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Webs and whirligigs: Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours

He can’t be reduced to a handful of pithy quotes, but McLuhan has something to say about our new world of frayed ends rather than neat endings.

Thursday, July 21, would have been the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist who was one of the most influential — or at least one of the most quoted — media thinkers of the 20th century. (And certainly the only one to feature, memorably, in Annie Hall.) To celebrate, we’re having a mini McLuhan Week here at the Lab. To kick us off, here’s our own Megan Garber.

Marshall McLuhan is best known — and to some extent exclusively known — for a maxim: “The medium is the message.” This is mostly unfortunate. McLuhan was the author of several books of varying forms, a pioneering intellectual celebrity, and the founder of a field; five words, plump and alliterative though they may be, are wildly inadequate. But McLuhan had, in his way, a sense of humor, and appreciated as much as anyone the absurdity of his own meta-maxim (M.M. = (M=M)), and ended up feeding and fighting his own reductive celebrity in pretty much equal measure. A lover of poetry, probes, and extremely bad puns, he named one of his later books The Medium Is the Massage.

Today, 100 years after his birth and nearly 50 after he gave us language that made “media” into a thing, McLuhan is a Media Guru of the first order, which is to say that he is often quoted and rarely read. (The second-most-famous McLuhanism: “You know nothing of my work!”) When he died in late 1980, obituaries remembered him, with no apparent irony, as the “apostle of the electronic age.” But what will he be for the digital? Do his insights, focused as they were on the vagaries of television, apply equally well to the brave new world of bytes and bits?

For all the “visionary” status we confer on him today, it’s worth remembering that McLuhan was constrained by his time as much as we are to our own: He wrote not just about Tribal Man and Graphic Man, about the cultural and cognitive effects of communication as they sweep the span of human history, but also about jukeboxes and miniskirts and magazines and hosiery. Women, to him, were pretty much accessories. And his thinking (to repeat: Tribal Man) was pretty much implicitly paternalistic. When he talked about a “global village” — another maybe-claim to web-visionary fame — he wasn’t talking about a world community where New Yorkers go jeans-shopping with Londoners and Guineans share sugar with Laotians and everyone finally meets at a communal table to sip artisanal tea and discuss newly localized world events; he was talking about an encroaching dystopia that renders Tribal Man — or, more accurately, re-tribalized humanity — increasingly connected to, and yet actually disconnected from, itself via the barely-contained buzz of electric wires. A global village, McLuhan feared, was one that would be populated by automatons.

But writing, as it filled us with notions of our own narrative nobility, inspired in us something else, too: a need — a desire, an impulse — for containment.

“What if he is right”? Tom Wolfe asked, ominously. “What…if…he…is…right”?

And: He was right, about not everything but a lot, which is why today he is a Media Guru and a YouTube sensation and a ubiquitous subject of biographies both cheeky and earnest and a fixture of culture both nerd and pop, which are increasingly the same thing. He is the patron saint of Wired. Today, as the “electronic” age zips and zaps into the digital, as we are spun by the centrifugal forces of a nascent revolution that we can’t fully perceive because we’re the ones doing the spinning, McLuhan’s theories seem epic and urgent and obvious all at the same time. And McLuhan himself — the teacher, the thinker, the darling of the media he both measured and mocked — seems both more relevant, and less so, than ever before.

More, because, as the tale goes, McLuhan pretty much foresaw this whole Internet business. But less, too, because whatever foreseeing he did arrived, as foresight tends to, prematurely. In the ’60s, at the height of his fame, McLuhan’s ideas were thrilling and shocking and, more generously, radical. Fifty years later, tempered by time, those same ideas have coalesced into conventionality (less generously: cliché). “The medium is the message” has been used to describe everything from cars to computers. I’m pretty sure I remember Bart Simpson writing it on a blackboard. McLuhan, controversial in his own time, has mainstreamed; the basic tenets of his thought — to the extent that his “thought,” an impressionistic assemblage of ideas that sweep and swoop and sometimes snap with self-contradiction, is a unit in the first place — have been, basically, accepted. We shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us. Yeah, definitely. But…now what?

McLuhan wasn’t a journalistic thinker; he was a media theorist, and is most interesting when he’s talking not about the news itself, but about more theory-y things — modes and nodes and all the rest. (Though: If you want a treat, check out The Mechanical Bride, the collection of essays that formed his first book and that feature McLuhan before he became, fully, McLuhan — McLuhan not as an enigmatic intellect so much as a classic critic, trenchant and crotchety and indignant and delightful.) One feature of McLuhan’s thought that is newly relevant, though — to the world of the web, and to the new forms of journalism that live within it — is the one that is both core and corollary to the medium is the message: the basic tenet that our communications tools aren’t actually tools at all, but forces that disrupt culture by way of cognition. And vice versa.

