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A critique on the works of Marshall McLuhan
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- Chirag Mehta
- Exploration in Media Sciences
- Prof. Robert Kubey
- 28 Feb. 2002
- Grade: A-
A critique on the works of Marshall McLuhan
The Man who saw Today... and Tomorrow and the day after...
Hardly one comes across the writings of a man so profound and eye-opening that critics refute his theories simply because they fail to comprehend them! Marshall McLuhan, two decades after his death, still has a great following, consisting of researchers, academic thinkers, media personalities, eminent politicians, and most importantly, die-hard critics. One is as likely to hear a phrase in his praise, as in total disagreement of his entire life’s worth of work. The simple reason for this wide chasm between the opinions of both sides is the methodology by which he fabricated his ideas: Complex analysis of imponderable data with utter disregard for content, resulting in unified real-world theories, so simple that they often end up being misunderstood. The following is a critique of some of his theories, ideas, and generalizations, with a brief analysis of each, and how it contributes to the "mysticism" surrounding his work.
Media: Extension of Man...
McLuhan provides an extremely vague description of what he means by media, for it encompasses everything from writing, clothing, and automobiles, to television, radio, and computers. Had he coined a new keyword instead of redefining "media," it wouldn’t have been difficult to understand that he was merely referring to any matter or force that amplified man’s five physical senses by any means or modes. And yet the world today, almost forty years after he authored Understanding Media, continues to exemplify his statement recurrently. One notable stance he takes in his analysis of media is that he does not exaggerate or even emphasize, man’s increasing dependence on the tools of technology as a negative move or a threatening issue. He does not see man becoming a slave because of his reliance on technology. He sees man becoming a slave because he subconsciously chooses to ignore and disregard the fact that understanding the new web of media is incumbent to his survival and prosperity. Though not a lucid viewpoint, this indeed is the difference between McLuhan’s mind and those of the thousand others who preceded him in the study of media, technology, and even human psychology. He saw the world like no one had ever seen it before - in depth, devoid of any previous assumptions, keen to form new ideas, and willing to shed old theories.
Medium is the Message...
In addition to his concept of media being an extension of man’s senses, McLuhan pictures media as being the message, the real content. His indifference towards the pre-packaged content that the traditional media presents, is fresh and frightening both. Fresh, since no one ever conceived of a method of transferring information as being anything more, and frightening, since he shows how a medium by itself, can affect and virtually transform man’s everyday life and his perception of the world as it revolves around him. The fact that the medium is the message, tends to numb man’s ability to recognize it as a separate and powerful entity. What is the message though? The message is everything. The message is anything. The message is what the controllers of media want it to be; Hitler wanted it to be fascism and Castro wants it to be apparent democracy. The form of media used were different, radio and television, but the end result seems to be same - acquisition of mass support. But once again, McLuhan stuns the reader right in the midst of a seemingly clear-cut theory, for according to him, not all media work in the same way, despite the fact that they can be used to derive the same outcomes.
Hot or Cold...
Radio is hot, television is cool, lectures are hot, and seminars are cool. McLuhan’s classification of media takes into account only two factors: participation and information. Any medium low in participation and high in information content is hot. A medium engaging higher participation but providing less quantity of information is cool. It is a surprise that someone actually noticed these imperceptible yet inherent distinctions between the various forms of media, because now that McLuhan explained the factors that make something hot or cool, it has become almost child’s play to predict if a given method of using a media will work effectively or not. McLuhan cites the example of two American Presidents, Kennedy and Nixon, both of whom projected impressionable persona on the television. However, where as Kennedy remained calm, cool, and low-definition, Nixon tended to be aggressive, hot, or in other words, high-definition. This cost Nixon the presidency. Yet later when he composed himself, presumably under the advice of someone who recognized the lack of believability in his hot and intensified behavior, he won the common man’s vote and was elected the President. Though McLuhan clearly distinguishes what makes a medium hot or cool, recognizing the same is quite counterintuitive. In the present day, when more people call up the local radio stations than the national television, it seems that radio is cooler since it involves more participation. Also with the advent of modern information gathering and broadcasting channels, television, primarily through news and live-talk shows, gives a plethora of information about almost everything, and thus might be construed as hot if McLuhan’s definition is taken literally. While in some cases it might be true that radio is cooler or television is hotter figuratively speaking, in a broader sense the idea that radio is essentially hot and television primarily cool still holds true, because even today, television is more of a full body-mind involvement experience than radio. Television begs the devotion of the viewer’s entire nervous system, where as radio only engages the aural system. Despite the explosion of high definition televisions in today’s electronic market, the medium itself is still low definition. Yet again McLuhan reinterpreted a common catch phrase and gave it a hitherto unknown dimension, for the term definition now measured participation, more appropriately, the lack thereof. That radio is a high-definition medium is a well known fact. Yet, the use of the word definition to describe something as far-fetched as participation, goes on to show why McLuhan has been fondly called the metaphysician of media, shrouded in mysticism.
