McLuhan in the Digital Age

One of two posts of academic jargon:

Marshall McLuhan originally wrote Understanding Media in 1964, at the juncture of a new electronic media environment (primarily television) and an older print environment.  Now, with the rapid ascendency of digital technology as the dominant media of our age, his arguments should be re-examined for their application to digital media.  The effects of new digital media strengthen and extend many of Marshall McLuhan’s argumentative probes about the development of media, in particular his arguments about electronic communication, which become more applicable with the rise of digital media like the internet.

One important conclusion of McLuhan’s that helps explain digital media is his argument about the role of media as metaphors or translators of experience.  McLuhan argues that “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (McLuhan, 1964 p. 57) – which rings particularly true with digital/computer technology, which requires the translation of all information into the digits ‘1’ and ‘0’ in binary code that lies at the core of any digital communication device.  Digital technology literally produces a universal language through which all data can be processed as binary.  The role of a programmer in digital media is the role of a translator who builds experiences into a computer language, making those experiences explicit in a new, specialized language.  In this way, digital media fulfills Bryson’s adage that “technology is explicitness” (quoted in McLuhan, 1964 at p. 56), coming to state their content outright in new languages unique to the form.  Perhaps the rise of translation-as-programming as the core of our media culture also explains the popular resurgence of McLuhan’s arguments – the development of a cultural economy that requires an explicit focus on how things are said in a (computer) language logically also raises questions about the role of media in shaping consciousness.  The role of digital communication as explicit translation forms the basis for any other examination of digital media.

The relevance of McLuhan’s argument about metaphors and translation also supports an expansion of his argument about media expansion and implosion.  The creation of a basic digital language (binary) flexible enough to describe an infinite number of possible experiences allows for the reduction of all human interaction to a single media – in essence a total implosion of experience into one media form.  At a point where all aspects of human experience have been touched by technology, digital media extends McLuhan’s argument that “under electric technology the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing” (McLuhan, 1964 p. 58). Nearly all economic or cultural activity is subject to the gaze of digital devices that convert anything from faces at parties to coal mining figures to binary digital code.  Companies that specialize in activities like data mining, management/consulting or any aspect of programming fulfill the prediction that “the amassment of wealth will come to depend on the naming of things rather than the making of things” (Lapham, 1994 p. xv).  All of these activities have to deal with the manipulation of names or information, and derive their profitability from the reduction of all human activity (particularly business activity) to information in digital form, where that activity can be understood as names in a digital language.  McLuhan made a prescient prediction of this collapse of experience into a single, common language with his argument that “The ‘common sense’ was for many centuries held to be the peculiar human power of translating one kind of experience one sense into all the senses… this image of a united ratio among the senses was long held to be the mark of our rationality, and man in the computer age become so again” (McLuhan, 1964 p.60).  The binary language of digital media and the diversity of experience to which it applies itself represents the development of a new sense-in-common, understood through the universal translator of a computer.

McLuhan’s central thesis that the message of any medium is the difference of scale or pace it introduces into human society (McLuhan, 1964 p. 8) has particular relevance for understanding the digital media environment of the internet.  One key way to understand a particular medium is through the number of speakers and doers it allows a voice (Lapham, 1994 p. xiv). The revolutionary qualities of internet communication derive from its introduction of new publishing scale that empowers a huge number of people to publish themselves in a public forum, and to network themselves in communities of interest or purpose.  The internet, and in particular Web 2.0 publishing platforms, creates a (relatively) non-specialist communication environment that lowers entry barriers to self publishing, and encourages intertexual criticism via links, comments and dueling publication.  The internet introduces a new scale of discussion that encourages reflexivity and mutual criticism of individual media texts from any angle a writer desires – knowledge on the internet develops by letting a large number of people contribute their thoughts and work out the errors in others’ in the hopes of creating an authoritative body of knowledge.   It opens a forum for the critical examination of a wide variety of media texts, and gives low cost, low time investment publishers the opportunity to reach a large audience.  The scale of published participation on the internet is perhaps the key to understanding its effects as a medium.

For this reason, the scale of the internet necessarily introduces a new tone and approach to traditional media messages, which are now subject to the mass-reflection via internet publishing.  In order to create a sustainable message in a multivocal and critical media environment, advertisers or other mainstream message makers must introduce a level of irony or reflexive voice into their content which pre-empts at least some of the criticisms leveraged by other authors online. Message makers are required to be ‘smart’ because any number of authors can deconstruct the message in the widely accessible medium of the internet.  This situation expands McLuhan’s argument that “today the action and reaction occur almost at the same time.  We actually live mythically and integrally” (McLuhan, 1964 p. 4) – creative persuasion must integrate a reaction by different web authors when crafting their appeals.   Thus the rise of ‘unadvertising’ appeals made by ‘edgy’ brands like Sprite, and the creation of self-reflexive TV shows like ’30 Rock’ which stars people who work in the studio where the show is produced.  Producers build a level of self-awareness into their work, with the knowledge that internet discourse will force critical reflection on the text, and that a ‘smart’ message that acknowledges itself as a coded appeal is more likely to sustain itself over the longer term.

Another McLuhan-esque implication of a vast, interconnected writing community is the production of something resembling a ‘global village.’ Just as “in the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin” (McLuhan, 1964 p. 47), the digital internet age makes connectivity with a global community an explicit part of messages. Sites offer themselves as opportunities to tie in to different communities – local blogs peg themselves as digital manifestations of face-to-face communities, and sites like Google position themselves as a merging of global information into a site accessible to any individual user.  Interaction with a global community becomes a central part of the experience of using the technology itself, independent of any particular message sent through the medium.

The final implication of McLuhan’s arguments for digital technology is the development of a “technological simulation of consciousness” (McLuhan, 1964 p. 3). The divulgement of information into digital devices creates those technologies as the image of the user. Sites encourage the disclosure of personal information and allow the tracking and accumulation of personal data in order to simulate user consciousness for the sake of targeted advertisements and an ever more personal user experience.  Additionally, the deluge of news and information from authors around the world seems incomprehensible, and users narcissistically commit more of themselves to the technology in order to cocoon themselves in personal media environments that simultaneously connect them to vast amounts of information while carefully tailoring the messages that reach them.  In an unprecedented and explicit way, the internet encourages people to become “the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image” (McLuhan, 1964 p. 41) that appears in the personalized profiles on sites like Facebook, and the totally customizable environment of the iGoogle suite of programs (Gmail, Google Documents, etc.).  These technologies place the image of the user onto a device, which then encourages users to default to using that device more, meaning they put more of their data into it, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of personalized utility.  The flexibility of digital mediums, particularly on the internet encourages this personalized servo-mechanization, once again showing an important application of McLuhan’s argument.

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One response to “McLuhan in the Digital Age

  1. Whew, I love McLuhan, but this almost defeats the purpose of blogging. If the medium is the message, and the medium is the Web, keep it short!

    Good analysis and insight, though. I’m not trying to say I didn’t like your post.

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