Any medium creates a new atmosphere . . . a new environment.
There was a programme about McLuhan on Radio 4 on Saturday, introduced by Douglas Coupland, which stated that McLuhan had a handle on the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries as early as the 1960s; his assertion that
The new modes of instantaneous, long-distance human communication are linking the world’s peoples in a vast net of electric circuitry that creates a new depth and breadth of personal involvement
casts him as a bit of a prophet for the internet age. (Mind you, anyone observing the introduction of movable metal type in fifteenth century Europe might have said something similar with equal accuracy.)
What I found most interesting was unpacking McLuhan’s well-worn phrases about the message being the medium, and the global village. I’d never thought that deeply about them, but – in the case of the medium and message – of course, it’s not just the words or images on the screen or page that impact on the viewer but the whole system lurking behind them. So, according to McLuhan, in the 1960s radio and television – the instant electronic media of their day – affected the way that humans experienced the world. The medium becomes the environment in which our sensory perceptions operate. “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” We know what it’s like elsewhere instantaneously; we can even feel that we have the experience of being in that elsewhere, and that changes us. One problem, however, is that we still work with the old categories for some time after the introduction of the new medium; as human beings, we lag behind the superstructure.
It occurred to me here that these very same media have given me the opportunity throughout my life to read, watch and listen to some very clever, well-informed people that I would have little chance to hear or see in real life. They may have filled my head with useless notions, but in real life – without these media – I would have been limited to a handful of teachers, old wives’ tales, and the collected wisdom of blokes in the pub. Books are all very well, but they are – in Europe at least – for solitary consumption.
As for the global village, McLuhan predicted tension and violence as media brought people into greater proximity with each other, and he foresaw a surveillance state where all mistakes were noted and never erased. He talked of a new “tribal man”, with the television as the drum to whose beat we all listen, and he feared the emergence of “discarnate” man – someone completely attuned to the new electronic media but lacking a sense of a private self. (Yeah, women too, natch – but that’s how they spoke/thought then.)
It was interesting to note what an old-fashioned person this futuristic thinker was. McLuhan was born in Edmonton in 1911 – a very isolated place in those days, with the risk of being completely cut off at certain times of the year. He described himself as coming from the nineteenth century and therefore having an advantage in looking at the twentieth. He was originally a literary scholar and always a Roman Catholic, and his view of privacy was very different from that of the facebook generation. He offered no moral stance in his public pronouncements and he cultivated detachment, but personally he was opposed to the change he saw. He said that he tried to understand it in order to withstand it.
The wonderful paradox was that McLuhan himself embraced these new media in disseminating his ideas. He co-wrote a book, the Medium is the Massage (sic), of collage text, which also became an album. Extracts from it sounded like the latest Adam Curtis offering.
Which brings me to my blog. It’s now two years since I started writing it and I am coming to the end of the available free space. When I began, I had no inkling how much I would love doing it. I thought that it might last a few weeks, but I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy creating this mash-up of photo album, diary and notes from visits, sights and thoughts. I do feel that it has changed me. Before my blog I simply consumed and received impressions in a haphazard way, and what I remembered from them was hit and miss. Now that I have the self-imposed obligation to produce something that is legible and comprehensible to me a few years hence, I have become more organised and have a greater facility for making links with previous sights/experiences. The fact that this medium enables me to categorise two years’ worth of experience into manageable chunks is a big aid to retaining and building on information.
Writing this blog, moreover, has also spurred me to do more things/go more places simply in order to have something to add to it!
And now I need to start a new blog. Aides mémoires part 2, here I come!