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Nov. 17th, 2010 @ 03:53 am how to read marshall mcluhan's groundbreaking understanding media without a headache
Current Mood: angryangry
Current Music: The Buggles - Video Killed The Radio Star
1. Negate every assertion McLuhan makes, so "The electric light is pure information" becomes "The electric light is not pure information," and "...technological media are staples or natural resources, exactly as are coal and cotton and oil" becomes "technological media are not staples or natural resources; they are nothing like coal and cotton and oil."
2. Remove all references to Jung, studies performed in "primitive civilizations" in Africa with no supposed exposure to then-contemporary Western culture, and observations about the fundamental nature of 1960s-era technology that are no longer true (e.g. television being a "hot" medium partly because of the absence of interactivity).
3. Pretend he actually makes the case for all the assumptions about the relationship between media and content he expects you to intuitively accept as true.
4. Marvel at how wise Bizarro McLuhan sounds, despite having little left to say.

Guys, I am trying to give McLuhan the benefit of the doubt. I am trying to engage his ideas on his their own terms, trying to reconstruct his reasoning from his perspective, rather than just dismissing them out of hand. (I'm also forcing myself to keep in mind that the television, radio, and film he is talking about, in the 1960s, are a different beast than the television, radio, and film I grew up with, as all of those media evolved directly in response to the theories in the book.) But it's pretty hard when so much of it, from his assumptions to his logic to the reasoning behind his logic, is built on observations about media that are utterly alien to my understanding of technology and how people interact with it. It's like he's writing about some kind of parallel universe, about some alien species that consumes media through a pair of faucet taps and drinks information through a straw.

The idea of "hot" media like television being more information-dense than "cold" media like film, for example, and therefore being more passive to process--whoa. I love metaphors as much as the next guy, but are we talking about a television or a microwave oven? Shining light through a strip of film may be different on a technical level than blasting light into your eyeballs via a cathode ray tube (and McLuhan expounds on this for quite some time), but an image of a galloping horse is an image of a galloping horse. McLuhan insinuates that no, the way you perceive that horse is very subtly different, and will drastically affect your perception of horse riding and horses in general. But he provides no evidence to back that assertion up, nor does he even try to explain why it might be true.

And while it's an interesting thought that the "unintended consequences" he talks about, in which the format of a medium itself, not the content, shapes how people think, McLuhan never makes much of a case for it--he just assumes you will accept it as obvious. Which it isn't. Watching Con Air in a movie theater isn't fundamentally any different than watching it on cable.

Perhaps it's telling that technology has changed so much in forty years that a relative newcomer to the field of media studies not only cannot intuitively accept McLuhan's assertion that the medium is the message, but finds the idea utterly bizarre. Did we really need computers to invent cybernetics? Did we need the Internet to invent crowdsourcing? Would T-Pain not still be producing formulaic, predictable dance rap if Auto-Tune had not been invented? The message is a deliberate social construction. The medium is just a shiny circle of metal.

Mere things are not agents of change; all technology is merely the manifestation of ideas. Outside of video games, there are no fucking tech trees.

(I'm sorry, you can't research Parliamentary Democracy. You don't have two points in Musket Level 2 yet.)

Then again, maybe I'm just bitter because I grew up with older people telling me that a) TV is going to turn America into Brave New World, b) books are intellectually engaging while television turns people into passive consumer vegetables, and c) it was my generation, not theirs, who would end up as couch potatoes. All of those lessons turned out to be lies. Not just lies, but dangerous lies. And now that I've found the source of those ideas, it's disappointing that their author does not make a coherent case for them.

Maybe I should put down Understanding Media for now and come back to it once I read some of the things his contemporaries were saying. kezinge advises that McLuhan makes a little more sense if you consider he was responding to Maoists and to Foucault. Not really within my research interests, though...
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