It is a small irony that the self-described trend-spotter Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980), the tutelary spirit of Wired magazine and other organs of the digerati, failed to foresee the technological revolution that would yield the Internet and the World Wide Web. Signs of these emerging media were not lacking in McLuhan’s day; go back and look at sci-fi guru Arthur C. Clarke’s wonderfully prescient essays of the time, and you’ll see that the revolution gave plenty of notice that it was on its way.
Busy deconstructing the meaning of miniskirts and the relevance of Shakespeare, McLuhan gave the wired future far less mind than he’s been credited for. Yet McLuhan, and not Clarke, is the patron saint of the Net, and everywhere you look you’ll find McLuhan’s sometimes strange, contradictory, ambiguous, and often misquoted ideas about technology. Essential McLuhan puts some of those ideas in one readily accessible reference, the books in which they first appeared having long ago gone out of print. It’s a useful anthology, even if it, too, gives credit where it is not necessarily due.
McLuhan, as it happens, was something of a Luddite, mistrustful of machines and their applications. “All media,” he wrote, “exist to invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values.” An amateur psychologist and professional literary scholar, McLuhan took a keen interest in the sensory changes wrought by new technologies, which he branded as “extensions of man,” plug-and-play additions to the human central nervous system. Those extensions, he added, were not necessarily a good thing.
The medium that occupied McLuhan most was television, an extension far less discombobulating than the space- and time-shrinking Net has turned out to be. (He also wrote at length about moveable type and the telegraph, also avatars of the older age to which he belonged.) McLuhan evolved a program of slogans and simplifications that proved perfect for the distinction-erasing, reality-replacing medium of television, and from them you could make a case for his being the true father of the sound bite, the governing rhetorical device of our time.
Like all sound bites, many of his slogans are balloons that burst when probed. Take a proclamation from his Gutenberg Galaxy: “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.” It’s catchy, to be sure, but it doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. For one thing, schizophrenia is a common ailment in preliterate societies. For another, it’s possible to be a reader without becoming mentally ill, although I’m fond of quoting Kingsley Amis’s take on a character in Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die, found in Amis’s The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007: “Owning a lot of books tends to go with serious criminal tendencies.”
No matter; in McLuhan’s world, the catchier the phrase, the better, regardless of how well it tests for truth. Daniel Bell notes as much in his 1978 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, remarking that McLuhan’s ideas “are not meant to be used analytically, or tested by some empirical means; they are litanies to assuage a person’s anxieties and enhance his sense of wellbeing within the new modes of communication. They are Turkish baths of the mind. All in all, Marshall McLuhan was an advertising man’s dream, in more ways than one.” The medium of television makes scrutiny difficult; its fast pace and lack of interactivity work against analysis, as Bell suggests, and it makes stars of those who can readily squeeze out memorable phrases: McLuhan in his time, Camille Paglia in ours.
Essential McLuhan gathers a good sampling of the mediologist’s epigrams and apothegms, along with a few overlooked texts, notably a wide-ranging Playboy interview in which McLuhan, who once remarked “any moment of arrest or stasis permits the public to shoot you down,” stood by his words long enough to explain some of his more famous pronouncements. Beloved of Wired and college communications courses, even if it is buried in Essential McLuhan, is the famed utterance “The medium is the message,” which means, in essence, that form determines content. The invisibility and ubiquity of the contemporary media make them more powerful than earlier forms of communication, and it is for this reason that technological innovators are always seeking ways to make media even more invisible and omnipresent. Thus Web TV, for instance, which presupposes around-the-clock access to several channels of communication---television, the telephone, the Internet---while simultaneously obscuring the separateness of each of them. This famous quality of “all-at-onceness,” as McLuhan called it, forces the search for meaning---the “message”---to become an active relationship with the medium itself.
If this seems confusing to you, have no fear: remember that McLuhan shunned definitional “arrest or stasis” and was known to change his mind within the course of a single paragraph.
But is the medium really the message? Do videotaped images of cloned sheep or riots engage our conscience and consciousness differently from print accounts? Is a flash-flood watch issued on TV substantively different from one issued on the radio, or broadcast over a police loudspeaker, or delivered by town crier? McLuhan would presumably say yes. Régis Debray, the French philosopher, rightly complained that McLuhan reduces technology to a “channel view” that emphasizes the tool at the expense of the thing being said. (Debray suggests that serious students of the Net are better off to look to semioticians like Ferdinand de Saussure and Umberto Eco for a theory of communication that fits our age.)
About such controversies the editors of Essential McLuhan have nothing to say, and it remains for someone else to assemble a volume of criticism that will test McLuhan’s ideas more rigorously. It’s worth noting, though, that McLuhan went to his grave complaining that his famous slogan had been misunderstood---an occupational hazard of those who issue sound bites, as George Bush can tell you. McLuhan never bothered, however, to issue a definitive explanation of just what he meant. Instead, he compounded the problem by issuing his “laws of media,” which state that media technologies at once amplify aspects of our culture and make previously amplified sectors obsolete, becoming something else entirely in the process. The classic example is TV: it amplifies the visual, makes radio obsolete by coopting its sound, recovers pictures that had been made obsolete by the rise of printed alphabets, and becomes something new in the bargain---Web TV, say, or the GUI-driven computer.
The problem is, of course, that radio is far from being obsolete, that the invention of print never came close to removing pictures from circulation, and that TV is essentially still TV, for all the hoopla that surrounds its supposedly interactive future. It may be that in a few years the Web, or more likely its successor, will replicate all forms of narrowcast and broadcast media, and that McLuhan will belatedly be proved correct. For the time being, however, it’s still the banal territory of the talking head, just as it was in McLuhan’s day.
Where the anthology is best is in assembling vintage McLuhanisms that, today as thirty years ago, can win points for nimbleness at a cocktail party: “The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures.” “The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance and the environments created by technological innovation.” “Print created the mental habit of communicating with another mind.”
Whether true or not, whether truly applicable to the new technologies of communication, whether too often too nonsensical to be of any real use, such remarks are the coin of the current digital realm. And in that realm, Essential McLuhan is as handy a dispenser as we are likely to have.
Review of Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, eds. Essential McLuhan (New York: Basic Books, 1996).