McLuhan

The way in which Marshall McLuhan goes about the explanation of the expression he coined, “the medium is the message”, is beyond complicated. His argument seems to be based within quite a bit of logical reasoning that was interesting to untangle.

The beginning of this article discusses how personal and social consequences are a result of a “new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology”.[1] If I understand his argument correctly I agree with him! Based on the evidence he uses examples like the railway, radio and light to explain how communication really is a chain reaction and it is this chain reaction that the history of media and communication has been rendered over time. For instance when he discusses the development of the railway he points out that the railroad was not the introduction of movement to American society. He argues however that this development of a preexisting technology, for example horse and buggy to train and or the medium of movement, paved the way for a change in humanity’s patterns. By the medium of transportation in continuous flux, the medium brings about varying messages, which in terms of the railroad pertained to different kinds of work and leisure.[2]

 

I enjoyed the way he uses the word “technology” interchangeably with “medium” because, like he stated early on in his essay that, “ the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium”, which implies technology/media being used with out audiences being wary of its biases and that these “things” can be anything. This is important because if every single person utilized a piece of technology or media while taking into account their biases I do not think media and technology would be where it is today. Whether this end product is a good or bad thing is another thing that can be taken into interpretation. Interpretation is important to his argument as well because towards the beginning of his article I figured that the piece was going to be about mediums like film and radio and newspapers. What I believe he is suggesting through this article is that any piece of technology that has a function is a piece of media that carries a message. Take an egg-beater for instance. While being an antique tool and object for the kitchen itself, this artifact carries a message. This piece of technology suggests the necessity for speed of whipping eggs in the kitchen, which can leave space for historians and anthropologists alike to ask why did that happen.

The way in which he notes the use of his battery radio in Bedonin is another example of the implications that mediums have of society. When he states “submerging natives with floods of concepts for which nothing has prepared them is the normal action of all our technology” several things came to mind, one in terms of the materiality of a radio and the other having to do with the psychology of materiality. While he is discussing how natives being exposed to these mediums, unprepared, is normal, I question if the response to this unpreparedness would be a positive or negative? He touched upon throughout the essay the positive and negative implications of media on human patterns but I find in this case scenario the answer can hardly be a positive one. It made me think about the film Captain Phillips, which I am aware that film has its own biases but the movie was also based on a true story. The reason why this story relates to the argument that McLuhan is making about technology effecting blind masses being normal, is because this story is based off the coast of Somalia, which then and still probably has a flourishing pirate population. The media or technology is the message in this film because pirates board a US ship with loaded automatic weapons and demand ransom for the ship. If I applying his argument correctly to this case scenario, then it is the money and the weapons that are the medium carrying a message that the pirates do not understand because the use of these technologies found their communities in an artificial matter. Similar to the way a native can listen to the radio and envy it as a piece of western technology, their human patterns that would spark such a need for a radio are not yet there. Same goes for the pirates that prior to the imperialism of Africa were using nets as their main technology to survive off of. But because of increasing globalization the needs and wants of differently developed nations being mixed the misallocation of media has proved to be a fatal consequence for humanity.

The other point I wanted to make about the materiality of the radio brings me to an example from my Modern China class. I am giving these examples from history outside of his article to add to the credibility of his argument, particularly because his examples from Shakespearean literature were dense and he was brief when using more concrete examples surrounding the railroad and radio which we have spent to much time discussing in class. Either way, I am reading a memoir of one of the physicists that worked on Chinas Nuclear Bomb Project during the Cold War and the story touched on the early days of this “to-be” scientists, Fang Lizhi. He worked on radios growing up but he knew he could not build a transmitter or the communist party would find out and punish him.[3] The example of a transmitter being prohibited in communist china carries a message about this scale of communication and the way it is restricted in China.

I find that history can back up McLuhan’s argument in the examples I have been given when fortified by his examples. Like many factors in history the mediums outlets through which history is formed are rendered by precursors and results. Would the railroad have emerged if society had not constructed the necessity to go west? Would demographic movement in the US had been so widespread had there been no railroad? These mediums are a reflection of the needs in society and are all utilized differently. We see these factors still relevant today by the way in which our society is so glued to new technology. It will be interesting to see how society manifests in the wake of what McLuhan calls a “numbness” brought about in the wake of technological advancement. It is also interesting to think what these technological advancements will do to places that will have access to these mediums despite their lack of contribution to their revolution.

[1] Mashall McLuhan, Understanding Media (England: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1964) 7.

[2] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8.

[3] Fang Lizhi, The Most Wanted Man in China ( New York, NY: Henry Hold and Company, 2016).

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