Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

100th Annversary: Media Pundits On Media Pundit Marshall McLuhan...

Posted by Tom Foremski - July 23, 2011

Here is a selection of what media pundits had to say about uber media pundit Marshall McLuhan on the 100 year anniversary of his birth.

As far I'm concerned, if you write about media and you didn't write anything about Marshall McLuhan this past week, you should be in some other job.

Everyone has their own interpretation of Mr McLuhan's insights into our modern electronic media world media. Here are some:

(I've added them to a Pearltree I'm curating about Mr McLuhan, please feel free to team up with me and help build it... please see Pearltree at the end of this page.)

- Nicholas Carr writing at Roughtype: McLuhan at 100

Watching McLuhan, you can't quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose. Both impressions, it turns out, are valid.

...He was far more interested in playing with ideas than nailing them down. He intended his writings to be "probes" into the present and the future. He wanted his words to knock readers out of their intellectual comfort zones, to get them to entertain the possibility that their accepted patterns of perception might need reordering.

... what particularly galvanized the public and the press was the weirdness of his prose. Perhaps a consequence of his unusual mind, he had a knack for writing sentences that sounded at once clinical and mystical. His books read like accounts of acid trips written by a bureaucrat.

...McLuhan also saw, with biting clarity, how all mass media are fated to become tools of commercialism and consumerism -- and hence instruments of control. The more intimately we weave media into our lives, the more tightly we become locked in a corporate embrace

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Mr Carr points us to a 1969 Playboy interview, on which he notes, "there's brilliance here, but there's also a whole lot of bad craziness. At least I hope it's bad craziness."

From the Playboy interview:

Computer technology can - and doubtless will - program entire environments to fulfill the social needs and sensory preferences of communities and nations. The content of that programing, however, depends on the nature of future societies - but that is in our own hands.

... I'm not advocating anything; I'm merely probing and predicting trends. Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn't stop them, so why waste my time lamenting?

... man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull and his nerves outside his skin; new technology breeds new man. A recent cartoon portrayed a little boy telling his nonplused mother: "I'm going to be a computer when I grow up." Humor is often prophecy.


- Kevin Kelly, at The Technium also quotes from the Playboy interview in his post: McLuhan at 100


The extensions of man's consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ.

The new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form. There is a long road ahead, and the stars are only way stations, but we have begun the journey.


- Megan Garber at Niemen Journalism Lab: Webs and whirligigs: Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours

"The medium is the message" has been used to describe everything from cars to computers. I'm pretty sure I remember Bart Simpson writing it on a blackboard. McLuhan, controversial in his own time, has mainstreamed; the basic tenets of his thought -- to the extent that his "thought," an impressionistic assemblage of ideas that sweep and swoop and sometimes snap with self-contradiction, is a unit in the first place -- have been, basically, accepted. We shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us. Yeah, definitely. But...now what?

McLuhan wasn't a journalistic thinker; he was a media theorist, and is most interesting when he's talking not about the news itself, but about more theory-y things -- modes and nodes and all the rest.


- Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun wrote: The medium is the message in today's connected world

His writings seem both poetry and prose; his ideas both profound and banal now that some have been reduced to slogans on T-shirts. The medium is the message. Or is it The medium is the massage? McLuhan embraced both...

... "When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body," McLuhan wrote.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think he might have meant that when we use technology we are not always entirely ourselves.

Technology does more than just allow us to do things, it determines that we will ... because we can.
The medium is the message.


- Paul Graham Raven at Wired UK: Happy 100th birthweek, Marshall McLuhan, godfather of media studies

McLuhan proposed that the cultural transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was caused less by the rediscovery of classical texts and sources than it was by a shift in focus from formal logic to rhetoric and grammar.

... Back in the late Nineties, you couldn't turn over a newspaper page or TV channel without some pundit talking about "the global village", a McLuhan riff nearly four decades old.

... Perhaps the most interesting facet of McLuhan's fascination with media was his refusal to make value judgements. Instead, he took it as a given that technologies would change cognition, claiming that "to raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers".

It is this part of McLuhan's attitude that seems most absent in these polarised times, as highlighted by misreportings of recent research into the effects of internet use on memory.

- - -

- My take on Mr McLuhan is here:

SaturdayPost: McLuhan's Relevance In Today's Media Mess Age...

Mr McLuhan offered a clear cultural analysis and insight about the nascent modern media world-- a difficult feat for a complex subject -- but there is also a need for a materialist analysis for a more complete understanding.

For some of the missing materialism, it's worth turning to another pioneer thinker, the Italian journalist Antonio Gramsci. His work in the 1920s and 1930s was on the subject of "cultural hegemony" -- the struggle for the control of prime ideas by governments, elite groups, and commercial interests -- through the agencies of the media.

- - -

There's more, curated here, on this Pearltree:

Marshall McLuhan and CBC Life and Times in Journalism/Marketing/PR / Tom Foremski (foremski)


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