Marshall McLuhan Centennial

by Rob Horning

21 July 2011

We collectively participate in the idea of customizing our consumer goods, but finding a unique angle on this common culture is the main avenue for hipster distinction.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan, Megan Garber has an extensive post about his ideas at the Neiman Journalism Lab site, pointing out, somewhat cryptically, that “McLuhan’s theories seem epic and urgent and obvious all at the same time. And McLuhan himself — the teacher, the thinker, the darling of the media he both measured and mocked — seems both more relevant, and less so, than ever before.” I think that means that we take McLuan’s useful insights more or less for granted even as they shape the contours of the debate about the impact of mediatization. McLuhan certainly wasn’t afraid to make sweeping, unsubstantiated generalizations, which definitely makes his account of history occasionally “epic,” but almost unfalsifiable as well. So sometimes it seems like McLuhan is just relabeling phenomena (this is a “hot” medium, this is a “cold” one) without performing much analysis, translating things into jargon without necessarily developing arguments.

Garber notes a recent essay by Paul Ford about the media’s role in imposing narratives on the flux of events and regularizing time and points out that “If McLuhan is to be believed, the much-discussed and often-assumed human need for narrative — or, at least, our need for narrative that has explicit beginnings and endings — may be contingent rather than implicit.” That is, the norms of our reading, or rather our media consumption generally, are shaped by existing levels of technology and how that technology is assimilated socially. We don’t come hardwired with a love of stories, as literary humanists sometimes insist. Narrative conventions are always part of what society is always in the process of negotiating—they are political, ideological, like just about every other kind of relation. McLuhan believed that new media forms would retribalize humanity, undoing some of the specific sorts of freedoms market society (which he links specifically to books and literacy) guaranteed and introducing different ways to construe it. The danger, as Garber implies, is that we will get swallowed by real time, which old media broke into manageable increments but which mew media has redissolved. This opens up possibilities of deliberate disorientation and unsustainable acceleration of consumption.
Anyway, I recently read McLuhan’s Undertstanding Media and this is what I took away from it. The general gist is that print media support individualism and economistic rationality: “If Western literate man undergoes much dissociation of inner sensibility from his use of the alphabet, he also wins his personal freedom to dissociate himself from clan and family” (88). Literacy, in McLuhan’s view, makes capitalist-style consumer markets possible: “Nonliterate societies are quite lacking in the psychic resources to create and sustain the enormous structures of statistical information that we call markets and prices…. The extreme abstraction and detachment represented by our pricing system is quite unthinkable and unusable amidst populations for whom the exciting drama of price haggling occurs with every transaction” (137). This ties in to the idea that humans must learn to be rational in an economic sense—that such calculation is not inherent but socially constructed. Capitalist society (and its media) equips us with this form of reason during the process of subjectivation.

But the atomized, anonymized individuals of the literate world are prone to anomie, to being “massified.” Whereas subsequent media (more immersive and real-time; accelerated) are returning culture dialectically to a more “tribal” orientation—the “global village.” We collectively try to defeat time by pursuing the instantaneousness of new media; this speed, this accelerated transience begins to undo economism in favor of some new collectivity. “Fragmented, literate and visual individualism is not possible in an electrically patterned and imploded society” (51). So it’s obvious why the P2P types and the technoutopian futurists are attracted to McLuhan, who more or less established their rhetorical mode. But McLuhan occasionally issues some warnings about the mediated future as well. This, for example, seems like a prescient critique of the attention economy and recommendation engines:

Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. (68)

And later he writes, “The avid desire of mankind to prostitute itself stands up against the chaos of revolution” (189). In other words, technology will be commercialized rather than become subversive.

McLuhan claims that “the effect of electric technology had at first been anxiety. Now it appears to create boredom” (26). That is, it exacerbates the paradoxes of choice, encourages us to suspend decision making for as long as possible, since switching among a newly vast array of alternatives appears easy. But such suspension, such switching may have hidden cognitive costs, may contribute to ego depletion. He points out how technology tends to accelerate exchange, noting that, for example, “by coordinating and accelerating human meetings and goings-on, clocks increase the sheer quantity of human exchange.” This seems to be a structural fit with capitalism’s need to maximize exchange to maximize opportunities to realize profit. Photographs, too, create a world of “accelerated transience” (196).

