When I first attempted to read Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”, I could not penetrate it. The book stood unassailable like Kafka’s Castle. It is one of those books that you want to throw against a wall or smash on the floor in a desperate attempt to make its content digestible. Reading McLuhan was like riding a bucking horse. I fell off every other paragraph until I suddenly realised it: Instead of medium (or media), I simply had to read technology all the way through, and everything became crystal clear.
I had bought the book expecting to understand all about communication, information, entertainment… and voilà, there I had, in front of me, something much broader, a sort of “theory of everything” in technology:
It is a persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed. Again, unless there were such increases of power and speed, new extensions of ourselves would not occur or would be discarded. For an increase of power or speed in any kind of grouping of any components whatever is itself a disruption that cause a change of organization (M. McLuhan, “Understanding Media”, page 127)
So simple. A channel of communication is a medium, but more generally a medium is a means of effecting or conveying something. And what’s technology but a medium? The medium par excellence, an extension of man.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions “medium is the message” and “global village”. He is a controversial figure in academic circles (Watch his scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, 1977)
Nicholas Carr can’t quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose. He thinks that “McLuhan’s mind was probably situated at the mild end of the autism spectrum”. With the arrival of the internet, he emerged from the dustbin of history to become a pop icon(*):
(…) much of what McLuhan had to say made a lot more sense in 1994 than it did in 1964 When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, compared the expansion of big data to the planet developing a central nervous system, that’s McLuhan. When Chief Justice John Roberts opined that an alien from Mars might mistake the smartphone as an integral feature of human anatomy, that’s McLuhan, too. In 2014, it’s hard to overstate McLuhan’s prescience. (Paul Hiebert, “The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later”)
Everyone thought that McLuhan was talking about TV, but what he was really talking about was the Internet — two decades before it appeared, (Kevin Kelly as quoted by Alexander Stille, “Marshall McLuhan Is Back From the Dustbin of History”)
He was very likely a funny guy, the sort of person capable of saying things like this one without laughing (emphasis mine):
He once said LSD was the lazy man’s form of Finnegans Wake. When deciding whether a book was worth reading, he’d flip through its table of contents then skip ahead to page 69. If page 69 offered no insight, he’d put the book down and move onto the next. In a 1951 letter to Ezra Pound, he described himself as an “intellectual thug.” (Paul Hiebert, “The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later”)
It seems a nice quick and dirty algorithm to choose what to read in an information overloaded world, except for the minor detail that pages in ebooks are an ill-defined concept. To know whether his work stands his own test, I’ve gone to page 69 of my own brick and mortar (hard-cover) edition(1) to find this (Chapter 4, “The Gadget Lover, Narcissus as Narcosis”):
War and the fear of war have always been considered the main incentives to technological extension of our bodies. Indeed, Lewis Mumford, in his The City in History, considers the walled city itself an extension of our skins, as much as housing and clothing. More even than the preparation for war, the aftermath of invasion is a rich technological period; because the subject culture has to adjust all its sense ratios to accommodate the impact of the invading culture. It is from such intensive hybrid exchange and strife of ideas and forms that the greatest social energies are released, and from which arise the greatest technologies. Buckminster Fuller estimates that since 1910 the governments of the world have spent 3 I/2 trillion dollars on airplanes. That is 62 times the existing gold supply of the world. (M. McLuhan, “Understanding Media”, page 69)
Insightful? Judge yourself . (And you also check for edition-invariance of the algorithm in case you have a different one.)
Whatever you think, the guy is so prolific in riddles, that I plan to tweet them with the hashtag #mcluhanism as I reread the book. Would you join me?
(*) Wired appointed Marshall McLuhan as the magazine’s patron saint
(1) Marchall McLuhan, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, Gingko Press Critical Edition