Understanding Media is a collage of catch-all aphorisms. Often, it makes little sense, but that gives it a kind of open mystique that makes for essential fodder for any critical view of the cultural impact of technology.
There is a lot to talk about in this collection; perhaps too much. I don’t mean that in a rhetorical way, either. I mean, it’s a confounding, labyrinthine piece of writing. Which is funny? That it’s writing? According to McLuhan himself, writing as a technology imposed a linearity on our thought. I think it’s a beautiful and meaningful little joke that McLuhan seems to subvert this linearity with lots of dead-end passages and word play. What focuses more clearly on the medium (not-message [also not "massage"]) than drawing attention to the sound of a word rather than its semantic meaning?
NEWAYZ, McLuhan covers a mass of topics, but what I think is at the core of all of his work is stated most clearly in the collection’s introduction:
Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man–the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media…Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.
Isn’t that odd? Doesn’t it just sound like McLuhan is talking about our dear ole interwebz? And yet, this book was published in 1964?! WILD RIGHT? So much of his book seems to describe the current affairs in media theory that they’re almost cliche to mention at this point. The medium is the message? Duh, right? But, since so many of his predictions are eerily prophetic, I’m most interested in talking about/ questioning the things he writes about that still seem to be on some distant horizon…
McLuhan (along with a ton of great linguists and theorists who I’d LOVE to chat with you about if you’re into that sort of thing) argues that before language (our first technology of human extension) divided the world into a world of objects. Writing ordered those objects into a linearity.
Again, a quote:
Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language. Electric technology does not need words any more than the digital computer needs numbers. Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatever. Such a state of collective awareness may have been the preverbal condition of men…The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness.
So, though up until a point it seems like that “global embrace” is like, uh, totally facebook/twitter/wikipedia/whatever, where does this harmonious pre-linguistic mutual understanding come in? On the internet we are inundated with text, video, song (McLuhan puts it cleverly, “the content of any medium is always another medium”… only in this case it’s all other media) that is pretty deeply steeped in language (images and lyric-less songs being exceptions).
As an international group of creative technologists, is this our concern? And if so how do we achieve it? Is the key in destabilizing the message via drawing attention to the medium (as in McLuhan’s wordplay)? What does that look(/sound/feel/smell) like? Is the conflation of the senses part of this pre-linguistic understanding? Is this hippy dippy pottown bs? Does that invalidate it? Are you reading this? Are you subversive? Is that important? Is this important?