The pop media philosopher who coined “the global village” and “the media is the message” is often credited with having foreseen or advocated many of the digital media which superseded him.
But the late Marshall McLuhan was more an observer than a proto-digital champion, I heard at a series of seminars to commemorate this centenary year of his birth at Bristol, England’s Watershed on Thursday.
After calling a moment’s silence for Steve Jobs, seminar curator Simon Poulter described McLuhan, who wrote and spoke in the 1950s and 1960s but was Wired magazine’s “patron saint” in the 90s, as both “a genius and a charlatan” for his grand aphorisms, which were a mixture of prophesy and quixotic, poetic free-thinking.
On the former count, though many McLuhanisms were merely of their day, I believe application of others to today’s modern media remains possible…
- In Understanding Media, McLuhan noted the difference between “hot” and “cool” media. A “hot” medium is one that caters to a single sense or is otherwise less engaging thanks to its linearity, while a “cool” medium like TV requires more effort to understand meaning and require more intense participation. If TV was the “cool” medium of its day, however, what would McLuhan had made of the hyperlinked web, where interaction through navigation is the default action, and touchscreen tablets, which are the most involving and tactile interfaces yet? How much cooler can media get?
- If we do not now live in a time when “our central nervous system is tecnologically extended to involve in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us”, as McLuhan also wrote in Understanding Media, then I’ll eat my hat live on Facebook whilst reading my followers’ tweets and simultaneously listening to radio news from a distant land (if you get my meaning).
- McLuhan also wrote: “Media come in pairs, with one acting as the ‘content’ of the other.” It’s an observation borne out, still, in the metaphor of the computer “desktop”, the rebirth of the CD as iTunes and the reimagination of newspapers, magazines and books in virtually their original image on tablet computers.
So far, so applicable. But not necessarily all good.
Indeed, McLuhan believed, far from engaging audiences more with news, for example, our newer media might even disconnect us…
In other words, highly participatory, “cool” media deaden our horror at news events by allowing us to interact deeply, to swipe undesirable stories away at the flick of a finger, or to edit certain news out of our Daily Me.
That can now be regarded as an observation of the effects not just of globalisation but of social networking and the consequence of consensual, co-created identity. So what would McLuhan have made of today’s media?
Here are some further, lesser-known McLuhanisms I cribbed from Living’s recordings on Thursday…