Tag Archives: mcluhan

Digital Darwinism

Marshal McLuhan in the chapter “The Gadget Lover” explores the concept of the physical body and emerging technology in ways that draw upon biology and physical sciences in unique ways.  McLuhan’s explains his idea that technology is an “extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies,” and simultaneously our bodies, emotions and technology are working to maintain a sense of equilibrium inflicted by external shocks and disruptions. (45)  This circular concept of technology responding to the body’s need and then the self also responding to this newly formed body part to maintain a the proper ratios for existence, provides an interesting perspective on how media can not be separated from ourselves in the physical and emotional sense.  McLuhan’s entire idea that the medium and not the content is what holds the power to affect social norms and senses is most easily understandable in the physical context.

Media does follow patterns of evolution into the human body and psyche, we develop technology and then create a dependence on it because it solves the problems we frequently encountered.  Following this occurrence the technology becomes a staple of our society –  in economic terms as well – and the body and this new media has evolved from a foreign extension into something commonplace.  The biological metaphor works well, but in practical terms because it isn’t truly a physical extension only a theoretical, there is the issue that some people remain unable to evolve with the emerging technology.  It is as if there is this technological concept of natural selection, those that can understand the sensory and practical effects of new technology adapt the ability to use it for their benefit.  Those that don’t adapt, remain using their old bodies for the same problems the new technologically developed bodies have eased the difficulty in solving.  This concept is also interesting because it draws from the notion that technology is always moving an a progressive and beneficial line.  So in the information age with the knowledge of McLuhan’s work, I wonder where in this digital evolution one stands when they resist technology, or even if in a mass social movement cultures and people resist the evolution of their bodies through technology.

Hot and Cold Revisited

While reading Understanding Media, I was really grateful for KF’s tip about not trying too hard to make logical sense out of McLuhan’s arguments. He has a tendency to bury seemingly key points in clouds of weird speculation, and the essays seem booby-trapped with headache-inducing rhetorical turns to confuse the unsuspecting reader.

On the whole, though, I found the reading engaging, thought-provoking, and (dare I say it?) fun. I read a little bit of McLuhan for a class last year and came away frustrated. Now, after slogging through 60+ pages of the stuff, I think I’m finally starting to get it.

McLuhan has a playful, idiosyncratic style, atypical of most academic writing but (I think) appropriate to the argument(s) he’s trying to make. Namely, that the medium is the message, and that form and function are always interrelated. McLuhan’s style isn’t just ornamentation, or worse, obfuscation, it’s important to the substance and rhetorical impact of his writing. However, for all the good work it does in support of the relationship of form and function, style is also what makes McLuhan a frustrating read: there’s a definite irony in trying to describe the pitfalls of print culture in, well, print.

In general, I found it helpful to keep in mind that his weird speculative ideas are just that: speculative. Which is not to say that they’re baseless, simply that he had to do a lot of extrapolating from limited information to develop his theories, well before “media studies” existed as an academic discipline. A lot of the work he’s doing is just trying to figure out how to analyze media. Some of his approaches caught on, while others just seem wacky and convoluted to today’s media-savvy readers.

McLuhan himself argues that “in the electric age there is no longer any sense in talking about the artist’s being ahead of his time” (65). There are, however, many respects in which McLuhan seems very much ahead of his time, especially considering he was writing only about thirty years after the invention of television, and at least thirty years before the widespread availability of personal computers and the Internet.

Interesting side note: As I did the reading this weekend, I periodically updated my Facebook status with odd/funny quotes from the essays. (I’m experimenting with actually “going paperless” for this class and doing the reading on my computer, so it seemed natural to flip back and forth between Adobe Reader and the tab in Firefox I leave perpetually open to Facebook, and I happen to know a few media theory geeks who I thought might be amused. They were.)

I was totally oblivious to the thought that my (distr)action bore any relation to the content of the class or the reading…until now, that is! McLuhan is right: each new technological extension of ourselves significantly but imperceptibly alters our ways of thinking, acting, and interacting. Far from being dated or outmoded, many of the tendencies he observed in the 1960s have been amplified by the Internet, and I’d argue, especially by social media like Facebook.

Would McLuhan consider Facebook (or social networking sites in general, or chatrooms, or any kind of real-time-ish written communication online) to be “hot” or “cold” media? Is the distinction, as described by McLuhan, still relevant today?