Thursday, January 31, 2008

McLuhan Meets the Net

By Larry Press

Communications of the ACM, Vol 38, No 7, July, 1995, pp 15-20

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, a classic discussion of media and their effects on society and the individual. Understanding Media helped transform the 52-year old McLuhan from a somewhat obscure English professor at the University of Toronto, to an academic and media star, and industrial consultant. In recognition of the book's importance, it has been reissued by MIT Press with an introduction by Lewis Lapham of Harper's Magazine [10].

McLuhan understood that computers were a communication medium, but did not discuss them in Understanding Media or subsequently, although he lived until 1980 (footnote 1). Regardless, I found this book fascinating and highly relevant today. My copy is now covered with marginal notes, many speculating on how McLuhan would have seen global computer-mediated communication, the Net.

What would McLuhan have thought of the Net? This column consists of quotes taken from Understanding Media (footnote 2), followed by comments on how they might be applied to the Net. (The number following each quote is the page on which it is found). I would not presume to put words in McLuhan's mouth -- these are thoughts that crossed my mind as I read, my marginal notes.

Media -- Extensions of Man (subtitle)

McLuhan defines media in the subtitle of the book -- "The Extensions of Man." His is a broad definition, including more than the familiar communication media like radio and TV. McLuhan's media include the spoken word, the written word, number, clothing, housing, money, the clock, the motorcar, and other extensions of man. (The book has chapters on 26 different media). I think McLuhan would not have seen the Net as one medium, but as a juxtaposition of many. The information on the Net is mostly text, but voice, image, animation, video, executable simulations, and other types of information will become common. Multiplicity of media, goes beyond multiple data types. For example, written words on a monitor are different than words on a magazine page, a book page, or a billboard. Furthermore, on the Net, words are used in different contexts. Words on a listserver are different than words in one-one email, or a scholarly paper retrieved from a server. They are like words used in a conference room, a conversation, or an essay, respectively.

The medium is the message. (7)

This is the title of Chapter 1. When he wrote Understanding Media, McLuhan was Director of the Center for Culture and Technology, which investigated the "psychic and social consequences of technological media." He was not interested in content carried by a medium, but in the psychic and social effects inherent in the way it extended our senses. As he notes, media like the electric light and electric power grid have no content whatsoever, yet they have significant impact.

McLuhan would not have written about the content on the Net -- controversial issues like dirty pictures or businessmen "spamming" us with unwanted advertising. He would have speculated on how the Net would affect our society and our senses, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and values regardless of the content it carried or what part of the Net we used.

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