on 18 May 2006
This book is essential if we want to understand what is happening in today's world in the field of the media and communication. McLuhan considers the vast history of human communication media from language invented by Homo Sapiens, i.e. us, some at least 300,000 years ago in Africa, to alphabetical writing invented by Homo Sapiens some 5,000 years ago all over the world in a great number of civilizations along with non-alphabetical writing systems. Then he jumps to printing that turns the printed book into a consumer commodity which will enable the development of modern science and the mechanical industry of the first industrial revolution. The next stage is identified by him as the electric age when communication became the transfer of information via some material device that transferred the information in a virtual form: electric impulses (telegraph and telephone); waves of all types (radio, television, and now Internet with the development of computers, smart phones and tablets). The book stops before the Internet (the first "internet" connection was successful only in September 1969 between Stanford and Oakland, both in California.
Let me consider some of the 26 means of communication he studies, targeting in my review those that have to do with what he calls the extensions of the central nervous system.
The spoken word: Extension of all senses but centered on the ear seen as the capturing sense of the sacred universe and the sacred. Plus connection to the mind, the intellect seen as one way only by McLuhan; the intellect precedes and is non-verbal, which is of course at least debatable.
Language: Extension of intelligence, the intellect within McLuhan's limited vision of language/mind. Note he never uses the concept "mind".
The written word: The eye is dominant over the ear. Can the alphabet also be an extension of our teeth as McLuhan suggests with his reference to Cadmus' sowing dragon's teeth in the myth of the Phoenician who brought the alphabet to Greece.
Roads: Extension of cities, extension of housing, extension of the skin. In the form of streets they are the central nervous system of cities, which makes roads the extension of this urban central nervous system which is the extension of man's central nervous system within the wall or skin of the city and beyond it.
Housing: Extension of our bodily heat-control mechanisms - a collective skin or garment. Extended to the city, and the city wall becoming an extension of our skin.
Money: He starts with the psychoanalytical identification of money as odorless, dehydrated filth, hence filthy lucre to be attached to our anal eroticism and character. Then comes a long series of identification of money with the total involvement of man in his work, in association with writing and clocks.
Clocks: Visual extension of the experience of duration and social organization, seen as the desacralizing of everything sacred, the capture of the profane in association with the alphabet. He does not explain how Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, and many other religions or spiritual faiths are based on sacred books or canonical writings that most of the time were codified in their canonical forms several centuries after the actual preaching took place. The written word was used to reinforce the oral word.
The Print: Extension of man's eye creating a uniform, continuous and `rational' space containing all objects, thus all-inclusive.
The printed word: The extension of the eye. It brought to human society continuity, uniformity, and repeatability; the basis of calculus and of marketing (industrial production, entertainment and science); uniformly priced commodity; portability and accessibility.
The photograph: Automated extension of our vision, of the eye. A statement without syntax. The photograph is a museum without walls.
Press: An extension of the eye and man's analytical and synthetic competence. Mosaic visual form that requires a high level of critical participation and group-awareness. The mosaic is the mode of the corporate or collective image and commands deep participation. Different from columns that represent points of view, a mosaic brings together unrelated scraps in a field unified by a dateline.
Telegraph: Electricity has externalized the central nervous system itself, including the brain. Electric light is space without walls. It is the extension of the nervous system and the intellect as linguistic messages following the road or railroad systems. It creates the mosaic press with no opinions and requiring the personal implication of the reader. It developed direct communication between one person and another. It started recreating the village at the level of the world. The telegraph translated writing into electrically produced sound.
The telephone: Extension of the sense of hearing but also of all mental faculties, except the visual dimension; Today we have smart phones and webcams. The old telephone was the beginning of the use of personae, extensions, meaning change and variation, of a real personality. Complex participation, total attention, of our senses and faculties through the only auditory and vocal apparatuses. The telephone is speech without walls.
The phonograph: An extension and amplification of the voice. Stereo is sound in depth . . . in inter-relation, not in isolation. Depth means insight, not point of view; and insight is a kind of mental involvement in process that makes the content of the item seem quite secondary. Tape recorder and LP made a full musical spectrum available to all. The phonograph is a music hall without walls.