Before print came along, McLuhan argues, we were, as a species, “ear-oriented”: Human culture was oral culture, with everything — community, ephemerality, memory — that that implies. Print changed all that, pretty much: It changed us, certainly — cultural evolution can take place approximately 1.5 million times faster than genetic evolution can — by imbuing in us a newly “graphic” orientation. Which brought with it literacy, which brought with it the easy outsourcing of memory, which brought with it an increased, if not wholly novel, notion of human individuality. Print captured and conjured the world at the same time, giving us a new kind of power over our environment that was almost — almost — mystical. Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, was also the god of magic.

Online, the wonder of the whirligig — the cheerful circuity of oral culture — is returning to us, and we to it.

But writing, as it filled us with notions of our own narrative nobility, inspired in us something else, too: a need — a desire, an impulse — for containment. With print’s easy ubiquity, the default tumult of oral culture gave way to something more linear, more ordered — something that aspired to a sense of completeness. Communicating became not so much about interpreting the world as about capturing it.

And — here’s where things get especially relevant for our purposes — the media (“media,” now, in the daily-journalism sense) have been key agents of that shift. What journalism has been as much as anything else, on the mass-and-macro level of culture, is a collective attempt to commodify time. Not just in its staccatoed stories of human events, but in its measurements and mechanics: the daily paper. The weekly magazine. The nightly news. “The Epiphanator,” Paul Ford has called it. So journalism, for everything else it has done, has also carved out a social space — the newshole, the object that results when you attempt to stanch the flood of history with a beanbag — from the stretches of time. The newshole has been the graphic-man version of Mumford’s clock, a revolution in words and images and increments, implying if not imposing human agency, ticking and tocking to the beat of human events.

And the sense it has engendered of time as an episodic thing has translated, as well, to the content of journalism. Stories, in short, have endings. And they have beginnings. That is, in fact, what makes them stories. A Mumfordian media is one that is composed of a series of episodes, modular events that can be figured and configured and then reconfigured for our narrative needs. Frank Kermode looked at the sweep of literary history and saw within it a pattern of “end-determined fictions” — stories that were defined by arbitration and apocalypse and, overall, “the sense of an ending”; the kind of structural eschatology he describes, though, isn’t limited to literature. Nonfiction stories, too, have been defined by the sense — actually, the assumption — of an ending.

But! The web. The web, with its feeds and flows and rivers and streams. The web, which has endowed us with — and the phrase is, of course, telling — “real time.” Online, publishing schedules (and, increasingly, broadcasting schedules), byproducts of the industrial world, are increasingly out of place. Online, we are time-shifters. Online, the wonder of the whirligig — the cheerful circuity of oral culture — is returning to us, and we to it. The Gutenberg Parenthesis is quickly closing. The web is de-incrementalizing history. “Real time” is real precisely because it is timeless. It lacks a schedule. It is incessant.

And so are our media, made newly social. Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and all the rest swim with time’s flow, rather than attempting to stanch it. And they are, despite that but mostly because of it, increasingly defining our journalism. They are also, as it were, McLuhanesque. (Google+: extension of man.) Because if McLuhan is to be believed, the much-discussed and often-assumed human need for narrative — or, at least, our need for narrative that has explicit beginnings and endings — may be contingent. Which means that as conditions change, so may — so will — we. We may evolve past our need, in other words, for containment, for conclusions, for answers.

McLuhan’s vision is, finally, of a world of frayed ends rather than neat endings, one in which stock dissolves into flow — a media environment, which is to say simply an environment, in which all that is solid melts…and then, finally, floods. And for journalism and journalists, of course, that represents a tension of rather epic, and certainly existential, dimensions. Paul Ford:

We’ll still need professionals to organize the events of the world into narratives, and our story-craving brains will still need the narrative hooks, the cold opens, the dramatic climaxes, and that all-important “■” to help us make sense of the great glut of recent history that is dumped over us every morning. No matter what comes along streams, feeds, and walls, we will still have need of an ending.

To which McLuhan whispers, ominously: “No, Paul, no. No, we may not….”

Images by Leo Reynolds and Phil Hollman used under a Creative Commons license.

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