Today Nick Carr — whose new book, The Big Switch, comes out in January — has an interesting piece about McLuhan and today’s Web. Although Wired hoisted the Canadian media theorist into the digital era as its “patron saint” (the company’s book imprint even republished a couple of his collaborations with Quentin Fiore), it’s always been difficult to figure out how, exactly, to apply McLuhan’s theories to the Web. I took a stab at it in 1995 (an effort to which Carr kindly links), suggesting that the Web was neither a “hot” medium nor a “cold” one but rather some weird new lukewarm hybrid:
It remains almost exclusively a medium that transmits and reproduces vast quantities of text at high speeds. McLuhan interpreted the evolution of writing from ideograms and stone tablets to alphabetic characters and print reproduction as a “hotting up” “to repeatable print intensity.” By that standard, the Net is boiling.
On the other hand, its functional characteristics match those McLuhan identified as cool. There’s no question that the Internet is among the most participatory media ever invented, like the cool telephone. And its cultural patterns — with its oral-tradition-style transmission of myth and its collective anarchy — match those of McLuhan’s tribal global village.
…McLuhan said that all media are tranquilizers, but these hot-and-cold media have an especially potent numbing effect: They seduce us into lengthy engagement, offer us a feeling of empowerment and then glut our senses till we become indifferent.
My view of the Web has probably grown more positive since then; my own experience over the past 12 years has been one of growing engagement rather than creeping indifference. I think I was too pessimistic about the downside of glut.
But I think McLuhan would probably have shared that pessimism. He’s usually remembered in his high-priest-of-the-’60s mode, as a critic all too willing to dance on the grave of print. What I found when I dug deeper into McLuhan’s writings in the course of reviewing his biography for the Washington Post in 1997 (that piece is no longer available online so I’ve posted it here) was considerably more complex. He was, it turned out, most decidedly a lover of print himself.
In a 1959 letter, decades before the popularization of the Internet, he predicted: “When the globe becomes a single electronic computer, with all its languages and cultures recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant and impossible, no matter how precious.”
Ultimately, McLuhan’s perspective remains valuable more as a provocation to critical thought than as a fully worked out critical framework. He overloaded so many meanings on terms like “hot” and “cold” media that they could come to mean whatever you wanted them to mean. But there remains lasting value in McLuhan’s grand challenge to us — that we step out of the media bath in order to understand its effects on our organisms. What we most remember is his descriptive writing that mapped the impact of new media forms. We forget his prescriptive goal, of “immunizing” us from the worst influences of those media.
Carr reminds us of this in recalling McLuhan’s prophetic warning about the manipulative power of corporate media: “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.”
[tags]marshall mcluhan, media studies, nicholas carr[/tags]
- August 4, 2010 @ 12:39:30 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- November 1, 2007 @ 11:49:32 by Scott Rosenberg