Three technological innovations...
It would be difficult to disagree with McLuhan on his choice of the three technological innovations that have affected mankind the most: Phonetic alphabet, movable type, and telegraph. Citing these three as the major breakthroughs that transmogrified the tribal man into the "Gutenberg man," McLuhan boldly claims that each and every mechanical invention attributes its success to the printing press. Gutenberg’s invention indeed revolutionized the world, for it brought the luxury of knowledge to the common man. No longer was education a frill for the posh, but instead available to anyone who sought to absorb it. And it was this easy access to resources and textual materials, that the plebeian also became the thinker, the inventor, and the revolutionary. Interestingly, he notices that there exists one major inequality between the old print, text, and type media and the new electronic media, that is, while all previous media tended to detribalize man and Westernize him into a linear mode of existence, electronic media is drawing him back to his ancestral roots of tribal harmony. McLuhan makes yet another bold proposition and as usual describes the processes that lead him up to the claim.
Tribal and Fragmented Man...
Though it seems quite inapplicable to the context of modern day media, McLuhan talks in length about the tribal man and his peaceful existence in harmony with his kinship and environment. He makes this apparent digression into the glorification of the ways of life of the simplest human societies ever, just to prove wrong almost every preconception about the tribal man, and apply the newly found exposition to the man of today, stepping on to tomorrow. There is long held belief in the Western mind that the tribal man is uncivilized, simple, and primal with little or no cultural richness. This borné point of view coupled with the misconception that the Westernized linear mode of traditional thought and discourse is far superior to that of the tribal man has prevented the modern man from opening himself up to exploration of the new media and realization of its capability. The tribal man "lived in a world where all the senses were balanced and simultaneous, a closed world of depth and resonance," whereas the "literate or visual man creates an environment that is strongly fragmented, individualistic, explicit, logical, specialized and detached." McLuhan seems to have the uncanny ability to look at the world from a peculiar standpoint, akin to that of a first grade student, eager to learn his first nursery rhyme. He has put forth a very startling observation of the literate man, as if intentionally begging vehement opposition. Yet if all prejudices are set aside for a moment, it slowly becomes evident why the modern man is "fragmented" according to McLuhan. His interpretation of fragmented illustrates modern man’s lack of connectivity with the others in his society. Moreover, McLuhan points Gutenberg man’s increasing reliance on his sight and gradual deviation from aural senses. Herein McLuhan brings yet another new concept, that of "retribalization" of the Gutenberg man by the electronic media and its silent force capable of reuniting the world of mankind, giving birth to the "Integral Man."
It is nothing short of a wonder that McLuhan correctly foresaw and predicted life in the digital world and the days of Information Superhighway, thirty years before Internet opened its gates to the commercial world. He saw the future of the world as being born out of the womb of mass computerization. But most importantly, he saw the "Integral man," more frequently known today as the "connected" man. His idea of integral was no less than revolutionary for the time, yet evidences to support the same are already blooming all across the world. Just like the tribal man, the integral man would be in a state of "multitudinous tribal existence," and his world would be filled by a "synaesthetic discontinuous integral consciousness," a connection so strong that it will bind everything to everything else, forming a "single universal membrane." At this point, McLuhan’s ideas leave the boundaries of possibility and potentiality and escape into the future where everything is possible. The integral man will be part of a global telepathic cluster where computers will literally read the mind and broadcast the thoughts appropriately. This according to him is simply the next step in communication and media. What began with phonetic alphabets, transformed into printing press and telegraph, will finally end in mind-reading electronic devices which will take back man to his original tribal existence, where emotions and expressions were more valued than analysis and consciousness. It will be the world of artists, not scientists. This is quite a daring prophecy, McLuhan’s specialty, as well as one of his proven strengths.
McLuhan was a visionary on one hand and a keen observer on the other. While both characteristics seem unrelated, they are but the two sides of the same coin. He took up the arduous task of distancing himself from the world within which he lived in order to understand it better. Once he understood how it worked, it was only natural that he chart the course that man would most likely follow within the next few years, decades, and centuries. While not all of his claims are evident at the first glance, it would be an insult to his genius to neglect the same without an in-depth reading. When McLuhan claimed that he himself could not understand his writing sometimes because it was too complicated, he probably expected the reader to anticipate a convoluted dissertation of media sciences and not a how-to guide to such a complex subject. Although it is true that not everything he said is easily digestible or instantly apparent, his words do bear a certain sense of gravity that comes only from exhaustive and thorough delving into a field; he deserves the title of "the high priest of popthink."