10/25: McLuhan: The Medium Messages, And I Turn Off My Phone

In theory, I am already familiar with Marshall McLuhan's work. In fact, I read The Medium Is The Massage just a couple years ago, even if I don't remember some of the relevant points. However, the one thing I forgot about reading excerpts of essays (as I am doing now) is that they read like highlight reels. And that's really fucking cool. Normally, in order to read an academic scholar you have to wade through many things that are don't immediately grab you; I consider explanations and examples the verbose equivalent of passing a soccer ball back and forth. What I got in reading selections from Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man is a series of spiced quotes, beginning of course with his idea that "the medium is the message" (39). Essentially, what McLuhan is claiming is that the not only are stories made differently for different mediums, but the medium of transmitting the message also defines how a message is understood. That is to say, "the 'content' of any medium is always another medium... if it is asked, 'What is the content of speech?' it is necessary to say, 'It is an actual process of thought'" (40). It's an easy rabbit-hole to chase art down, but McLuhan seems to find peace in the abstract because it does not convey a linear message. The message is only the medium, that which physically is, not another spelled out idea. 

The next fascinating section for me is labelled "Hot And Cold." There are two types of communication, McLuhan argues, these being "Hot," which gives the consumer a lot of information, and "Cold," which gives the user much less information (41). On the surface, that is interesting because our media today is hotter than ever as we swallow the glut of data and stimulation presented in even the most mundane pieces. Video is never just video, it is a Youtube clip with annotations playing over the screen, comments and ties to social media not far below, and videos suggested by algorithms lurking to make sure you stay on the site as long as possible. And yet, according to McLuhan, "any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one" (42). We can chalk that up to the fact that McLuhan couldn't predict Facebook, but it is still a puzzle I'll come back to someday.

And then, to top it all off, McLuhan finishes by talking on The Singularity and a hivemind. "Rapidly, we approach the final phase..." write McLuhan, "when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society" (43). It's a bizarre idea that humans will suddenly know exactly the same things because we will all know everything, and I think we have a much rockier road than McLuhan writes about. Just to throw thumb tacks at his idealistic balloon, the first issue is one of access to the superbrain, which not all of us have right now, or may ever have. The second is a little more interesting: if we all know everything, what will we ever disagree on? Sure, there are different ways to interpret truths, but complete omniscience implies complete conformity, a loss of difference. I don't know how that will change our human experience, if we allow ourselves to still be organic at that point. 

For now, I'm just savoring what looking back at this blog post will be like when I have a cybernetic brain. Kids are so cute.