04 May 2008

Text and television in McLuhan's global village

I revisited the work of Marshall McLuhan recently. The patron saint of Wired Magazine prophesied the triumph of video over print some 40 years before YouTube, but he died in 1980, too soon to see himself proved (sort of) right.

The pop-culture prophet becomes a pop-culture cliché: Marshall McLuhan (right) in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977).

McLuhan was an English Literature professor at the University of Toronto whose 1951 book The Mechanical Bride:Folklore of Industrial Man was among the first to view popular culture through a scholar's eye.
He achieved notoriety outside of academic circles with the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man in 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy introduced his theory that written language, and by extension printing, imposed a linear template on the thought process of all Western society.
In 1964 he took this idea further in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Television was so ubiquitous and so immediate, it would reverse the dominance of print and linear thinking: "The mass media of today are turning the globe into a village and catapulting 20th century man back to the life of the tribe." This notion lent momentum to the emerging 60s counterculture, but unlike his commune-dwelling admirers, McLuhan didn't completely endorse the return to the primitive. "Terror is the normal state of any oral society," he wrote, and that puts the inhabitants of the global village at the mercy of "Big Brother."

A spread from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), a 160-page paperback created in collaboration with graphic designer Quentin Fiore. Long on images and avant-garde typography and light on content, the book made McLuhan a bona fide celebrity.

McLuhan lacked the scholar's cool detachment from his subject. He envisioned television as an engine of social change. "Television completes the cycle of the human sensorium. [It] demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being. It will not work as a background. It engages you," he wrote in 1967's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. He continued:
It is a matter of greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival in the immensely persuasive 'outside' world created by new information media. Education must shift from instruction . . . to discovery--to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.
He had to admit, though, that television promotes consumption more than discovery: "Today, the mass audience (the successor to 'the public') can be used as creative, participating force. It is, instead, merely given packages of passive entertainment."
He was naively hopeful that television would create more engaged citizens: "The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television . . . is changing everything." Everything changed all right, but not the way McLuhan imagined.
Written language drew the line between gossip and news, and television erased that line. Pre-literate people probably didn't care about distant wars or global politics, but they were always eager to know who cheated on his wife, who got falling-down drunk, and what provocative remarks the preacher made--the stuff that television does best.
In McLuhan's Utopia, media would engage us in the life of the community. He was right that print often fails to do that, because it's one-way, top-down communication. Television wasn't the answer, though, because it's top-down too. What he was trying to invent was fully interactive media--something akin to Web 2.0. What he couldn't imagine was how successfully the new participatory media would integrate the core of the old media--text. Freed from the printed page, writing is no longer rigidly linear. It can flow seamlessly into pictures, sounds, or other text strands.
In 1967, McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore tried to achieve this non-linearity within the confines of print in an issue of Aspen, "the magazine in a box," which will be the subject of the next PublishingMojo post.

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