sociology, information theory, and economics. The development of multimedia and performance art has been greatly influenced by media studies. Critical media theory looks at how the corporate ownership of media production and distribution affects society, and provides a common ground to social conservatives concerned by the effects of media on the traditional family and liberals and socialists concerned by the corporatization of social discourse. The study of the effects and techniques of advertising is a cornerstone of media studies. Media studies pioneers include Marshall McLuhan, Denis McQuail, Harold Innis, and Walter Ong. The socialist and media critic Robert McChesney is a major figure. And Grasso talks about political media and socialization. [The material above is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Marshall McLuhan.]

Is the Medium Still the Message?
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

I met Marshall McLuhan - once - sometime around 1957; he drove me and his twin daughters to an engagement where we all were competing in an Ontario wide competition using the medium of speech. Marshall - the father - sat politely and indulgently in the audience absorbing the machinations of some 30 of us who were offering opinions and oratory and rhetoric on issues of the day - as seen through the filters of our 11 year old minds. I waxed poetic on the theme of conservation and ecology, although that word had not yet been coined. When the judges rendered their verdicts, I found myself in a place I had never been before - or since - a first place winner for the Province of Ontario. The decades that have swum by since then have taught me that this particular honour was rendered more for cuteness than rhetorical finesse. McLuhan applauded gracefully - the father had done his chore. McLuhan was not "known" to me then as any other than Mary and Teresa's Dad. If he had a job I certainly didn't care what it was. I have since wondered though if perhaps by some magic of connections the words I am about to share by McLuhan - written just five years after that contest involving the medium of speech - might not have been inspired on that night - and seeded somewhere in McLuhan's subconscious mind? Perhaps not.

But, we do, as McLuhan does say often in his writing - we do live mythically now - unlike our industrial ancestors - and if I choose that fantasy as part of my myth I hope you forgive me.

Marshall McLuhan - WWW Prophet

When Marshall McLuhan wrote these words in 1963, the World Wide Web lay far in the future.

By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth, will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. We must serve our electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which we once served our coracle, our canoe, our typography, and all other extensions of our physical organs. But, there is a difference here. Those previous technologies were partial and fragmentary. The electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as private consciousness. With the new media, however, it is now possible to store and to translate everything; and as for speed, that is no problem. No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier. Mcluhan, Understanding Media - The Extensions of Man, 1963

This is McLuhan's prophesy. This is our niche on the World Wide Web. A page that has really acquired the characteristics of the externalized nervous system.

The Extended Conscience

The page is dedicated rightly to Marshall McLuhan. The page too has a conscience -- a moral directive -- derived from an ancient dictate:

Examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to thee in life. Look always at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole, and what with reference to humans, who are citizens of the highest city, of which all other cities are like families; what each thing is, and of what it is composed, and how long it is the nature of this thing to endure which now makes an impression on me, and what virtue I have need of with respect to it, such as gentleness, humanity, truth, fidelity, simplicity, and contentment. - The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, (ca. 167 AD)

The Epic of Gilgamesh

And what do we store here? Everything is stored here. We have layered the significant icons - authors, artists, composers, scientists, and philosophers from our culture on these pages - McLuhan here is but one. All are organized alphabetically, categorically and chronologically by date of birth along a 5,000 year time line from Ancient Egypt to Andy Warhol providing instant and simultaneous access to past, and present within a fabric that is the future. Here you can read the 4,700 year old Epic of Gilgamesh.

The one who saw all [Sha nagba imuru ] I will declare to the world,
The one who knew all I will tell about
[line missing]
He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden:
He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood.
He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion,
And then carved his story on stone. [naru : stone tablets ]

There is a lifetime of work, research and inquiry available here to anyone who wishes to pursue this culture. You can sink through the layers of this single page and bury yourself into the depths of time and space -- effortlessly. You are free to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our cultural past within the web of interrelated connections available to all with the will to click.

And on this one page alone thirteen people somewhere in the world have done that today. More than 10,000 others have done some kind of exploration on all of our pages over the past 24 hours.

The range of information available is not limited by our controls. We can supply an electric gateway -- and we do with this architecture -- but each of our 1,000 gateways is a window to a universe of information. Censorship loses meaning in this world. We can act only as guide.

Che Guevera and Aspasia of Miletus: a Dialogue

Marcus Aurelius says: Examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to thee in life. So, we link to the revolutionary.

There is method in the madness of such cross-fertilizations when the revolutionary links back to us. This is the true meaning of dialogue in McLuhan's culture of the electric. This is how participation works in the medium that is the WEB.

