Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) never conceived of the Internet. But the great communications theorist understood where communications was going, and the revolutionary effects of its direction.
This book takes his sometimes impenetrable prose and places it in a context of compelling photographs, advertisements, and cartoons in order to dramatically illustrate the meaning of his words, and the radical effect that changes in communications technology have on the lives of all the world's citizens. "It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of the media," he writes.
The Medium is the Massage begins and ends with quotes from Albert North Whitehead. The first is that "The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur." The last is that "It is the business of the future to be dangerous."
There always are jeremiads against the new by those who are accustomed to the old. McLuhan quotes Socrates: "The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves...You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing."
The effects of the media on individuals are profound. "All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, pyschological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty--psychic or physical."
Media affect you, the individual citizen. "Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community's need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions--the patterns of mechanistic technologies--are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank--that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early 'mistakes.' We have already reached a point where remedial control, born of knowledge of media and their total effects on all of us, must be exerted...."
Media affect your family. "The family circle has widened. The whirlpool of information fathered by the electic media--movies, Telstar, flight--far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world's a sage."
Media affect your neighborhood. "Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of 'time' and 'space' and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It has reconstitued dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. The old civic, state, and national groupings have become unworkable. Nothing can be further from the spirit of the the new technology than 'a place for everything and everything in its place.' You can't GO home again."
Media affect your education. "Today's television child is attuned to up-to-the-minute 'adult' news--inflation, rioting, war, taxes, crime, bathing beauties--and is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules. It is naturally an environment much like any factory set-up with its inventories and assembly lines."
Media affect your job. "From the fifteenth century to the twentieth century, there is a steady progress of fragmentation of the stages of work that constitute 'mechanization' and 'specialism.' These procedures cannot serve for survival or sanity in this new time. Under conditions of electric cicuitry, all the fragmented job patterns tend to blend once more into involving and demanding roles or forms of work that more and more resemble teaching, learning, and 'human' service, in the older sense of dedicated loyalty."
Media affect your government. "Nose-counting, a cherished part of the eighteenth century fragmentation process, has rapidly become a cumbersome and ineffectual form of social assessment in an envrionment of instant electric speeds. The public, in the sense of a great consensus of separate and distinct viewpoints, is finished. Today, the mass audience (the successor to the 'public') can be used as a creative, participating force. It is instead merely given packages of passive entertainment. Politics offers yesterday's answers to today's questions. A new form of 'politics' is emerging, and in ways we haven't yet noticed. The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marches, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing EVERYTHING."
Media affect our relationships with groups of other citizens. "The shock of recognition. In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained, ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other. There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening."
This book is, in short, a superb introduction to McLuhan's thinking. Ideally, it would be read before any of McLuhan's other books. Understanding McLuhan takes some time and thought, but the effort is well worth it to understand today's media and today's world.
"Only the hand that erases can write the true thing," McLuhan quotes Meister Eckhardt as saying. McLuhan erases preconceptions of media being relatively insignificant, and demonstrates how the media affect the way each of us sees the world in which we live.
A memorable photo in the book is one of a middle-aged man dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase standing upon a surfboard, riding the waves. "In his amusement born of rational detachment of his own situation, Poe's mariner in 'The Descent Into the Maelstrom' staved off disaster by understanding the action of the whirlpool," says McLuhan's accompanying prose. "His insight offers a possible strategem for understanding our predicament, our electrically-configured whirl."
The last cartoon in the book--from the New Yorker in 1966--summarizes McLuhan's essential theme. A young man with a guitar discusses McLuhan with his father in a well-appointed library. "You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan says the enviroment that man creates becomes his medium for defining his role in it. The invention of type created linear, or sequential, thought, separating thought from action. Now, with TV and folk singing, thought and action are closer and social involvement is greater. We again live in a village. Get it?"
We all should get McLuhan. The development of Internet--likely even more transformative than television--has greatly revived interest in McLuhan's view of technological changes as changing us as people, and of creating a global village for all of us to live in. "We impose the form of the old on the content of the new. The malady lingers on," McLuhan warns. We should heed his warnings and recognize, embrace, and work for constructive improvements in the ever-changing world in which we live.