Movies: He nearly only considers the movie, the silent film. The wedding of the old mechanical technology and the new electric world. Comparison with writer but he only sees the writer or film maker making the reader or viewer enter the imaginary world they have produced. He never considers the viewer in front of the film technique, not the technology but the story telling. So de does not consider the ellipse (a form that is difficult in print but is common in the cinema and TV), flashbacks and flash-forwards that are also common in the cinema and have become common today in HD TV: what was not easy in Bonanza's time, has become common place in Lost's time. He misses the voyeuristic approaches of film and TV - they are not the same - because he is absolutely centered and centering on the sole film-director. He does not even capture the film-editor. "Film is not really a single medium like song or the written word, but a collective art form with different individuals directing [My emphasis] color, lighting, sound, acting, speaking." (292) This is an extremely reduced vision of film making. Let's keep in mind the cinema is minimally two-fold viewer's voyeurism applied to minimally four-fold director-cum-cameraman-cum-editor's voyeurism. The movies are classroom without walls, in which the student is also the teacher, in which the student is the gold digger, the gold nugget and the mine, all in one and freely projected into a universe of information, emotions, impressions, etc. that he/she freely explores in his/her own haphazard and/or systematic ways. To reduce the electric revolution in the field of the media to wire services (telegraph, telephone, telex, etc.), radio and TV, is at least VERY reductive: he does not consider the cinema as such, only movies. He hardly considers recorded products: a tremendous field of development from vinyl records, tapes of all types, to CDs and DVDs and of course virtual recordings that are not carried by any real material medium though conveyed, transported and circulated by the virtual material medium of the Internet. Most of that was of course still to come in McLuhan's days.
Radio: He starts with a reference to Paul Lazarsfeld ("The monopolistic effects of radio . . . totalitarian countries. . . The monopolistic effects have probably less social importance than is generally assumed," 297-98) and a comment: "Professor Lazarsfeld's helpless unawareness of the nature and effects of radio is not a personal defect, but a universally shared ineptitude." (298) Radio, its tribal magic. The tribal drum of radio extended man's central nervous system to create depth involvement for everybody. He shifts radio from an entertainment medium (that he hardly considers) to a kind of nervous information system. Radio affects most people intimately, person-to-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and the listener. . . a private experience. The subliminal depths of radio. . . the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums. . . a single echo chamber. . . Extension of the central nervous system that is matched only by human speech itself. . . First massive experience of electronic implosion. . . The ear is hyperesthetic, compared to the neutral eye. The ear is intolerant, closed, and exclusive, whereas the eye is open, neutral, and associative. . . The commercial entertainment strategy automatically ensures maximum speed and force of impact for any medium. . . Education will become recognized as civil defense against media fallout. . . Radio certainly contracts the world to a village size but it hasn't the effect of homogenizing the village quarters. . . Radio is not only a mighty awakener of archaic memories, forces and animosities, but a decentralizing, pluralistic force, as is really the case with all electric power and media. . . The radio is a classroom without walls.
Television: The tactile mosaic mesh of the TV image compels so much active participation on the part of the viewer that he develops a nostalgia for pre-consumer ways and days. That was definitely before 1968, and even so in the USA that was definitely an idealized vision before 1968: television became the first communicational manipulator with Kennedy's campaign, just the same way the radio became the first communicational manipulator in its days with Roosevelt's campaigns and Fireside Chats. The extension of the sense of touch or sense interplay that even more intimately involves the entire sensorium. Television is an all-sensorial medium because the viewer can take no distance in the reception of the message. Television is a classroom without walls. It is a cool medium that requires in depth involvement. It is producer-oriented. The viewer is the screen. The TV image is low in data ceaselessly forming contours of things limned by the scanting finger.
