"The Media is the Message" - The Irony Behind Google's Celebration of Marshall McLuhan
Yesterday, Google celebrated the 106th birthday of Marshall McLuhan - an intellectual who pioneered the study of media theory with the famous declaration," The medium is the message." With the 3.5 billion people who ran Google searches yesterday and saw Google's doodle dedicated to McLuhan, who is McLuhan and why is he important enough to deserve being celebrated by the most viewed webpage in the world? And what does Playboy Magazine have to do with any of this?
Let's dive in...
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, a foundational work in media theory that many academics agree is responsible for laying the groundwork for contemporary media studies. Rather than focusing on the meaning of messages in media, McLuhan focuses on analyzing the medium itself. McLuhan argues that the actual structures and physical limitations of media create profound psychological and social consequences. Challenging conventional understandings of media, McLuhan defines media as,” any extension of ourselves,” (McLuhan) meaning that in addition to obvious examples of media like film, photographs, and radio, McLuhan also considers mediums like numbers, clothing, automobiles, and even electric lightbulbs. Although lightbulbs aren’t generally considered a form of media, McLuhan challenges conventional attitudes by arguing that technologies like lightbulbs, automobiles, and bicycles are examples of media because they are extensions of man that affect how we perceive the world in which we live. The lightbulb acts as a form of media because as its light illuminates the dark room, it functions as a device that allows us to process the visual information around us in a way that we normally wouldn't.
At first, it seems like technology that extends man’s ability to experience and interpret the world is positive and desirable. However, McLuhan points out that the inherent tendency to focus on the messages within the media make us blind to the limits and structures imposed by the mediums themselves. For instance, the medium of writing is limited to the expression of speech, the medium of print is limited to the expression of writing, the medium of the telegraph is limited to the expression of print. Each medium that evolves from the last allows for less expressive possibilities and creates an increasingly restrictive form of communication. The telegraph, which technologically evolved from spoken word, profoundly restricts the amount of meaning that can be communicated compared to spoken word. With spoken word, communication is much more expressive and meaningful because of nuances like tone, verbal emphasis, accent, volume, and so on. With the telegraph, the expressive possibilities of spoken word are reduced to a technological format that chisels away at possibilities for expression. As a result, mediums enforce a format that demands conformity to technological structures which reduce our communicative possibilities, restrict meaning, and ultimately shrink the lens through which we perceive the world. A relevant example from today’s digital society is social media platforms like Twitter, which reduce expressive possibilities to 140 characters of text or expressing one’s self through the ‘re-tweeting’ of posts by others.
In a legendary interview with Playboy Magazine, McLuhan turned heads and brought media theory into the public domain when he expanded on this concept. At the time, Playboy Magazine was a lifestyle magazine that included popular long-form interviews that spotlighted unique ideas and intellectuals. McLuhan took advantage of this platform to inspire a wave of new interest in media theory that spurned the development of other intellectuals and the reorganization of departments at Universities.
In the famed interview, McLuhan explained that as technological mediums shape human bodies and senses to conform to their technological structures, man becomes entangled in what McLuhan calls a ‘narcissistic hypnosis’ – “a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible,” (Playboy Magazine). The invisible environment of mediation that McLuhan refers to is important because it has a profound effect on organizing our social and political institutions. He explains that,” whenever a society develops an extension of itself, all other functions of that society tend to be transmuted to accommodate that new form; once any new technology penetrates a society, it saturates every institution of that society. New technology is thus a revolutionizing agent,” (Playboy Magazine). If media technology is a revolutionary agent that structures society’s institutions, then academics must be able to transcend the ‘narcissistic hypnosis’ that makes the effect of this technologies invisible to us. As a result, social scientists ought to examine the medium, not the messages within the mediums – the medium is the message.
Oh, and by the way, Marshal McLuhan predicted the internet before it became a thing. However, as we see, his ideas portray a very dim and gray outlook. Ironically, Google is the internet's most powerful agent and the most influential purveyor of the state of narcissistic hypnosis in which we find ourselves in today. Yet yesterday, Google celebrated the man who fathered one of the most powerful critiques of their existence.
By being the first to critique the mediums themselves, and most importantly their consequential effect on the collective social consciousness, McLuhan established the field of media theory as instrumental and preclusive to other social sciences like sociology, anthropology, and political science. Without understanding the structure of the mediated world, social scientists cannot escape the ‘narcissistic hypnosis’ which makes the psychological and social consequences of technology invisible. McLuhan’s critique of media opened the scope of media studies by highlighting the previously invisible implications of technological mediums. Academics in the fields of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, economics, literary theory, art history, and other social science can no longer afford to ignore media theory, and in most cases, are guided by it. As a result, McLuhan’s revelations gave rise to the various branches of media theory that examine our mediated world.