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the extensions of man. wiiiiiiink.

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?

 

4 comments to the extensions of man. wiiiiiiink.

  • Sergio "Majluf"

    Whenever I read McLuhan, it all comes into place, again. At the same time, like you said, the first time it all seemed too familiar – I could have written them same, like, I had email, and shipping atoms is of course more cumbersome than shipping bits – and it wasn’t until one realizes that it was not only written, but conceived in a time where the web as we know it today wasn’t even started. And then a few years before that, too.

    But does it stands true today? Are we still the medium? If we look only at the internet for example, maybe it doesn’t feel right anymore.

    I remember when late nineties, every company wanted a website. It was an extension of their yellow pages existence. “If you are not online, you don’t exist” many said.

    Later, the world realised that it was more about “how” we go online, rather than only having an online counterpart. “Content is King” was the golden phrase, albeit counterintuitively contradicting the idea that the medium is the message, and focusing on the message, the actual copy had to be written for he web, thus the medium gained the battle (do I make sense on this?)

    In both cases, being online was the important. Online as in medium.

    However, today there’s almost no chance of not being online. There’s almost no chance of not having a facebook fan page, a twitter or any other media platform. Today, every online ID has a template to it’s birth even before the core identity is defined. The medium has been commoditized.

    How can the commodity, the most supreme representation of the non-self, the non-individual, the non-unique, be the message?

    I wish I had an anser, but I guess our interweb is coming of age, or at least going through a puberty that will make, again, everything we knew, obsolete.

    At least we still have the massage.

  • Nancy

    I think Understanding Media is a very profound and profoundly difficult book. All the words that sound like cliches are cliches but he invented them…and they’ve become so much part of our culture. I don’t think he’d be much surprised by what’s going on now. It’s very useful for all of you ”creative technologists” as Sarah says to read books like this b/c it deals with first principles in a way that we don’t bother so much with anymore…because it’s like air or water. So not special we don’t notice it.