The TV image requires at each instant for us to "close" the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile because tactility is the interplay of the senses rather than the isolated contact of skin and object. Synesthesia, unified sense and imaginative life. The homogenization brought by printing was blown into pieces by the arrival of the electric age: all technologies based on the use of electricity. Electric age technologies negate space and time, bring an instantaneous and universal flow of news and information, and reversal to aural communication. TV images require the involvement and participation of the viewer because of their low definition. They are centered on the process more than the product, on the reactions of actors to actions with close-up shots of faces and facial expressions. The electric age had so far caused the implosion and contraction of reality inter-personally and inter-nationally leading to the fragmentation of society and the world. The TV image furthered this implosion by developing it intra-personally and intra-sensuously bringing to life all the senses simultaneously inside the viewer.
TV image is a mosaic of dots bombarding our sensorial screen. This mosaic is NOT uniform, continuous and repetitive, BUT it is discontinuous, skew, non lineal and tactual (total synesthesia, all senses implied and activated).
ELECTRONIC MAN IN ELECTRIC AGE
"Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer. In this role, electronic man is no less a nomad than his Paleolithic ancestors" (283)
But this nomad walks, runs, stampedes even in an infinite and timeless virtual space at the tips of his own fingers on a keyboard that works linguistically and iconically, or at the tip of both his hand and his fingers on a mouse, touchpad or tactile screen in kinesthetic contact with menus and icons, the food of these menus being information and various processors that can deal with this information to produce new knowledge that can be then brought to the common table of ou knowledge society.
"Radio was released from . . . centralist network pressures by TV. TV then took up the burden of centralism, from which it may be released by Telstar. . ." (306)
He obviously missed the future. The Internet based on computers, smart phones, tablets, etc. is turning the whole world into a global village for sure BUT with the help of personae a person can become a member of global networks that will not cross, if so the person wants. That person can be a member of social network A as Mr. Wilson, of social network B as Mrs Adams, of social network C as the teenager Bill or Sarah, of social network D as the famous Brad Pitt, etc, and at the same time he can be himself on a gay network, whether he is gay or not does not matter: on an academic network, whether he is an academic or not is not that important since he can invent and independent academic profile; on a music (which music?) network, as a musician, a music lover, a composer or whatever he is, craves to become or simply whatever he likes as for music; on a political network of his choice and he does not matter he agrees or not with the ideas of this network. Only the networks on which he has the same identity may eventually cross, but not necessarily, and that identity might only be a persona. The practice of pen names, pseudonyms, avatars, etc. makes it at times difficult to know who is who.
In other words McLuhan had the right idea but he did not know how it was going to be done. As for what he says about the political use of radio by people like Hitler, he missed an essential point: what changed the whole 1930s was not only the radio, but the invention and development of the microphone and of amplification with loudspeakers in the 1920s without which there is no radio. That enabled mass meetings and all political forces used this new possibility, though those who used it best got the upper hand: the nazis and the fascists, the stalinists and the communists, at least for a while. In the USA Roosevelt was the great beneficiary of that new technology with his "Fireside Chats."
But McLuhan missed another point: in those days collective listening to the radio was essential, up to TV that took over that function in the family. But radios in bars, cafés, restaurants, and other public places were an essential tool for music and it made jazz, for one example, into a popular music, and not only en entertainment. Radio is still a media that often identifies itself by the music they broadcast. And that has become global with Internet radios.
He also missed the complete failure of radio as a pedagogical tool in schools, just like TV later on. But that has changed or is in the process of changing with the Internet which meets with great success within schools, around schools, outside schools, and on this virtual medium, radios and TV stations have become extremely important for education. I am thinking of UCTV (University of California TV) and that is only one example.
In fact he has a point but did not know yet: radio, TV and Internet are perfect for education but personal, individualized, self-education, for a school/university project or not. Didactic virtual products are more and more commercially profitable. Amazon is buying businesses in that field to diversity its offer because there is a demand. The main point he could not know is that such pedagogical tools are effective and attractive if there is a follow-up possibility by some "teacher" for the students. But one thing is absolutely sure today: the computer necessarily with the Internet and all its potential is here to stay and develop within the class, around the class and outside the class. Teaching at any level without that tool is just unimaginable. The village has become even smaller today but he was wrong education is not civil defense against the media fallout. Education has become a direct and intense field of media application. Only reactionary dull minds can today dream of education without a computer-cum-Internet.
