The 21st July 2011 marks a century since the birth of the founding father of media theory, Marshall McLuhan; and plenty of wise people are offering testaments to his life and work. I recently re-read his seminal 1964 work Understanding Media, and was struck as much by the sheer breadth of its subjects and opinions as by its intellectual energy. Here, then, is my minor tribute, in the form of nine particularly prescient quotations.
On artists and technology – Part One, Chapter One
The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.
On Narcissism and gadgets – Part One, Chapter Four
The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system… the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.
On unprecedented problems – Part Two, Chapter Ten
It is only since the telegraph that information has detached itself from such solid commodities as stone and papyrus, much as money had earlier detached itself from hides, bullion, and metals, and has ended as paper… Our electric extensions of ourselves simply by-pass space and time, and create problems of human involvement and organization for which there is no precedent. We may yet yearn for the simple days of the automobile and the superhighway.
On electric light – Part Two, Chapter Thirteen
Not many ages ago, glass windows were unknown luxuries. With light control by glass came also a means of controlling the regularity of domestic routine, and steady application to crafts and trade without regard to cold or rain. The world was put in a frame. With electric light not only can we carry out the most precise operations with no regard for time or place or climate, but we can photograph the submicroscopic as easily as we can enter the subterranean world of the mine and of the cave-painters… Lighting as an extension of our powers affords the clearest-cut example of how such extensions alter our perceptions. If people are inclined to doubt whether the wheel or typography or the plane could change our habits of sense perception, their doubts end with electric lighting.
On money and information – Part Two, Chapter Fourteen
Today, as the new vortices of power are shaped by the instant electric interdependence of all men on this planet, the visual factor in social organization and in personal experience recedes, and money begins to be less and less a means of storing or exchanging work and skill. Automation, which is electronic, does not represent physical work so much as programmed knowledge. As work is replaced by the sheer movement of information, money as a store of work merges with the informational forms of credit and credit card. From coin to paper currency, and from currency to credit card there is a steady progression toward commercial exchange as the movement of information itself.
On art and the public – Part Two, Chapter Twenty
Perhaps the great revolution produced by photograph was in the traditional arts. The painter could no longer depict a world that had been much photographed. He turned, instead, to reveal the inner process of creativity in expressionism and in abstract art. Likewise, the novelist could no longer describe objects or happenings for readers who already knew what was happening by photo, press, film, and radio. The poet and novelist turned to those inward gestures of the mind by which we achieve insight and by which we make ourselves and our world. Thus art moved from outer matching to inner making. Instead of depicting a world that matched the world we already knew, the artists turned to presenting the creative process for public participation. He has given to us now the means of becoming involved in the making-process. Each development of the electric age attracts, and demands, a high degree of producer-orientation.
On adverts – Part Two, Chapter Twenty-Three
Ads seem to work on the very advanced principle that a small pellet or pattern in a noisy, redundant barrage of repetition will gradually assert itself. Ads push the principle of noise all the way to the plateau of persuasion. They are quite in accord with the procedures of brain-washing.
On games – Part Two, Chapter Twenty-Four
That games are extensions, not of our private but of our social selves, and that they are media of communication, should now be plain. If, finally, we ask, “Are games mass media?” the answer has to be “Yes.” Games are situations contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern of their own corporate lives.
On television, and how to resist it – Part Two, Chapter Thirty-One
Now that we have considered the subliminal force of the TV image in a redundant scattering of samples, the question would seem to arise: “What possible immunity can there be from the subliminal operation of a new medium like television?”… It is the theme of this book that not even the most lucid understanding of the peculiar force of a medium can head off the ordinary “closure” of the senses that causes us to conform to the pattern of experience presented. The utmost purity of mind is no defense against bacteria, though the confreres of Louis Pasteur tossed him out of the medical profession for his base allegations about the invisible operation of bacteria. To resist TV, therefore, one must acquire the antidote of related media like print.
RIP, Marshall McLuhan: 21st July 1911 to 31st December 1980