Amusingly, Marshall McLuhan appeared in the Woody Allen film Annie hall, as himself, saying ‘You don’t know my work’. But most do, as the ‘medium is the message’ and ‘global village’ have so much resonance that they almost tip over into cliché. In many ways he was both an analyst of media and technology but also a visionary. He predicted the web, invented the word ‘surfing’ for casual fragmentary media browsing. Although he was dealing with the media a decade before the internet, his ideas endure and he has much to offer those who are interested in the impact of technology in learning.
Although put forward as a savant on electronic media, especially TV, he was strongest in his analysis of print media. In The Gutenburg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, he explores the relationship between media (writing, print and electronic) to the individual mind and then to society. Media are seen as extensions of mind, but not always additive. Print, he thinks, brings in a linear, sequential mode of thought that sometimes simplifies, separates and subsumes other modes (such as hearing). Print is the technology of individualism.
The industrial revolution, he thought, was a consequence of the print revolution. This new medium resulted in ‘private readers’ isolated from each other with less community and social interaction. This was a direct result of mass copying and book design as a cheap and portable piece of technology. Like Plato, he saw dangers in print culture, in a sense a narrowband method of communication compared to the richness of speech. He saw most media as leading us towards a ‘global village’. (Note that this was often seen by him as a negative term.)
This work has huge relevance for learning technology, as we have seen the rise of the internet which is not really a medium as such but a delivery network for a huge range of media types and combinations. McLuhan argues that dominant media shape us cognitively and shift the balance between sense-ratios. Arguments now rage about the effects of video-games, texting and social networking on the minds of young people. There is certainly a challenge to the print-dominated Gutenberg world, by a more fragmented, mosaic, visual culture, delivered online. McLuhan would have been excited by the fact that we also, to a degree, interact, participate and share through new media. What is refreshing is that McLuhan had no time for dull moralising around technology. He was neither evangelist nor traditionalist, seeing technology as something that demanded serious study.
Medium is the message
In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man he defines media as defining ourselves and society. The invention of alphabets and writing radically altered our minds and our relationship with the world. His famous ‘medium is the message’ became the foundation stone for media and technology studies. Famously misprinted by the publisher as ‘The Massage is the Medium’, McLuhan loved the error. His point was that each medium has a set of intrinsic qualities that changes our relationship with the world. Speed, replication, pattern, scalability are all features of media which shape the nature of the message. The tools we shape, also shape us and the culture we develop, and we have to understand this process.
Medium is the mentor
The lesson we learn from McLuhan is that technology can shape not only what we learn but how we learn. The medium is the message could be translated as the medium is the mentor. Learning technology brings with it an implied pedagogy. Later commentators such as Kevin Kelly and Lanier took up the challenge of exposing how technology can both liberate and trap users. Few realise the profound effect writing, alphabets, manuscripts, books, printing, chalkboards, slates, and now new media, have had on the process of learning.
In learning technology, McLuhan’s idea that technology itself shapes our social world is coming to pass. Millions now search for knowledge and solutions through Google, download books, learn at a distance using electronic media, the printed encyclopedia is dead replaced by Wikipedia, video has risen as a learning medium, the blogosphere has expanded, social media have exploded in popularity. This has already had a profound influence on how we teach and learn and will continue to change the learning landscape.
McLuhan also explored how old media get carried over into new media, novels into movies, movies into TV, movies into computer games. This is certainly true in learning technology where PowerPoint is just another in a long line of technologies from the blackboard invented in the late 18th century through to overhead projectors, which preserve the ‘teacher as presenter’ pedagogy. This idea of seeing new media through the ‘rear-view mirror’ is in McLuhan and we can see this in the way the internet is often mistakenly seen as a vehicle for the distribution of old media and not a radical shift in itself.
The media master’s messages are even more relevant today than they were in his pre-internet lifetime. ‘Discarnate man’ is the non-corporeal nature of our own role in communication and media consumption. Is this alienating? Or is the internet taking us back to a more connected world with social media? The ‘global village’ was prompted by the global success of TV where billions can watch major sports events and popular dramas. But this concept was to prefigure something that was truly global – the internet. His proposition of ‘Centers everywhere, margins nowhere’ has come to pass. File sharing has reshaped the music industry, is decimating the newspaper industry and Amazon is proving any book you wish, increasingly downloaded online. Similarly in learning, where the pendulum swings slowly but certainly towards online.
In essence, McLuhan opened our minds to the role of technology and media by asking the right questions. He wanted to know how technology and media affect our minds, habits, society and culture. Late in his life he gave us, what in my opinion, is his most useful piece of work – the tetrad. His "tetrad" of four media laws tried to clarify the nature and impact of a technology or medium:
1. What does it enhance or amplify in the culture?
2. What does it obsolesce or push out of prominence?
3. What does it retrieve from the past, from the realm of the previously obsolesced?
4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when it reaches the limits of its potential?
These are fascinating questions. Online learning technology certainly enhances learning and through its scalability, amplifies knowledge and learning globally. Some argue it democratises, decentralises and disintermediates the learning game, pushing out dated lectures, classroom practice and limited media mix. Unfortunately, this process is hindered by forces that insist on retrieving old models and replicating them online.
Many find McLuhan’s books frustrating in their lack of argument and rigour but one can forgive someone who generates so many ideas for failing to explain each in absolute detail. Indeed, he himself famously said ‘I do not explain, I explore’ but this can lead to problems. His definition (or lack) of media is odd as he conflates technology with media or hardware with software. At other times his language is too narrow. Media, for McLuhan, are divided into hot (low audience participation, such as print) and cool (high audience participation, such as TV). It is not clear that this distinction survives in our multimedia, internet age where the metaphor disintegrates. However, his analysis of the effect of different types of media is strong and remains relevant. The advent of the internet has thrown much of McLuhan’s analysis in the air, as it has many dimensions that prove difficult to fit into these older dualistic categories. McLuhan tended to use the language of opposites in analysis when subtler and more nuanced approaches would have revealed more. Examples include hot/cold, print/hearing, mechanical/organic, static/fluid, neutral/magical. Many of these oppositions are rendered difficult or obsolete with the range of complex online technology.
McLuhan opened the door for serious scholarship in media and technology. He can be infuriatingly non-scholarly but brilliantly creative. Paul Levinson’s book Digital McLuhan takes McLuhan’s themes one by one and applies them to the digital age. Needless to say, Levinson shows that many of his insights (not all of course) into the nature of media were profound and many of his ideas about the way media and technology impact individuals and society were prescient.
McLuhan, Marshall (1962). The Gutenburg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. New York: Routledge.
McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Gingko.
McLuhan, Marshall (1967). The Medium is the Massage. Gingko.
McLuhan, Marshall (1968). War and peace in the Global Village. Gingko.
McLuhan, Marshall (1989). The Global Village. Gingko.
Levinson, Paul (1999). Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millenium. Routledge.