On his 100th birthday, a reappraisal of Marshall McLuhan’s prophecies
Marshall McLuhan would have turned 100 years old on 21 July 2011. His centenary is a good occasion to revisit the work of a thinker who put big philosophical ideas into tiny rhetorical packages, sealed with pop culture. Academia meets advertising in many of his slogans, from ‘the medium is the message’ to ‘art is anything you can get away with’.
Some of McLuhan’s prophecies from the 1960s turned out to be incorrect. Teachers never became the largest employee group in the US. Television works well running in the background, despite his claim that the medium requires in-depth participation. His distinction between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media – respectively, media that engage one bodily sense, like radio, and those that engage many senses, like TV – seems irrelevant. Is a laptop hot or cool? Any smartphone – a telephone plus typewriter, radio, clock, stereo, camera, games console, screen and more – is a lukewarm combination of the media that McLuhan once divided into hot and cool categories.
But McLuhan’s successes outnumber his duds. While he linked computers to quaint-sounding sci-fi terms like ‘automation’, ‘servomechanism’ and ‘electromagnetism’, computers were rudimentary in his lifetime (McLuhan died in 1980, more than a decade before the Internet became an everyday reality). What he called the ‘electric’ age of information replaced the mechanical age of industrialization. For McLuhan, mechanics – from the printing press to the factory assembly line – were fragmented, individualized and sequential, while electronics brought unity, interrelated processes and synchronicity because electricity allows experiences to be independent in space and simultaneous in time. McLuhan cited mass media entertainment; a TV programme filmed in one place can be seen by many viewers all over. Twitter also fits the bill.
Ultimately, the electric age of information created a ‘global network’ comparable to the human central nervous system: the world as a single unified field of experience. If you replace his ‘electric’ with ‘digital’, this network sounds like the web (‘surfing’ is another McLuhanism). While often celebrating the information age, he noted its dangers, too. The Medium is the Massage (1967; a centenary edition is published this year by Gingko Press and Penguin in the UK), his collaboration with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel, links the word ‘you’ with the ‘electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of “mistakes”.’ That sounds like the total recall of Google or Facebook, where stray blog comments or wild party pics can result in a job dismissal.
In McLuhan’s world, art fulfills a special role: aestheticizing the past and anticipating the future. This unique temporal polarization is clearest in his undated preface to the second edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). What he calls an older ‘environment’ is elevated to an art form when a new environment comes along. As the machine first allowed nature to be appreciated aesthetically, the new information environment gives aesthetic value to the old mechanical environment. Indeed, digitization is wiping out analogue technologies – an extinction that might revive mechanical arts and crafts like printing and darkroom photographic development, if not fuel a desire for art works done without the click of a mouse. It certainly explains why old 35mm film projectors are often used instead of new video projectors and why many artists and curators are taking a second look at television.
Looking to the future, McLuhan likened the arts to ‘an early alarm system’ that shows us how to cope with new environments before they arrive. For him, art is not self-expressive but prophetic and even pedagogical. By extension, he thought it ‘ludicrous and snobbish’ to offer art as a consumer commodity instead of as a way of training perception. In retrospect, the interactive art works of relational aesthetics from the 1990s do seem like rudimentary forms of chat rooms or social networks, where perfect strangers could meet. Artists used the museum and the artwork to create a connection that would eventually become virtual. Such works challenge the private and purely visual contemplation of art, proper to the mechanical age. For McLuhan, the information age implied in-depth involvement with many senses, especially touch. Already in the 1960s, he believed that young people didn’t want specialized jobs but roles with total participation.
McLuhan privileged not only art but also artists whom he viewed as ideal ‘antisocial’ types: sharpening our perceptions by offering anti-environments or seeing environments as they really are instead of simply accepting them. At the end of Understanding Media, McLuhan argues that automation (read: the computer) frees humans from the specialist servitude of mechanics. Just as cars liberated horses from work and turned animals into entertainment, human beings face a complete and disorientating liberation. ‘This would seem to be a fate that calls men to the role of artist in society’, he wrote, without really elaborating. For McLuhan, everyone suddenly becomes a nomadic gatherer of knowledge, involved in total social processes and instantly relating every human experience. Art may be anything you can get away with, but what you gather and how you share it may be more important.
First published in Issue 140