Meditate the following public release concerning that very point.
SEATTLE-(BUSINESS WIRE)-Oct. 10, 2013- Amazon.com, Inc. today announced that it has reached an agreement to acquire TenMarks, a company that is helping teachers and parents deliver innovative mathematics curriculum to students across the country.
"Amazon and TenMarks share the same passion for student learning. TenMarks's award-winning math programs have been used by tens of thousands of schools and Amazon engages with millions of students around the world through our Kindle ecosystem," said Dave Limp, Vice President, Amazon Kindle. "Together, Amazon and TenMarks intend to develop rich educational content and applications, across multiple platforms, that we think teachers, parents and students will love."
"Amazon and TenMarks share a commitment to developing easy-to-implement solutions for schools and families," said Rohit Agarwal, TenMarks co-founder. "We currently offer teachers, students and parents access to effective resources to foster the vision of the Common Core curriculum in math, including scalable professional development and tools for connecting with parents. We back this belief with our business model, where teachers can register and access our product for free, while being able to opt in for premium features, if needed. Going forward, we believe Amazon and TenMarks will create significant innovations in the K-12 arena."
"I've used TenMarks for the past two years at Grand View with fourth and fifth grade students to help a diverse group of students achieve in math and take ownership of their own learning," said Sujata Bhatt, founder of the Incubator School and a National Board Certified teacher who spent 11 years at Grand View Boulevard Elementary in Los Angeles Unified School District. "As we launch the Incubator School this year, we focus on technology that truly activates learning and self-starting. TenMarks's products are designed to enable both students and teachers to be in the driver's seat by seeing where they're successful and where they need to revisit. TenMarks is an important part of our math plan this year."
TenMarks offers personalized online math instruction and practice in a clear, manageable format for K-12 students complete with helpful hints, video lessons, and real-time results. TenMarks's products are designed to help students be individually motivated, engaged and nurtured.
We can see that McLuhan is right about Professor Paul Lazarsfeld's misunderstanding of the radio, but he is not right when he does not see that TV and what he calls "Telstar" and will be the Internet twenty years later, are NOT a danger, tribal or not, but an essential tool for the development of education and individual responsibility and initiative in that field with a multiplication of networked references and allegiances for everyone who wants, and how can anyone refuse that new existence that makes all "archaic memories, forces and animosities" obsolete. All electronic media bring to the world the first chance it has to manage its problems without the use of warfare. But there is no diplomacy if the differences between the participants are not recognized and accepted. Electronic media are thus not doomed to homogenize the world into violence (radio) or anesthesia (television) but are making the world finally tolerant and not nonchalant, and the road is still long ahead of us to come close to a full realization of this objective. Marshall McLuhan did not live long enough to know that the Cold War was to end.
"The TV child cannot see ahead because he wants involvement and he cannot accept a fragmentary and merely visualized goal or destiny in learning or in life." (335)
At this moment we know the book was written before the next stage of the electric age, the Internet today reaching the 4G smart phone and tablet stage. Space and time have not been destroyed and TV images today are closer and closer to cinema images in definition. The DVD revolution and the Internet are enabling all films to be watched on a TV screen and plasma screens can reach High Definition while Bluray discs go the same way, on screens that are bigger and bigger with always better sound coming close to the cinema under the pompous name of Home Cinema. We will have to question the future and see if the sense of passing time, hence past and future have really disappeared from the minds of new generations. Have we returned to a simple feeling of duration? But why are young people always checking the time on their smart phones?
But the main shortcoming is very clear here. He does not wonder what human needs and mental development brought this electric age and within this electric age these particular inventions. They could not be avoided. The discovery and mastery of electricity brought a completely new energy that could be produced, stored, transported and distributed artificially and not recuperated from the universe, though it all started like that with Benjamin Franklin. Actually this electricity can be produced with all kinds of "fuel" via turbines that can be activated by water (hydraulic power), or the wind (wind mills) or steam (produced from heat), or via some chemical electric or nuclear reaction that produces heat to generate steam and electricity with a turbine, or photovoltaic electricity.