Here - as never before -- the medium is - in McLuhan's most immortal words -- the message in this global village that is the WEB.

We softly whisper back at Che when Che links back to us - we can be just as revolutionary as he! Our whisper is from another place. Here, Aspasia of Miletus: a fine woman from antiquity. Teacher of Socrates. Just two clicks away from Che we can read her message across two and one half millennia. And what does she say?

"Tell me, please, wife of Xenophon, if your neighbour had a better piece of gold jewelry than you, would you prefer hers or your own?"

"Hers," said the wife.

"So--if she should have a dress or other feminine ornament more expensive than you have, would you prefer hers or yours?"

"Hers, naturally," said the wife.

"So now: what if that woman had a better husband than you? Would you prefer hers or your own?"

The Web is becoming -- as McLuhan prophesied in his Understanding Media - The Extensions of Man -- the technological simulator of human consciousness in all of its manifestations. More, it is rapidly becoming the projection of the Central Nervous System of the human project.

A Thousand Points of Electric Energy

These gateways -- these nodes -- become a thousand points of electronic energy with a life and direction of their own. We can fly from Aspasia to the precise moment when the vision of such a possibility became necessary in the work of another revolutionary, the Italian artist Caravaggio. His Judith Beheading Holofernes in 1598 had a new and strange meaning when it was first created -- it signaled the liberation of individualism made possible not by the Web -- but by another medium -- the Printing Press -- which by then had infiltrated and permeated human culture. Today we might process this image as symbolic of Caravaggio's vision of the fragmenting of Western man as he cuts himself away from the body of his past at the end of the Renaissance. This is the moment of the death of Renaissance Man and the Birth of Modern Man.

Media: Consciousness, and Speech

What are media? They are, simply put -- any extensions of sense: of eye, of ear, of nose, of touch, of taste, of mind.

The first medium we as a race encountered in our evolutionary stream was consciousness itself -- self awareness. As a medium, consciousness was profound and troubling. It must have been. We removed ourselves at that moment from what Henri Bergson has described as a state of bliss in which we had been in union with the universal unconscious - very Stoic that! We are still in trauma from that separation - only death may give it back. Or, are there other ways to recover that state - mythically? This emergence of consciousness - the medium of consciousness can only be described as a fall, a fall into what has since become a state of universal anxiety - the human condition - a condition characterized by an ever present longing to reintegrate into that cosmic bliss. There is a book -- Genesis -- that deals with this topic in more detail.

The second medium we as a race developed -- probably in parallel with consciousness -- was speech. Speech -- as a medium -- has characteristics of all other mediums. That commonality is -- in McLuhan's analysis - that media serve as active "metaphors" that have powers to translate experience into new forms.

Well, with the medium of speech, the human was now able to operate on his newly emergent consciousness with ease.

McLuhan provides a potent comparison here with another medium -- this time a technology -- the wheel. Speech offers McLuhan -- does for intelligence what wheels do for feet - speech allows us to move from thing to thing with ever increasing ease.

Understanding the Effects of Media

But, says McLuhan, and this is the key to understanding McLuhan, this enhanced flexibility -- mentally with speech; geographically with the wheel -- has an effect. The effect is that we become increasing less involved with the subjects of our pre-speech and pre-wheel states - alienated from our origins and alienated from our environments. Media - almost all media developed before the electric age - fragment further - broke us off from our origins - and hurled us geographically and psychically into islands of isolation.

Understanding media is to understand the forms of media and to analyze the effects of media -- the content is mainly irrelevant. The approach in every study of any medium is to identify the medium -- examine its shape -- its contours -- and to discover its underlying meaning.

After speech and the wheel came new media in no particular order: writing -- a further extension of consciousness, clothing -- an extension of skin, roads, paper, the printing press, money, housing, and clocks. Let's take a closer look at one of these: writing.

Writing: East vs. West

Writing is an interesting medium. It emerged in two distinct forms. Ideogrammatic and phonetic. The ideomatic as in this hieroglyphic Rhind papyrus from 2,000 BC uses pictures - cartoons really. The other form the phonetic we use in the west - is based on a simple set of abstract symbols. These two forms are characteristic today of the division between east and west. They had radically differing effects in and on the cultures from which they emerged. This distinction is important to understanding McLuhan's analysis of media today.

McLuhan's distinction with regard to the effects of media is HOT and COOL. The defining characteristic is determined by the degree and type of tribal or social participation the medium demands on us. Cool mediums are high in participation. A hot medium is low in tribal participation but hot in individual terms. Our hot phonetic alphabet is HOT because it lends its characterization of words to a multiplicity of interpretations -- the interpretation you select is individual -- its yours. It is also highly VISUAL. And when we use a word - McLuhan used the word tonight as example - the visual imagry the word conjures up is varied.

