Monday, December 15, 2014

McLuhan's Understanding Media: 50 years later

Original 1964 edition of Understanding Media
With just two weeks left in the year, time is of the essence if we want to squeeze in any sort of celebration, or at least acknowledgement, of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”.

I was able to do so recently, at a talk held at McLuhan’s old stomping ground at U of T in Toronto, where a group made up of his students from the 60s and 70s, current students of media & communications studies, and even a few of McLuhan’s sons convened to exchange stories about the quixotic professor who passed away in 1980. Some notes from that talk in a bit, but first a few musings of my own to provide some context as to why we we're still talking about this man with a talent for turning out buzzwords and catchphrases that many say were as inscrutable as they were pithy.

The year was 1964 when McLuhan put forward the idea that 'the medium is the message'. Since that time we’ve not only heard that phrase thousands of times but have also seen media and technology actually turn into extensions of man, whether by way of personalized micro-media like tweets and location-based services or more concretely through powerful, always-with-us gadgets like smartphones and wearable devices. And bear in mind that when McLuhan initially first made this point it was fairly abstract — the idea the structure of a medium, or communicative channel, has as much if not more meaning than the content of the message itself. Not a huge surprise, then, that when McLuhan made these pronouncements they were often thought of as  a trickster's riddles, as opposed to a visionary's axioms.


He also spoke of the effects of the electronic world, or the shift from ‘literary man’ of the era of the book to our (then) new electronic selves that came into being with the advent of television. Television, with its ability to broadcast to much larger swaths than its predecessor radio, enabled what McLuhan termed an “all-at-onceness” — a system in which a single piece of information could be experienced by millions around the world, all at the same moment.


One of the interests of this blog has been the impacts and affordances of digital, networked technologies on the creative industries. What gets easier when each individuals can communicate with each other, to people they both do and don’t know, and do so on a global scale? What becomes more difficult? What becomes possible that previously was not?

One of the answers is that with digital media leaving trails wherever it goes, diffusion has been made visible. Before, we knew people were exchanging ideas — and goods and services too — in all sorts of interesting ways, and creating all sorts of interesting patterns, but for the most part this was invisible. Yes, the world of loyalty programs and direct marketing databases held insights into such activities but their work was, and arguably still is, not well understood by the average person, whereas it isn’t difficult to grasp a concept like a particular song being Shazam’d more than most, or a particular phrase turning up on Twitter at a surprisingly high rate.

And what about the cultures of sampling and remixing? Or the blurring of the line between amateur and professional creators of media that is now commonplace? McLuhan foresaw these in his work, even though the realities of smartphones and universal uploading were still several decades away.

And with these little nuggets in our minds, I now present some notes from the recent 50th anniversary of McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”, held recently on the campus of the University of Toronto.

Son Michael McLuhan, a professional photographer. started things off with a series of reviews of Understanding Media he dug up from the time of its release in 1964.

From Time magazine: “Is it a fad or a parlour game? Is it intelligence, arrogance, or pseudoscience?”

From Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in BookWeek: “Bland assertions, hopeless nonsense, endless and random…an intelligent man masquerading as a charlatan.”

We then heard from Bruce Powe, novelist, English professor at York University, and former student of McLuhan’s. As Powe put it: “Some teachers convey information, some change your life, and some rearrange your DNA. For me McLuhan was the latter.”

McLuhan in a seminar at University of Toronto, circa early 1970s
Powe went on to describe “Understanding Media” as ana-logical, as declaring a war on logic, a war that was necessary so that an understanding of the associations and connections made possible in the electronic sphere of media could be put forward. We’re still talking about these connections fifty years later because they were so deeply prophetic, said Powe. But on his home campus at U of T, Powe says McLuhan was largely isolated in his own world of ideas. Power shared the story of keeping McLuhan’s name in the acknowledgements section of his thesis — something McLuhan warned Powe about doing. “Bruce, take my name out of there”, McLuhan insisted. But Powe didn’t listen, and once again McLuhan was prophetic. Powe ended up spending close to an hour of his thesis defence defending the presence of McLuhan’s name in the acknowledgements.


McLuhan’s vision was in understanding the great environmental forces at work in ‘the big bang that is technology', and that kind of understanding is a form of grace. McLuhan urged us to remove our value judgements about good and bad and simply perceive, Powe reminded us. And this was McLuhan's prophetic skill: that he could see the future in the present.

Related Post: When media is everywhere where are we?