McLuhan thus does not answer the phylogenic question about what produced these inventions, where this human inventiveness comes from, what the meaning of this need to invent is, and many other questions of that sort. That is why the resistance of teachers and schools against radio, television, then computers and calculators, and now the Internet and smart phones or tablets, is vain: these inventions satisfy a deep need in humanity as a whole and each human individual in particular. If we want to educate the new generations we have to wonder how we can make them literate as users of these inventions with the objective of training them into collecting knowledge that is useful for them, as fast as possible and as sustainably (which include durability) as possible, knowledge that would make them responsible members of the knowledge society and economy that are emerging from our present.
Just as we taught people how to read and reckon we have today to teach people how to navigate on the Internet, search for, collect and process knowledge in order to share it with others with the purpose of producing added value that could bring some wealth to our society endowed with fully recognized and guaranteed diversity.
"For caste and class are techniques of social slow-down that tend to create the stasis of tribal societies. Today we appear to be poised between two ages - one of detribalization and one of retribalization." (344)
He seems to reduce these social historical categories that caste and class are to a single reading that becomes mechanical. Caste was and is also a way to promote a certain social productivity and welfare just the same way slavery was also that in the Roman empire or in Greece, even if it was barbaric in many ways, but Julius Caesar's main advisor was a slave. The point is these castes, like slavery, at one point in history, get in contradiction with the economic and historical development of human society. Then it becomes a slow-down obstacle. Class is in a way the same kind of social historical element that enabled society to slowly evolve and progress after slavery, under feudalism and then industrialism. In fact these classes have gotten today in contradiction with the economic and historical development of society and it will be replaced by a different hierarchy that will reflect and enable human and social progress, till that new social hierarchy becomes obsolete and blocking and has to be replaced by another. There cannot be any social, human, cultural progress if there is not a dynamic that comes from such a hierarchy. Marshall McLuhan here represents the way progressive intellectuals thought during the Cold War, when mythical ends of history were still pregnant, like the Marxist vision of a classless society, the Christian vision of a messianic Jerusalem, and still to come, though more sophisticated because after the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama's vision of the end of history in the finally achieved liberation of all individuals in a society based on the rule of Law, and of course the Singularity popular-science-fiction of Ray Kurzweil, a sort of robotized messianic Jerusalem.
"Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of knowledge, nomadic as never before, informed as never before, free from fragmentary specialism as never before - but also involved in the total social process as never before, since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly, interrelating every human experience." (358)
He only misses one element to reach knowledge society and knowledge economy: the virtuality of this knowledge gathering that has to be both giving and receiving, that has to be an exchange and a cooperation, collaboration, sharing. That's where his approach falters: the future will have to be built on both individualistic knowledge gathering and personal progress on one hand, and collective sharing and cooperation both locally and globally on the other hand, which means the absolute necessity to search for and bring together the widest diversity possible on any issue, in any place and at any time. It is that knowledge society that will enable everyone to progress and history to go on along lines of contradictions and even conflicts that will no longer be at the social or economic level of castes, classes and other categories of that type, but more and more different approaches of different knowledge that will have to be brought together in some kind of collaboration and exchange. Not to speak of possible conflicts within the conquest of space or with other intelligent civilizations that we have not met yet.
To conclude we could say that Marshall McLuhan has to be studied in depth because all other schools that have approached the media, particularly today's mass media, have only considered the direct effects of the content of the media on the minds of people particularly in the form of political campaigning, and its effectiveness, and propaganda, naturally condemned as anti-democratic.
McLuhan considers the media itself first, not the message, may shape and format our minds and thoughts and he has an important point there.
But we have to consider this field of research from a phylogenic point of view because if we do not understand the phylogeny of communication, and today's mass communication, we cannot in anyway have the slightest influence on the psychogenesis of the same in the individual from his/her conception to his/her death. There is a lot to do in that perspective. How can we make our younger generations literate with our virtual mass-communications and how can we make our older generations catch up and alleviate their handicap?
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU