McLuhan Reconsidered

by Jim Andrews

Woman With Network by Marcy Burt Butz

Table Of Contents

A technologically determinist vision of history?

Technologies as extensions of ourselves

Orality and Literacy

The scale and form of human association


Money as a technology

McLuhan's Humanism


Web Links to McLuhan

Does the drop of metal shine
like a syllable in my song?

Pablo Neruda
The Book of Questions


A technologically determinist vision of history?

Marshall McLuhan's lasting contribution is his vision of the ways in which history and culture and individuals are modified and, to some extent, determined by technology. His work will continue to be discussed and debated, dismissed and praised because of the ongoing need to consider not just the influence of technology upon society but also upon individuals and their habitual modes of perception. Consider a characterisation by James J. O'Donnell of the work of McLuhan and some of his colleagues:

"...those who offer technologically determinist analyses of the history of western cultures--the Havelocks, Ongs, McLuhans, and their followers--remain marginalized.... The determinists see culture as a series of behaviours determined by the powers and limits of each generation's "hardware", that is, the technologies of communication..."[1]

There is only one McLuhan, one Havelock, one Ong: the audience O'Donnell had in mind seems to have occasioned this remark from him, for he is otherwise open to the arguments of the so-called "determinists." Is he accurate in saying that McLuhan "offers a technologically determinist analysis of the history of western cultures"? The short answer is that McLuhan was concerned with exploring the ways in which culture and history are determined by technology, not the ways in which they aren't; he may have overstated his case, but has posed interesting questions.


Technologies as extensions of ourselves

McLuhan's famous remark that "The medium is the message" is typical of his overstatements. I interpret the rhetorical intent of the slogan as an attempt to correct an imbalance. If there's a great weight on a fulcrum and you want to displace the dead weight toward the centre, you must apply considerable force from the extreme end. It was McLuhan's misfortune to have been successful enough to displace the rock onto the top of his head.

Previous to McLuhan, we had not thought of technologies as extensions of ourselves. The car can be thought of as an extension of the body. Electronic communication systems extend our senses of sight and sound toward the creation of the global village just as our sense of sight is extended to the scales of the very small and large by the microscope and telescope. The book can be thought of as an extension of the mind and memory; we do not have to remember everything but, rather, may re-member knowledge to us by way of the book. This allows us to develop extended runs of ingenuity that would be unthinkable were we required to remember the entire sequence at once. Moreover, the language need not be expressed in mnemonics of rhyme, metre, and tone necessary for extended recall. Language, no longer under these particular constraints of human memory, becomes more analytical.

In oral cultures, song (be it musical or poetic) and ritual is the ink of knowledge. We sing ink songs and laser lullabies. Our culture of youth is more oriented toward the ink of song, the inscription of dress. They are not yet fully indoctrinated into the traditional culture of print. Their favourite knowledge (music) is electric and current, but the way of knowing it represents is ancient [2]. Just as we can view the history of western culture as a movement or maturation toward the depth of analysis possible in print, so is this movement recapitulated in personal development.


Orality and Literacy

In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong even suggests that some well-known theories of personal or cultural development explain changes that are "more cogently" described as "shifts from orality to various stages of literacy":

...shifts hitherto labelled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called 'prelogical' to the more and more 'rational' state of consciousness, or from Levi-Strauss's 'savage' mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy. [3]

McLuhan proposed that technologies are no mere add-ons to who and what we are but, rather, alter us very much as though the technologies really were extensions of us. We had seen, in science fiction, humankind become machine, but McLuhan showed us the contemporary version amid the day to day phenomenon of our mediated, technologized world--though he posed it less as 'humankind become' as 'modified by' the technology.

He drew on the insights of Ong, Havelock, and Parry concerning the noetic (cognitive) differences of perception, memory, and priority that exist between oral and print-based cultures. Their work showed us a fascinating example of how perception, memory, and priorities might be affected by as 'simple' a technology as print so that the story of the technologizing of the word and the world became not a new and frightening one, but a story with a great deal of history to it already. Also, the sorts of cognitive and perceptual differences highlighted by Ong and Havelock between cultures that used different technologies of the mind suggested we might expect similar sorts of dramatic changes (or reversions) in culture as a result of the adoption of new technologies of the mind. Insofar as these technologies provide an environment for types of expression that would otherwise not arise, "the medium is the message." McLuhan, Ong, Havelock and others made us aware of this and it was surely a great

We tend to think of language and money, electronic media, and other technologies as tools, but we tend to discount the degree to which our tools determine who we are and what we do. Language itself is a technology, a "tool" made by people. [4] But the tool draws a circle around the realm of the thinkable beyond which few can negotiate.