But this is also exclusive. You and I may not -- in fact probably rarely do -- share the same visual association and meaning with the phonetic words we use in our phonetic written language.

The ideogrammatic, hieroglyphic, and cuneiform languages depend far less on individual visualizations. The pictorial symbols used in these systems are less fluid. Their meanings are more collective. The meanings have been determined by the tribe. They are determined more from oral and tactile associations than visual ones, although the written symbols themselves are, paradoxically, based on visual cues.

In media terms, the underlying effects of these two distinct forms of written language are profound. The phonetic lends itself to fragmentation, individualization, separateness and exclusiveness. The ideogrammatic lends itself to collectives, and inclusiveness.

McLuhan speaks of two other mediums we are familiar with to show this distinction. The lecture versus the seminar. It does not matter what the lecture or seminar is about. It does matter though that the lecture is a hot medium and the seminar cool. Think of the effects. You all will walk away from this lecture with fragmented and individually determined -- and highly visual -- perspectives about its content.

In the cool seminar -- which in Liberal Studies always follows the lecture -- the participatory milieu offers opportunity for shared, inclusive and collective understandings -- based on oral interchange.

It is important to understand that McLuhan is not a pessimist. McLuhan understands that we react to new media first with terror followed by numbing - this is the classic way mind and body respond to trauma - it how we protect ourselves from the alien.

McLuhan's task is to show how and why this occurs and how we can adapt. The media we fear need not be enemy.

McLuhan's Thesis: We live Cool but Think Hot

McLuhan's fundamental thesis is that we live now in a age dominated by formative and COOL electric media These new media permit us to live -- as our pre-industrial ancestors lived - mythically (I would say virtually) and integrally (in common). However, we think still in ways determined by our pre-electric industrial-age media: in a fragmented HOT space personally and in a centralized space politically. That is where the terror and numbing comes from. The media of the electric age -- and the WEB is its most recent manifestation -- allow us to live integrally and operate mythically.

The promise of electric man in personal space is to defragment and retribalize. In the public space electric man will be politically decentralized.

The explosive mechanical age -- the Age of Gutenberg and Newton --the age of Action followed by Reaction -- was a period of detribalization, fragmentation, individualization, nationalism and fission - a fission determined by the effects of the various media - the Printing press being the archetype.

In this implosive informational electric age -- the age that began with the medium of the electric light, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television, and now the World Wide Web -- action and reaction are simultaneous -- in the main the electric technologies are cool by nature -- the overall import is fusion - as I said a moment ago -- a move away from fragmented thinking and towards reintegration with the tribe and eventually a reintegration with something like the state we emerged from before the development of consciousness - fusion with the cosmic. The process heralds the birth of electric man or a better term I think--ecological man. In McLuhan's words:

Modern man - that's us now -- feels obligated to be punctual and conservative of time, tribal man bore the responsibility of keeping the cosmic clock supplied with energy. But electric or ecological man (man of the total field) can be expected to surpass the old tribal cosmic concern with the Africa within. That is McLuhan at his obscure best.

We - modern man are not yet there. We are not yet electric - even as our media point in that direction. As a consequence we are mostly blind to the coming birth of ecological man because our thinking is still mechanically defined. That logic is mechanically syllogistic - the printing press, the clock, and the machine determined that. Our perceptions too are individually determined. But this is where McLuhan offers some hope. Awareness will ease the transition.

That is why McLuhan spends so much time offering distinctions between hot and cool -- showing us how to mix media -- to minimize the jolt -- to avoid what he call blindness to the emerging field. McLuhan is fond of using the story of the Oedipus Rex to illustrate how blind we moderns are to the transforming nature of media. Oedipus Rex was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx but blind in the main to the meaning of his own existence.

The Role of the Artist: Immunization

McLuhan believes that the artist will play a critical role in this transition. It is the artist's role to anticipate and show us how to avoid media trauma and to prevent its numbing effects by producing what he calls immunity to the numbing effect of electric media - he means the WEB.

The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs.

The artist can correct the alteration in the sense ratios brought on by new media. Here is McLuhan's definition of art:

Art provides exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own expanded facilities. The artist, says McLuhan, shows us how to ride with the punch, rather than taking it on the chin.

