There’s a famous scene in the 1977 romcom Annie Hall, in which Woody Allen’s character grows irritated by a bespectacled bore, who is loudly pontificating on the theories of Marshall McLuhan. When Allen explodes, a verbal scuffle ensues, and Allen tells the bore, “you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan!” The man protests his academic credentials, whereupon Allen says, “I happen to have Mr McLuhan right here.”
Out steps the Canadian philosopher, immaculate in a light beige suit, to inform the bore: “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work.”
One can partly sympathise with the bore. McLuhan’s work isn’t always easy to define. To read Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) is to fear that one’s mind might explode, as it is bombarded with assertions, ideas, moments of impenetrable wackiness, and illustrative snippets from literature and history. Today, it is also to be repeatedly startled by the relevance of the author’s thinking to our own era.
McLuhan, a game and dapper participant in the media that he dissected, died in his sleep in December 1980, aged 69. His most famous sound-bite was “the medium is the message”, and he was also known for his prediction that electric technology would have the power to contract the world into “a global village”.
Now, McLuhan appears before us as a kind of seer of the digital age. He instinctively understood that a new medium is not simply a tool of man, but has the ability to reshape human thought, society and culture according to its own inherent properties.
The book’s main point is that any new medium becomes part of humanity – an extension of our consciousness. “With the arrival of electric technology,” McLuhan writes, “man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself”.
This, for McLuhan, is ground on which to attack the argument that technology is simply a form of neutral tool, which individuals can choose to use for good or ill.
He quotes, for example, General David Sarnoff of the University of Notre Dame saying:
“We are too prone to make technological instruments the scape goats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad: it is the way they are used that determines their value.”
To modern ears, that remains an oft-heard viewpoint – and one with the veneer of reasonableness. But McLuhan roundly condemns it as “the voice of the current somnambulism”. He was writing in 1964, but the voice is still current today.
The Sarnoff statement, he says, “ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form”.
The book’s most precisely prescient chapter, ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’, reveals the relevance of the Greek myth. Narcissus mistook his reflection for another person, which “numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image”.
As it rapidly becomes part of our daily normality, we notice less and less – or are “numbed” to – the ways in which technology is affecting us. Yet meanwhile it is radically altering our behaviour patterns, our society and our institutions. Far from being simply an empty vehicle for ‘content’, it is – by its form – determining the very nature of that ‘content’.
One might reflect, in our age, on the directness, simplification and speed of disputes that are enabled by the form of Twitter, with its word-limit of first 140 and later 280 characters. It has altered the way in which people speak to one another, not least by liberating contempt and rage. Educated ‘opinion-formers’, who would formerly have observed verbal and written codes of politeness, are now regularly tweeting or endorsing foul-mouthed insults.
The social media platform has also made the public’s relationship with politicians more direct. The ‘Twitter-mob’ acts as an electronic enforcer of opinion – making politics in turn more instantly reactive. This has implications for the style of decision-making, as well as the nature of the political decisions that are taken. The medium has altered the message.
So it’s worth being conscious that, in what McLuhan called “the electric age” of radio and television, the wider world is brought crashing in upon the individual. The cumulative weight of information can have crushing and disorienting effects. “Everybody in the world,” McLuhan writes, “has to live in the utmost proximity created by our electric involvement in one another’s lives.”
If that was true in 1964, how much more true is it now? The development of the Internet ensured that “the global village” is accessible on a computer that vastly outstrips the radio, television or telephone in potential speed, range and interactivity. Then the subsequent development of the smartphone ensured that this computer itself – the gateway to the global village – can be physically portable and continuously present.
If one looks around today on a train or tube carriage, or even down a busy street, McLuhan’s insistence that technology is an “extension” of human beings is made strikingly clear. Smartphones are melded to the palm of travellers’ hands, their eyes glued to the small screen, as – fascinated by any number of simultaneously occurring electronic conversations, caught in an international deluge of information – they seem increasingly oblivious to their immediate surroundings. They are both physically present and mentally transported into potentially innumerable, fast-changing elsewheres.
McLuhan wrote of how the range – if not the depth – of perception had wildly expanded: “the electric age gave us the means of instant, total field-awareness.” Since “the electric age” became the Internet age, privacy has dwindled. Formerly private lives and opinions, for instance, have opened up to the world by means of Facebook and Instagram; the rise of ‘wokeness’ has been facilitated. McLuhan foretold these effects of increased “field-awareness”:
“With such awareness, the subliminal life, private and social, has been hoicked up into full view, with the result that we have “social consciousness” presented to us as a cause of guilt-feelings…in the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.”
The list of ways in which McLuhan’s book speaks to today goes on; Understanding Media is a book for reading and re-reading, dipping into and drawing out of. More than anything, McLuhan seeks to awaken his readers from the “Narcissus Narcosis” that quickly accepts the effects of any new medium as a baseline normality.
Those of us who have lived through the rise of the Internet are already aware that it has altered the shape of our existences, the fabric of our days, the way in which human beings relate to one another and the operation of our political systems. It has been a vast source of disruption – and if we are not to be overwhelmed by it, we must first seek to understand what it is doing.