  • jz1149

    When we are talking about media. I want to share some observation of mainstream media. I focus on media peeping. By means of highlighting mainstream media’s operations on presenting “homosexuals”, I want to discuss the way how LGBT people are been viewed from the technology and cultural mechanism of mainstream media, and with apparently tendency of disregard and discrimination in China, and I believe it still in many countries and in the past of U.S.
    Due to the absence of the basic knowledge on homosexuals, the media has led the Chinese public’s knowledge on understanding homosexuals from the past until now on. The media has a direct, defining and exclusive impact on the public cognition on homosexuals. Thus, the “exposure” has its special meaning.
    For instance, in 1990s, the newspapers were the main access of exposure. While recently, the TV has been the main media of transmit the news and entertainment in China. The news report and various shows began media peeping on homosexuals from sensational and homophobia perspective. Almost all the reports on homosexual issues are willing to describe it from the dark side on homosexual group, with tags of murder, pornography, promiscuity, HIV/AIDS and so on. The topics and content of these reports were extraordinary sensational. Such a demonization was against the comprehensive and impartial principles of news report. Some articles applied the discriminatory terms such as sodomy, abnormal love and so on. Media workers from TV stations were in favor of taking secret videos of the guests in homosexual bars without consensus and broadcasted them with homophobia voice-over, which may bring the filmed guests disastrous effect.
    In this way, the critical discourse on media peeping borrowing the terms such as “exposure” or “peeping” in it, effectively set up an analysis model towards televisions which is a visual media, because the camera were the “eyes” stick to the objective and unprotected subject “homosexuals”. It is exactly as what John Ellis his discussed on the relations between three parties brought by TV: “The distance between the videos and audience is shorted in TV, but a compensatory distance is constructed between the two parties constituting “you” and “me” with direct conversations. The videos broadcasted in the TV become the first person’s “me” or “we”, and audience become the second person “you”. What is more important, the referential first and second persons leads to the third persons to observe or imagine——“he/she” or “they”, which is a group out of the consensus. The television is the eyes to see, which means the constructed peeper “I” examine “them” in a safe position. The standard attitudes towards these people are: caring with mercy, hatred, deliberate ignorance, compassion, general attention, indifference.” He takes TV in England for example and points out that the field of “other” includes “housewife”, “African community” and “immigrants”. Similarly, in the last decade, the conceptions of “Tongzhi” and homosexuals have been constructed as “other” by television, which highlights and intensifies the relationship between the subject of homosexuals and visual media. Homosexuals are quite in fear to be exposed by the TV cameras, and they could be understood as the subject of visual: since homosexuality is invisible in public’s imagination, therefore one of the main tasks for the society in which leading by heterosexuality is to “expose” it and make it shows up. Therefore, in the recent homosexual literature and discourses, the omnipresent TV technical mechanism has become the symbol of hostile “eyes” viewing and examining homosexuals.
    To discuss this in a deeper way from the perspective of gender, the visuality is based on gender inequality at the very beginning. As Laura Mulvey says about the gendered visuality in her eyes, “since in our culture, men are to see and women are seen, because the visuality is based on gender inequality at the very beginning.” In this sense, homosexuals were forced to be “seen” in the cultural construction through the operation of media news report or interview in the last ten years. For this subject whose power is deprived by the homophobia “seen” violence, what are the possible strategies to fight for this? When we are talking about media. I want to share some observation of mainstream media. I focus on media peeping. By means of highlighting mainstream media’s operations on presenting “homosexuals”, I want to discuss the way how LGBT people are been viewed from the technology and cultural mechanism of mainstream media, and with apparently tendency of disregard and discrimination in China, and I believe it still in many countries and in the past of U.S.
    Due to the absence of the basic knowledge on homosexuals, the media has led the Chinese public’s knowledge on understanding homosexuals from the past until now on. The media has a direct, defining and exclusive impact on the public cognition on homosexuals. Thus, the “exposure” has its special meaning.
    For instance, in 1990s, the newspapers were the main access of exposure. While recently, the TV has been the main media of transmit the news and entertainment in China. The news report and various shows began media peeping on homosexuals from sensational and homophobia perspective. Almost all the reports on homosexual issues are willing to describe it from the dark side on homosexual group, with tags of murder, pornography, promiscuity, HIV/AIDS and so on. The topics and content of these reports were extraordinary sensational. Such a demonization was against the comprehensive and impartial principles of news report. Some articles applied the discriminatory terms such as sodomy, abnormal love and so on. Media workers from TV stations were in favor of taking secret videos of the guests in homosexual bars without consensus and broadcasted them with homophobia voice-over, which may bring the filmed guests disastrous effect.
    In this way, the critical discourse on media peeping borrowing the terms such as “exposure” or “peeping” in it, effectively set up an analysis model towards televisions which is a visual media, because the camera were the “eyes” stick to the objective and unprotected subject “homosexuals”. It is exactly as what John Ellis his discussed on the relations between three parties brought by TV: “The distance between the videos and audience is shorted in TV, but a compensatory distance is constructed between the two parties constituting “you” and “me” with direct conversations. The videos broadcasted in the TV become the first person’s “me” or “we”, and audience become the second person “you”. What is more important, the referential first and second persons leads to the third persons to observe or imagine——“he/she” or “they”, which is a group out of the consensus. The television is the eyes to see, which means the constructed peeper “I” examine “them” in a safe position. The standard attitudes towards these people are: caring with mercy, hatred, deliberate ignorance, compassion, general attention, indifference.” He takes TV in England for example and points out that the field of “other” includes “housewife”, “African community” and “immigrants”. Similarly, in the last decade, the conceptions of “Tongzhi” and homosexuals have been constructed as “other” by television, which highlights and intensifies the relationship between the subject of homosexuals and visual media. Homosexuals are quite in fear to be exposed by the TV cameras, and they could be understood as the subject of visual: since homosexuality is invisible in public’s imagination, therefore one of the main tasks for the society in which leading by heterosexuality is to “expose” it and make it shows up. Therefore, in the recent homosexual literature and discourses, the omnipresent TV technical mechanism has become the symbol of hostile “eyes” viewing and examining homosexuals.
    To discuss this in a deeper way from the perspective of gender, the visuality is based on gender inequality at the very beginning. As Laura Mulvey says about the gendered visuality in her eyes, “since in our culture, men are to see and women are seen, because the visuality is based on gender inequality at the very beginning.” In this sense, homosexuals were forced to be “seen” in the cultural construction through the operation of media news report or interview in the last ten years.

  • jz1149

    Sorry I sent my comment twice as a mistake.