Marshall McLuhan entered my world in 1994 or so, when I first subscribed to Wired magazine while still in high school. I still had a year before I got online, so the bits of the articles that began with "http:.." didn't yet make sense to me. I've been bathing in "medium is the message" talk since I was 16 years old, without quite knowing what it means.
I approached Understanding Media as a sort of founding work, trying to get some sense of what Web 1.0's 1960's patron saint was on about. The book is equal parts frustrating and fascinating, especially at the beginning. Right away I had difficulty with two things: McLuhan's definition of "media" (electric light is given as an example, along with the usual radio, TV, film), and his use of terms like "hot" and "cold" without explanation. Radio is a hot medium, television a cool, one. There's not a lot here to grab hold of, and I still can't quote get my head around what the temperature idea refers to.
The book is essentially a 300 page long series of metaphorical assertions. McLuhan prefaces a large number of them with "it is well-known...", "anyone could tell you...." I quickly had to acclimate to this style.
There are just a few big ideas I've walked away with.
One is the frequently-repeated image of a human nervous system extended out past the skin and body through the use of electronic communications media. The book was written well before the Internet, but the founding rhetoric of the 1990's is all there. McLuhan starts with the idea that telecommunications is a factual expansion of the human nervous system out into the world, and derives a number of metaphors on the calmness of nerves and the farming of perception to corporate interests.
Another is the following of all threads, from a technology to all its implications and outcomes. Bruno Latour used a similar "full hardware stack" approach in Artemis when pointing out that the soft, fleshy, and therefore squeezable-during-rush-hour human body is as much a design feature of public transit systems as the rails and vehicles that carry it. McLuhan focuses on perception and all the senses, showing how all the broadcast and point-to-point media imply different sensual responses, from the tactile clothing of the TV generation to the receptiveness to Hitler's rhetoric via the radio medium. In his mention of abrasiveness, I immediately thought of the "shred" / "grind" terminology in popular culture of the past 15-odd years: is there something about the skate video medium that calls up a sandpaper touch? Do the psychological effects of cocaine, ecstacy, etc. make necessary the highly-pitched fuzz of dance music? Simon Reynolds says much of techno was a functional musical form adapted to serve its physical and pharmacological environment. I don't even know how to begin applying these ideas to our emerging world of little square friends - the thought scares me.
I marked many pages than are excerpted here; McLuhan is a very quotable writer even though much of what's quoted is significant more in the reading than the writing.
Pages 65-66, on the sensitivity of the artist to technological change:
The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has number conscious procedures. He can correct them before numbness and subliminal groping and reaction begin. If this is true, how is it possible to present the matter to those who are in a position to do something about it? If there were even a remote likelihood of this analysis being true, it would warrant a global armistice and period of stock-taking. If it is true that the artist possesses the means of anticipating and avoiding the consequences of technological trauma, then what are we to think of the world and bureaucracy of "art appreciation"? Would it not seem suddenly to be a conspiracy to make the artist a frill, a fribble, or a Milltown? If men were able to be convinced that art is precise knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists?
Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth's atmosphere to a company as a monopoly. Something like this has already happened with outer space, for the same reasons that we have leased our central nervous systems to various corporations. As long as we adopt the Narcissus attitude of regarding the extensions of our own bodies as really out there and really independent of us, we will meet all technological challenges with the same sort of banana-skin pirouette and collapse.
Page 158, on maps:
Prince Modupe tells in his autobiography, I Was A Savage, how he had learned to read maps at school, and how he had taken back home to his village a map of a river his father had traveled for years as a trader:
"...my father thought the whole idea was absurd. He refused to identify the stream he had crossed at Bomako, where it is no deeper, he said, than a man is high, with the great widespread waters of the vast Niger delta. Distances as measured in miles had no meaning for him.... Maps are liars, he told me briefly. From his tone of voice I could tell that I had offended him in some way not known to me at the time. The things that hurt one do not show on a map. ... With my big map-talk, I had effaced the magnitude of his cargo-laden, heat-weighted tracks."
Page 183, on clowns, bicycles, and eggs:
The clown is the integral man who mimes the acrobat in an elaborate drama of incompetence. Beckett sees the bicycle as the sign and symbol of specialist futility in the present electric age, when we must all interact and react, using all out faculties at once.
Humpty-Dumpty is the familiar example of the clown unsuccessfully imitating the acrobat. Just because all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty together again, it doesn't follow that electromagnetic automation couldn't have put Humpty-Dumpty back together. The integral and unified egg had no business sitting on a wall, anyway. Walls are made of uniformly fragmented bricks that arise with specialisms and bureaucracies. They are the deadly enemies of integral beings like eggs. Humpty-Dumpty met the challenge of the wall with a spectacular collapse.
