McLuhan Reading

Media is everywhere, many people have gone to great lengths to describe, as good or bad, what the effects of our heightened exposure to media outlets might mean for human psychology and experience. In Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, the author goes to great lengths to discuss how the new media of sights and sounds, might be being mishandled by our society, even going as far as to say that even previous technologies such as printing had been mishandled, for the simple reason that we did not view them rightly.

McLuhan makes the case that “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” meaning that rather than seeing the content of say, a movie, as the story or music, we should see it for what makes it what it is, cinema itself, what it carries, a story, is something separate. So the author makes the case that for example, a railway does not create anything at all, not movement, not metal, not the sound really, but rather it defines the manner in which people will use it, it exists unto itself and has good or bad effects all its own. To use a railway rather than walk is a restriction, a new kind of movement, but not altogether its own thing as if it were altogether separate, at least, that’s how I understand him.

In this way, when we understand that a railway isn’t a product unto itself but a restriction, a medium, something more abstract like motion, that McLuhan would make the case that a company like General Electric, is in the business of moving information, not something which might be more obvious like lightbulbs which was the more obvious product. It’s a confusing concept to me but it makes sense, what really gets me is where he makes this consistent claim that the “medium is the message,” reading it over though and really taking in the examples that he gives it becomes more clear. A post-it note is a medium by which we define and give shape to language, which is essentially information, so then the post-it maker is not in the business of making post-its so much as he is trying to transfer information. McLuhan would go on to say that every message is a medium, a post-it is a message insofar as it gives shape sound and color to information, it is not passive, but it is a medium for the written word, the characters written give a tone and character to the sounds they represent, whose sounds give character and shape to nonverbal ideas, this basic but dizzying idea he elaborates on in the very first page, needless to say the rest of it was equally if not more complex for me.

Having established this though is crucial to understanding his claims throughout the rest of the piece that mediums are not massive, they all give color and effect to how we as humans interact and while he harped again and again on this point, lamenting how the world did not seem to realize this crucial reality, and making clear that only the artist, someone deeply involved with medium, would be able to know this, I couldn’t find whether or not he thought whether or not something like television was truly evil. He described in grandiose terms how the television and music could take our senses, get inside us, that this was powerful, he likened it to a gun, making it seem much like he was describing some sci-fi mind-control device.

“it is not the incised area that is most affected [by new media]. The area of impact and incision is numb. It is the entire system that is changed. The effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory.” what I think he means here is that the addition of a new media outlet changes how everything works, radio is not the same when television is also available because now that information, that sound, is perceived in a world where sound is also perceived with images. I’ll be honest, it’s something that mostly flies over my head, he goes on to discuss how society doesn’t usually make any effort to shift or change when a new medium is adopted, except by artists, he seems to again see this as dangerous, irresponsible.

It reminds me of previous topics we’ve discussed like responsibility in design, the role that we play, especially since our work is generally mass-market, in how society at large will take in and experience the world, but this also brings to mind the question of whether the author was too inward in his thinking, he never goes on to consider teaching the masses, he seems to consider the artist an expert all his own, one who carries a weight, a responsibility, a great power. Perhaps, this has something to do with, in these many readings, can only be described as a much larger ego held by those in what would come to be seen as design fields, with professionals wanting to create new and more perfect mediums for communication or bring in a new age of human experience all together, these efforts ultimately having either failed or mostly failed with their good bits taken in and adopted. Was this author more of those failed ramblings, watching as the world changed so rapidly and in that confusion making grandiose judgements and statements, not unlike say, Pope Pius IX against what he knew as modernism, rationalism, against what was a more traditional world. In contrast, maybe us designers are the ones who simply have a small perspective, thinking about how to keep a jpeg the right size but not considering the wider cultural and artistic impacts of what we do, or maybe should be doing, are they thinking too large or are we thinking too small, or is the answer more inbetween, and can I afford to find the answer while living in a city rampant with gentrification and a pandemic?

Towards the end he likens human society today, maybe thinking of America, with that of the Romans and Greeks, he states “the strange falsification of history by archeology, insofar as the survival of many material objects of the past does not indicate the quality of ordinary life and experience at any particular time. Continuous technical improvement in the means of warfare occurs over the entire period of Hellenic and Roman decline” here seemingly making the case that we shouldn’t be too optimistic about new ways to describe and shape information so much as we should be stewards to society always on the lookout, knowing that this is no indication of  us actually doing well as a society and, I would infer, as designers in general. A VR advertisement might be a million times worse, more damaging, and ultimately be backpedaling, even from 1980s magazine ads, at least I’d imagine that’s an argument he’d make.

Ultimately I agree with him more then I disagree, but that might also be because I don’t really like all the different ways the world screams at us, I like print, I prefer it, so what I understand from this reading already sides with what I already think, even so it goes in areas I wouldn’t think of and this is a reading I want to go over more.

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