McLuhan: Ideas

Marshall McLuhan, 1911-80. Communications theorist, born in Edmonton, Alberta. Professor of English (1954-80) and director of the Centre for Culture and Technology (1963-80) at the University of Toronto. Books include The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium Is the Massage (with Quentin Fiore, 1967).
-- from Webster's New Biographical Dictionary, 1983

Computers are media in the McLuhanesque sense, even when they are not connected to the telephone network or to other computers (Kay, 1984; Steinfield et al., 1989). After interviewing hundreds of computer users, from novices to experienced hackers, Sherry Turkle (1984) called the computer "an expressive medium" (p. 15); she described one woman who "brought [a computer] into her life to write a book, but it brought her into a culture" (p. 191) -- a post-print culture that McLuhan saw developing thirty years ago, a culture that began to impinge on the centuries-old print society at the moment the first electric signal was sent through a wire.

McLuhan,who did not live to see the proliferation of personal computers, set television on a pedestal as the "coolest" of the electric technologies, one he referred to as "the mosaic mesh" (1964). He credited TV with breaking up the linearity of human lives and thinking, a linearity that had evolved from print culture, from centuries of words set in type set in lines set in pages that followed one another in invariable numerical order.

In breaking up the orderly lines of print culture, electronic information (which includes data stored in computers as well as television broadcasts) can seem "disconnected and disorganized," as Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) observes. But that's all right. Oral cultures became print cultures after Gutenberg. Print cultures are now in the process of becoming electronic cultures. The very way we think is changing.

Cybermedia represents the next step in the progression beyond print culture that for McLuhan, among others (notably Innis, 1951), began with the telegraph:

. . . it is the speed of electric involvement that creates the integral whole of both private and public awareness. We live today in the Age of Information and of Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate (McLuhan, 1964, p. 248).

A seemingly contradictory effect marks electric media: they are at the same time both fragmented and congealed. McLuhan associated fragmentation with print media and the machine age; in contrast, he emphasized the ability of television to immerse people in events, to bring all kinds of places and times together in high-speed simultaneity. But a mosaic consists of thousands of separate tiles, even if one cannot perceive the fact of their separateness past a certain distance.

Television serves up the world in fragments that are congealed by the form of the medium; this fosters the belief that all things are connected but causes confusion because the connections are never articulated. As many observers have noted, what TV does to the consciousness of TV viewers would be done even if all the programming were changed (Postman, 1985).

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Cybermedia, by Mindy McAdams
Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Mindy McAdams. All Rights Reserved.
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