He also notes that certain technologies seek to make self-service labor possible, eliminating service requirements and prompting us to take on more responsibility for ourselves as a form of progress (36). That is, technology institutes convenience as a desirable value that trumps other values; ease and efficiency make collectivity appear progressively more annoying, a social ill to be eradicated in the name of individualist freedom, the only freedom that counts.

McLuhan anticipates the rise of immaterial labor, as “commodities themselves assume more and more the character of information”—they become signifiers, bearers of design distinctions and lifestyle accents. “As electric information levels rise, almost any kind of material will serve any kind of need or function, forcing the intellectual more and more into the role of social command and into the service of production.”  Hence the rise of the “creative class” and the importance of social production, building brands and meanings and distributing them authoritatively. Manufacturing becomes a pretense for information, where the real profit margins are:

At the end of the mechanical age people still imagined that press and radio and even TV were merely forms of information paid for by the makers and users of “hardware,” like cars and soap and gasoline. As automation takes hold, it becomes obvious that information is the crucial commodity, and that solid products are merely incidental to information movement. The early stages by which information itself became the basic economic commodity of the electric age were obscured by the ways in which advertising and entertainment put people off the track. Advertisers pay for space and time in paper and magazine, on radio and TV; that is, they buy a piece of the reader, listener, or viewer as definitely as if they hired our homes for a public meeting. They would gladly pay the reader, listener, or viewer directly for his time and attention if they knew how to do so. The only way so far devised is to put on a free show. Movies in America have not developed advertising intervals simply because the movie itself is the greatest of all forms of advertisement for consumer goods.

McLuhan insists that “the product matters less as the audience participation increases”—that is because that participation is the product, the manufactured good, the pretense. “Any acceptable ad is a vigorous dramatization of communal experience,” McLuhan claims (228); by this I think he might mean that ads plunge us into visceral experience of what Baudrillard calls the “code” of consumerism. McLuhan asserts that ads draw us into neotribal experiences of collectivity; I think this claim is undermined by the rise of personalization and design ideology. We collectively participate in the idea of customizing our consumer goods, but finding a unique angle on this common culture is the main avenue for hipster distinction. We craft our own niche for ourselves, and become anxious to isolate ourselves from others within the various constituencies brands create for themselves. Belonging to the communities facilitated by media products fosters a simultaneous tension to escape their embrace, o make one’s participation singular. That is to say, media participation is as competitive as it is collaborative.

In the last chapter, McLuhan says this of the future of work:

The future of work consists of earning a living in the automation age. This is a familiar pattern in electric technology in general. It ends the old dichotomies between culture and technology, between art and commerce, and between work and leisure. Whereas in the mechanical age of fragmentation leisure had been the absence of work, or mere idleness, the reverse is true in the electric age. As the age of information demands the simultaneous use of all our faculties, we discover that we are most at leisure when we are most intensely involved, very much as with the artists in all ages.

This sounds a lot like the autonomist idea of the general intellect, which kicks in after automation becomes standard in industry. McLuhan’s way of putting it: “Many people, in consequence, have begun to look on the whole of society as a single unified machine for creating wealth…. With electricity as energizer and synchronizer, all aspects of production, consumption, and organization become incidental to communications.” He suggests that the only profession of the future will be teacher. We will be all teaching each other new ways to please and divert ourselves, new ways to want more things. Learning itself becomes “the principal form of production and consumption” (351). That sounds like a good thing, but one must factor in the ramifications of widespread, institutionalized narcissism, which leads us to become experts in one very particular subject: ourselves. When the alleged structural unemployment subsides, this is the sort of service economy we will be left with—the full flowering of communicative capitalism. We are consigned by automation to industrialized, mass-produced individuality that we must never stop blathering about.

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