Pages 209-210, on advertising:
The book-oriented man has the illusion that the press would be better without ads and without the pressure from the advertiser. Reader surveys have astonished even publishers with the revelation that the roving eyes of newspaper readers take equal satisfaction in ads and news copy. During the Second War, the U.S.O. sent special issues of the principal American magazines to the Armed Forces, with the ads omitted. The men insisted on having the ads back again. Naturally. The ads are by far the best part of any magazine or newspaper. More pains and thought, more with and art go into the making of an ad that into any prose feature of press or magazine. Ads are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good news.
Page 252, on sensitivity:
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), wealthy and refined member of the powerful new English group engendered by industrial power, began to pick up human-distress signals, as a young lady. They were quite undecipherable at first. They upset her entire way of life, and couldn't be adjusted to her image of parents or friends or suitors. It was sheer genius that enabled her to translate the new diffused anxiety and dread of life into the idea of deep human involvement and hospital reform. She began to think, as well as to live, her time, and she discovered the new formula for the electronic age: Medicare. Care of the body became balm for the nerves in the age that had extended its nervous system outside itself for the first time in human history.
Page 255, on electricity:
Many analysts have been misled by electric media because of the seeming ability of these media to extend man's spatial powers of organization. Electric media, however, abolish the spatial dimension, rather than enlarge it. By electricity, we everywhere resume person-to-person relations as if on the smallest village scale. It is a relation in depth, without delegation of functions or powers. The organic everywhere supplants the mechanical. Dialogue supersedes the lecture. The greatest dignitaries hobnob with youth.
Page 277, on Edison and indirectness:
Edison became aware of the limits of lineality and the sterility of specialism as soon as he entered the electric field. "Look," he said, "it's like this. I start here with the intention of reaching here in an experiment, say, to increase the speed of the Atlantic cable; but when I've arrived part way in my straight line, I meet with a phenomenon, and it leads me off in another direction and develops into a phonograph."
Page 294, on expectations:
Since the best way to get to the core of a form is to study its effect in some unfamiliar setting, let us note what President Sukarno of Indonesia announced in 1956 to a large group of Hollywood executives. He said that he regarded them as political radicals and revolutionaries who had greatly hastened political change in the East. What the Orient saw in a Hollywood movie was a world in which all the ordinary people had cars and electric stoves and refrigerators. So the Oriental now regards himself as an ordinary person who has been deprived of the ordinary man's birthright.
That is another way of getting a view of the film medium as monster ad for consumer goods. In America this major aspect of film is merely subliminal. Far from regarding our pictures as incentives to mayhem and revolution, we take them as solace and compensation, or as a form of deferred payment by daydreaming. But the Oriental is right, and we are wrong about this.
Page 298, a poem by Bertold Brecht:
You little box, held to me when escaping / So that your valves should not break, / Carried from house to ship from ship to train, / So that my enemies might go on talking to me / Near my bed, to my pain / The last thing at night, the first thing in the morning, / Of their victories and my cares, / Promise me not to go silent all of a sudden.
Pages 315-316, on tribal magic:
German Romantic poets and philosophers had been chanting in tribal chorus for a return to the dark unconscious for over a century before radio and Hitler made such a return difficult to avoid. What is to be thought of people who wish such a return to preliterate ways, when they have no inkling of how the civilized visual way was ever substituted for tribal auditory magic?
Page 327, on tactile television:
So avid is the TV viewer for rich tactile effects that he could be counted on to revert to skis. The wheel, so far as he is concerned, lacks the requisite abrasiveness.
Clothes in this first TV decade repeat the same story as vehicles. The revolution was heralded by bobby-soxers who dumped the whole cargo of visual effects for a set of tactile ones so extreme as to create a dead level of flat-footed dead-panism. Part of the cool dimension of TV is the cool, deadpan mug that came in with the teenager.
Page 339, possible origin for the brand name "Nerf"?
The French phrase "guerre des nerfs" of twenty-five years ago has since come to be referred to as "the cold war". It is really an electric battle of information and of images that goes far deeper and is more obsessional than the old hot wars of industrial hardware. The "hot" wars of the past used weapons that knocked off the enemy, one by one. ... Electric persuasion by photo and movie and TV works, instead, by dunking entire populations in new imagery.
Page 356, on automation, feedback, and customization:
On this machine, starting with lengths of ordinary pipe, it is possible to make eighty different kinds of tailpipe in succession, as rapidly, as easily, and as cheaply as it is to make eighty of the same kind. And the characteristic of electric automation is all in this direction of return to the general-purpose handicraft flexibility that our own hands possess. The programming can now include endless changes of program. It is the electric feedback, or dialogue pattern, of the automatic and computer-programmed "machine" that marks it off from the older mechanical principle of one-way movement.