Marshall McLuhan: 100 Years Later, then Six Years Ago

Marshall McLuhan, famous academic and cultural theorist who studied our relationship with media, was born 100 years ago this week (On the Media produced an excellent story commemorating his birthday.  Check it out here.).  I was introduced to McLuhan in my first Cultural Studies class at the University of Virginia and was fascinated by his prophetic conclusions about media.  His ideas about the importance of the medium as tantamount to the content (his famous phrase: “the medium is the message”) and that the media affects not only what we think about but how we think were framed by the appearance of the television in the homes of Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  What struck me, though, is how applicable his theories were to contemporary forms of communication, like instant messaging and the internet.  After hearing On the Media’s story about McLuhan’s quirky, complicated ideas, I dug up one of my old papers about him.  In the short six years that have passed since I wrote the paper about how McLuhan’s observations can be applied to the internet,the way we use the internet to communicate has advanced quite a bit.  To show how, let’s look at some of my points from 2005.

A younger version of me wrote: “McLuhan suggests that when a media of communication becomes the dominant form, making the previous form outdated, the outdated media does not disappear but rather conforms to the rules of the dominant form. This seems to be the case as the internet becomes the dominant media of communication.  In the 90’s, as the internet became increasingly popular, several movies such as The Net, Hackers, and You’ve Got Mail used the internet as their main topic.  Popular television shows such as The O.C. acknowledge that internet is a dominant form of communication, incorporating the language of instant messaging into their dialogues.”

There’s more compelling evidence today to support the idea that television isn’t disappearing, but adapting.  Television networks are going much further now to use the internet as a complimentary, not competing, medium.  Most shows have websites where viewers can learn more about actors and view extra material unavailable on TV, like webisodes, outtakes, and interviews.  Some television shows even offer their episodes for free on the internet the day after they air (although some networks are changing this policy).  Many networks have been able to leverage social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, to both engage their audience and improve their content.  At the Digital Media Conference East (DMCE) earlier this summer, Gayle Weiswasser, VP of Social Media for Discovery, reported that she closely monitors the Twittersphere while new shows air to gather audience feedback.  Along the same lines, many shows are combating the power of the DVR by promoting live tweets with actors during the show’s timeslot, encouraging viewers to watch the show live (with all those money-making ads) and interact with the stars of the show on Twitter.

My younger self’s ruminations on instant messaging reveal a stark contrast between online communication of 2005 and 2011.  I wrote, “A conversation via AIM could be classified under McLuhan’s system as a `cool’ medium.  Cool mediums require the viewer to fill in gaps of information, engaging multiple senses and creating a very active and interested user.  During AIM conversations, very little information is provided to participators.  The subject must fill in the aspects of conversation that are missing: sound, intonation and inflection of the voice, emotion, and facial expressions.  Because all this information must be supplied, AIM certainly engages the user as a whole.”  How quickly things change.  Just a few years later, AIM is a completely outdated form of communication, replaced by G-chat, Twitter, and Facebook messaging.  The basic characteristics of instant messaging have stayed the same, despite the different companies that host them, but I’m still skeptical of my previous classification of instant messaging.  I’m not sure that it’s a popular medium because it engages our senses and requires us to fill in gaps of information.  In fact, it’s the gaps themselves that make the medium popular.  We like this form of communication because it allows us to multi-task, to use multiple forms of social media simultaneously.  It’s the ease with which we can disengage that makes it useful.

This isn’t to say that McLuhan’s theories can’t be at all applied to this medium.   McLuhan also argued that the younger generation of his time would develop a new way of thinking because they grew up with television as the dominant media of communication.  He said the younger generation demands more participation in classes, discussion instead of reading, etc., because television is a cool and participatory medium.  The same holds true for the younger generation today that has been raised in a world of instant messaging.  Many young folks offend their older colleagues when they check their smartphones for new email during meetings or reply to a text during lunch.  They simply assume that conversation involves some element of interruption.

McLuhan’s ideas about media were (are) groundbreaking, thought-provoking, and, at times, difficult.  In particular, his writings about technology as the extension of or even the replacement of the self, for example, “When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body.”  But it’s these “Mcluhanisms” that are most relevant today, as we project ourselves into the world via digital media.  We’re not just communicating our ideas but our selves, via photos, language, videos, and connections.  The ability to create and recreate our self through digital media leads people to questions about when and how are virtual selves and real selves disconnect.  I subscribe to a LinkedIn group called “Digital Marketing” and was swept up in the myriad of responses that the post “What happens to your digital profile when you die?”  It’s questions like these that McLuhan encourages us to ask.

Whether or not we agree with his metaphysical take on media and language, we should celebrate his legacy and continue to examine our media (ourselves) through a critical lens.