Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message argues that ‘electronic circuity’ -or a new age of mass communication technologies – has, is, and will, radically transform social and political relations in unpredictable and profound ways (McLuhan, 8). McLuhan’s seminal work contends that society is miserably unprepared for these seemingly rapid transformations.
McLuhan adopts an insightful definition of ‘technology’, arguing that every medium which produces meaning – such as alphabets or books – are an intense extension of human senses (McLuhan, 26). He parallels his predictions for the telecommunications revolution to the transformative consequences on human relations to the advent of the printing press; McLuhan argues that the mass production of the written word led to the establishment of fundamental institutions in Western society such as Armies and bureaucracies (McLuhan pp. 48-50). For McLuhan, media ‘works’ our senses to the extreme so that how we perceive the world through certain media becomes more significant than the content that is supposedly being perceived (McLuhan, 26). Furthermore, the basis of rationality in Western institutions and ‘men’ are, according to him, liable to change as the ‘ratio’ of our senses to their engineered/technological amplification of changes (McLuhan, pp. 41, 45). McLuhan argues that the sensory amplification provided by new electronic technologies are bringing human consumption of information back to a kind of pre-alphabet acoustic ‘State of Nature’ in which time and space are no longer salient categories (McLuhan, 48).
In terms of transforming social relations, McLuhan argues that electronic technologies such as television create ‘masses’ or passive recipients of information, and which captivate publics in common experiences and creates a ‘Global Village’ (McLuhan pp. 22, 63, 68).
McLuhan’s warnings of these times of radical change in some ways seem to not be borne out by history, but, in my view, many also speak to current concerns over telecommunications in the 21st century. For example, he asks “When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?” perhaps alluding to the concern that increased technology and mechanization will displace human labour (McLuhan 20). It is curious that McLuhan did not predict the rise of the Public Relations Industry which help the powers that be (political parties, multinationals, the corporate media etc) to harness the power of telecommunications for their own interests. However, his remarks on “tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance” and that “one big gossip column” of “computerized dossier banks” (McLuhan, 12) which threaten privacy rights could easily fit into contemporary debates over mass surveillance of the internet.
McLuhan seems to be claiming that the telecommunications revolution may lead to upheavals in the broader social order. Here is the principal concern with The Medium is The Message. It seems that McLuhan’s prescriptions for the potentially transformative (or disruptive) power of new communications technologies are akin to the early hopes that the Internet could be a force for radical democratization of information. I wonder if McLuhan’s predictions for radical transformations may be perhaps a bit exaggerated. Like the internet, various forms of telecommunications have become tools for social movements, multinational corporations, States, armies, and other social actors. However, it is not at all clear to me that the ideologies of these actors, their respective hegemonic or marginal influences, or the balance of power between them has been radically altered by the technologies themselves. McLuhan’s main point that our comprehension of these technologies’ revolutionary impacts on our perceptions are painfully limited still stands; the medium is no doubt the message. Inversely though, is the message always the medium? The main tenets of the global social, economic, and political order (and the social meanings which these are founded on and produce) of McLuhan’s time (forces such as settler colonialism, militarism, or market capitalism) still seem to be intact.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Message. Corte Madera: Gingko Press, 2001. Print.