McLuhan developed his insights not in the manner of a careful scholar but as one who wished to know how far an insight will stretch. He was not afraid to fail, failure being an inevitable occurrence amid experiment. I agree with O'Donnell that he attempted to develop a "technologically determinist analysis of the history of western cultures." The primary works are The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. These display more direct concern with history than do his later books. His later books are primarily applications of his ideas to the contemporary world, analyses of contemporary media that are informed by his historical vision.


The scale and form of human association

A natural objection to McLuhan's analysis of the history of western cultures is that it displaces people as the chief causes of change. McLuhan's does not appear to be a Humanist vision in that regard, for humanists stress the primacy of humans as the proper focus of attention in such questions, not technology. They seek the causes of history in the texts and social movements of the time, in the political structures, in the global conflicts over basic resources, etc. These sorts of considerations help us understand how we arrived where we are, why we believe what we do, why the national borders are as they are, why the distribution of wealth is as it is, etc. McLuhan's vision of the role of technology in these questions is that it subtly shapes the "environment" in which events occur. Additionally, we are different beings by virtue of the way in which technologies are no mere add-ons to ourselves:

Toynbee considers that although all of the oriental societies have in our time accepted the industrial technology and its political consequences: "On the cultural plane, however, there is no uniform corresponding tendency." This is like the voice of the literate man, floundering in a milieu of ads, who boasts, "Personally, I pay no attention to ads." The spiritual and cultural reservations that the oriental peoples may have toward our technology will avail them not at all. The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. [5]

McLuhan believed that culture is affected by technology via the impact on social structures but also by the ways in which it changes us in a more personal fashion. He believed that "sense ratios or patterns of perception" are altered by technologies. The concept remains rather vague, but I have alluded to the thrust of it in mentioning some of the noetic differences that exist between oral and literate cultures.

So-called "learning styles" describe different emphases in the ways we learn; some people are tactile learners, or visual or auditory learners, etc. According to McLuhan's theory, technologies alter the manner in which we habitually process information, incline us more toward some learning styles than others (depending on the technology).

Technologies can affect our information processing in other ways as well. The role of memory and inferential abilities in an oral culture, for instance, are quite different than in our culture. In our culture, you 'know' poetry when you have read it and have absorbed the atmospheres and can infer something about the political, social, and literary context of the work. Tests at university do not require students to show how well they have memorised the poems. In an oral culture, however, your knowledge of poetry would very much be a matter of how much you could recite. The emphasis in knowledge acquisition tends to be much more literal and the capacity to memorise large amounts of material is essential. These differences between cultures are a direct result of different technologies.

McLuhan and Ong identify the sort of analytical intelligence tested for in IQ tests and demanded in western cultures with literacy. They propose that what we call intelligence is really sophisticated literacy, not a collection of innate, universal qualities of human thought. This is part of the hidden agenda of the word as written symbol; this is part of the subtle message of the medium.

The moulding influence of technology on culture, then, is profound according to McLuhan. It certainly needn't offer a complete explanation to any question we ask, but is far more important a factor than we commonly understand. Technology may not 'determine' culture in many ways (what, of value, is done with it, for instance) but by it's nature and influence on people, technology will "shape and control the scale and form of human association and action."

The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name.... Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the "content" of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that "the medium is the message" because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. (Understanding Media)



Footnotes (Part I)

[1]   A link to O'Donnell's review of Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word.

[2] Here is a curious recording: (if m3u (streaming) audio work for you, or if it doesn't (though the latter URL requires a 25 mb download before you can hear anything)). This is a recording of Marshall McLuhan (warts and all) visiting a High school classroom in Toronto, in conversation with the students. I'm not sure of the date of this recording. Probably late sixties (his book 'Understanding Media' was published in 1964). A friend of mine taped this recording when it appeared on the CBC radio program Ideas back when it was aired, which was probably late sixties or early seventies. It was recorded and edited by Alan Anderson.

[3]   Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, New Accents, 1982, p. 29. An excellent discussion of the cognitive differences that exist between oral and literate cultures. A link to a Google search about Ong's book. Another edition of Ong's book is published by Routledge,1982. ISBN 0-415-02796-9.

[4]   Some argue language is either too collectively constructed or essentially instinctual or sufficiently beyond human construction to properly be called a technology. Others recoil at the idea of thinking 'so mechanistically' about language. It is not necessary, however, to both think of language as a technology and think of language mechanistically (pejorative clunking audio, please).

[5]   Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media.

© 1995 by Jim Andrews