Radio, TV, Lecture and Print: A Case Study

When we understand the essence of media and their relationships to each other and how they can alter our sense ratios, we can respond in practical ways. Here is a teaching example of how media work and how adaptation can occur:

Many years ago four randomized groups of university students were given the same information at the same time about the structure of preliterate languages. One group received the information by radio (a hot medium), one from TV (a cool medium), one by lecture, and one read it from a book. For all but the reading group the information was passed along by the same speaker without discussions or blackboard. Each group had a half hour exposure to the material. Each was asked to fill in the same quiz afterward. The experimenters were astounded that the TV and Radio group did far better than the lecture or reading group. And the TV group stood WELL above the radio group.

Since nothing had been done to give special stress to any of these four media, the experiment was repeated with other randomized groups. This time each medium was allowed full opportunity to do its stuff. For Radio and TV the material was dramatized with many auditory and visual features. The lecturer took full advantage of the blackboards and class discussion. The printed form was embellished with an imaginative use of typography and page layout to stress each point in the lecture. All of the media had been stepped up to high intensity. TV and Radio once again showed results high above the lecture and print. Unexpectedly, however, it was Radio -- and not TV that stood significantly above Television. It was a long time before the experimenters recognized what was going on. TV is a cool, participant medium. When hotted up it performs less well because it demands less opportunity for participation. Radio is a hot medium. When given more intensity it performs better.

The Coming Clash Between Hot and Cool -- The East and West

For modern man the long range prognosis for electric transformation is exciting - reintegration and heightened global awareness. But the short term offers big challenges.

At the very moment we in the west begin to cool down - and learn to adapt to electric media, the East is moving through the same process we experienced over the past 3 centuries - since Caravaggio showed us Judith Beheading Holofernes. I take that as a warning to modern man.

The same forces that saw us fragment, and gave rise to nationalism and wars are coming out of the bottle throughout the East. The violence associated with this emergence of Eastern man might be unprecedented as he begins to wear the same cloak Western man is beginning to cast aside.

We need to understand how media work and how media work and how the same medium can produce opposite effects on different cultures. We need to understand how media work and how media work when they enter the Cool East and the Hot West.

McLuhan relates a fascinating story about the days of the cold war when something as simple as the telephone hotline link between Moscow and Washington was perceived so differently from within those two cultural groupings. Neither side was aware of course how those differences manifested. The cool orally oriented Russian culture was and is completely comfortable with and trusts the authority of the orally oriented telephone. They were and are intensely distrustful of print. The Americans were and are the opposite - distrustful of cool oral exchange but secure with the Gutenberg derived medium of print. "It isn't official until I see it in writing." Hard copy, the teletype specifically, was their preferred medium of exchange. Neither side was, and probably still is unaware of these relationships between media and cultural comfort. We need to be aware of these differences now more than ever as potential clashes between East and West loom. The east has always lived mythically - as we once did -- but is beginning now to think mechanically. We think mechanically but are beginning once again to live mythically. The good news is that in due course the two could meet somewhere in the middle.

Buddha vs. Socrates

The web is the place where the collision can be watched in real time. Here is the east:

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. (Buddha)

And, here is the west:

The unexamined life is not worth living. (Socrates)

But, there is no clash here. Socrates examines; Buddha is aware. Would Socrates disagree with Buddha? Would Buddha disagree with Socrates? Socrates, like Buddha, was abundantly aware that he was what he thought. His questioning was his way of making the world.

Both Socrates and The Buddha operate still in a mythic realm somewhere north and east of Plato's divided line. On the web - in the web - not only Socrates and Buddha but Aspasia and Diotima and Confucius and Christ and Muhammad and Zoroaster and Lao Tzu also live again. They are there in real time - now - here and everywhere - connected electrically and globally - participating in a cool compressed inclusive environment. It is print now but not print. It is photo now but not photo. It is oral now but not oral.

Cosmic Consciousness

Buddha and Socrates are united in myth and in real interchange. The Central Nervous System of the entire planet is emerging here. It is emerging in spite of us. I cannot turn it off. I cannot shut it down. These involvements between Buddha and Socrates are layered indelibly and infinitely across east and west. The actions and reactions are simultaneous - a student in Mississippi - a child in South Africa - a Mother in Australia - right now - right here - are reading, thinking, responding, processing, and examining the web of connections provided by this medium. The content is irrelevant - the medium is what is important. The medium is transforming how we think, how we live, how we are. The medium is the message of the electric age and the web is rapidly becoming not only the medium of electric man - it is us - and in becoming us it offers the hope of transforming and liberating us in time from the shackles which have bound us since the dawning of consciousness.


The Medium is the Message
Forward Through the Rearview Mirror
The Skin of Culture, de Kerckhove
McLuhan Global Research Network
McLuhan Probes
McLuhan Studies Global Research Network
The McLuhan Program: University of Toronto

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