Marshall McLuhan — Prophet of the Internet

Everyone assumes that a tool is just a tool and that’s that. You use it to fulfill a certain function, to assist in a task which the human body could not complete on its own. Tools act as extensions of our body and communications technologies are tools which are extensions of our central nervous system, helping us transmit thoughts, ideas, and gain a greater awareness of things outside of our immediate experience. Language itself is an extraordinary tool which has had a profound impact on the development of our human consciousness although, it seems we don’t really think too much about the impact that tools we use to communicate our language have on our consciousness.

A communications theorist and philosopher by the name of Marshall McLuhan was first to truly realize the impact of the tools themselves apart from the function they perform. He analyzed media in relation to awareness and the senses which certain tools or mediums demanded of the media consumer. This was a revolutionary way of looking at communications because, up until McLuhan, everyone was discussing the media’s effect in relation to the content’s message. During the rise of electronic media such as radio and television, people debated the implications of the spreading of mass messages. Did TV have a negative effect from its broadcasting of vulgar and violent programs, or did it have an enlightening effect because of the informative news outlets and nature documentaries? McLuhan argued that the effect of the media’s content is trivial compared to the effect of the medium in which the content is being delivered. The medium is what really makes the difference because of the awareness which it conditions. Watching a TV program is a much different experience than reading a book, it requires the participation of different senses, and therefore molds perception and changes sensory ratios.

McLuhan’s focus on the sensory perception was the core interest which underlined all of his theories on the effects of media. He viewed all media as an extension of the central nervous system. He saw that the invention of the alphabet caused an intensification of the visual sense as it is relative to auditory sense from the previous form of communication which was spoken word. The shifting priority of senses due to the mediums had an immeasurably powerful effect on society and the way reality is viewed. This is the main idea behind his popular aphorism “the medium is the message”.

McLuhan thought that the development of civilization could be traced to the unconscious biases of the different mediums of communication at a given point in history. What he called the “Acoustic Age” is a time in history in which humans could only communicate through direct speech and the auditory sense. McLuhan said that, “Until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion…”. The “Writing Age” then introduced the ability for people to detach themselves from their thoughts as it allowed them to be written down and understood by another person without the author being present. This in turn created bureaucracy and power reaching over a large geographical area. For McLuhan the writing age was the central metaphor for civilization. The “Printing Age” which followed was an intensification of this, which not only reinforced civilization but created the model for industry and mass production as it introduced the first uniformly repeatable commodity. The idea of interchangeable parts for mass production came from the interchangeability of letters in a printer’s block.

McLuhan saw that the introduction of new communication technologies ushers in novel historical, societal paradigms. In his fourth paradigmatic model the “Electronic Age” McLuhan explains the idea of the “Global Village” which referred to the “retribalizing” of the social and psychic awareness. The high speed media technologies provided masses of people with a real-time experience of events that were happening on the other side of the planet. This experience or awareness is similar to the real-time, immediate awareness of the events within in a village. The idea of “Global Village” expresses many of the same ideas as globalization, a prominent topic since the introduction of the internet.

McLuhan’s investigation into the history of communications from an anthropological perspective is what, I believe, allowed him to predict our current media environment so accurately. He was able to predict the Internet nearly 30 years before its arrival. He wrote in 1962 “The next medium, whatever it is — it may be the extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” Translated to account for modern day internet lingo this description is hauntingly accurate. McLuhan not only foresaw the Internet but also Globalization and its compression of space and time, a very prominent topic today. For a philosopher as visionary as McLuhan it’s unfortunate that his insights were not thoroughly understood or realized by the general public and have consequently been lost. It may be that McLuhan’s ideas required people to think in a completely different way. His insights too profound to be easily digested. As he put it himself, “Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity”.