McLuhan and Morals
Lots of people are celebrating what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday and I figured it was a good chance to throw my own feelings into the ring.
I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that his words have had a huge effect on my life. I studied at NYU in a small school called Gallatin that allowed me to follow my interests and design my own degree. I found my way there after a fairly miserable first semester of sitting in classes of 500 trying to figure out why it was worth going to class if all that happened there was professors repeated everything from the reading we were assigned. Gallatin promised a chance to follow my interests and learn in classes of 30 instead of 300.
I started out interested in city planning, eventually moving to education, cultural studies and landing on a fascination with media (Gallatin let you rewrite your area of study each semester, so these changes were much more natural evolutions rather than abrupt changes). In my junior year I took two classes on digital media, one with Stephen Duncombe and another with a professor whose name I can’t remember.
Both classes had McLuhan on the syllabus and offered me my first real taste of the legendary thinker. I was interested in the internet at that point, but I wouldn’t say I was quite obsessed in the way I am now. But as I read McLuhan for the first time and tried to understand the world he was outlining I could only see the digital media that surrounded me (this, of course, was the point of the class, which looked at the cultural impact of technology). Something about his words stuck with me and drove me to want to be involved with understanding how and why people behave the way they do and how media and technology changes that. Of course there were other writers whose words encouraged me (Walter Ong, who I recently learned was a McLuhan disciple, is one who especially sticks out).
McLuhan always offered clarity to me in a way that I didn’t find anywhere else. When I try to understand almost anything I think about his point about the medium is the message and understanding the underlying effects of media and technology on people, not just the more obvious surface impacts.
Recently I read Douglas Coupland’s new biography of McLuhan called You Know Nothing of My Work!, a familiar quote to any Annie Hall fans. What struck me most about the stories of McLuhan was a point about his ability to keep morals out of his conversations about media. Coupland explains, “Morality often impedes free thinking. Moral indignation is a salve for people unable or unwilling to try to understand. Again the maelstrom: understand your world and detach from it, or be drowned by it.”
When I read that I immediately began to understand why I become so offended by arguments like the one Eli Pariser makes about filters. It’s not that I disagree, I too think it’s hugely important that people try to understand how they are effected by the technology they interact with, but Pariser seems to take it a step further, trying to demonize algorithms. Algorithms are not bad. Neither is television, Facebook, mobile phones or videogames. They’re not good either. They just are.
One of my favorite arguments to get in to is about whether email is better than in-person communication. (The fact that I have a favorite argument isn’t lost on me, don’t worry.) It’s an easy one to get in to and most people immediately jump to the defense of face-to-face communication, explaining that it’s better than email. I then agree, that sometimes it’s better than email, but also that you can’t place value judgement on media. Email provides things face-to-face communication never could like immediacy. If you live in New York and want to check on the status of an order in Japan it hardly seems worth flying a few thousand miles and turning back around. Neither one is good or bad, they are situational and important and both carry their own messages that can’t be ignored.
Because McLuhan seemed to be defending this new-fangled media he often got labeled as a champion of technology. But he didn’t, and Coupland even mentions that the very religious McLuhan believed that because of all this new media the world would likely be struck down by God. But he never let that slip in. Coupland explains his writing is still so relevant today:
Marshall was also encountering a response that would tail him the rest of his life: the incorrect belief that he liked the new world he was describing. In fact, he didn’t ascribe any moral or value dimensions to it at all–he simply kept on pointing out the effects of new media on the individual. And what makes him fresh and relevant now is the fact that (unlike so much other new thinking of the time) he always did focus on the individual in society, rather than on the mass of society as an entity unto itself. It was Marshall’s embrace of the individual–a poetic and artistic, highly humane embrace–that has allowed the reader (then and now) to enter his universe. There are, perhaps, no practical political, religious, or financial applications to Marshall’s work. It could even be argued that it should be seen as a rarefied artifact unto itself, an intricate and fantastically ornate artwork that creates its own language and then writes poetry with it. And what would be wrong with that? Art is art. And an artist, according to Marshall, is someone on the frontiers of perception, who looks at information overload with the goal of pattern recognition, to see things before anyone else.
Happy Birthday Mr. McLuhan. Thanks for helping me think about the world.