[The original recording of this lecture is available at Culture Digitally.]
Well, there they are. Our new electronic media or, our new gadgets. You push a button and the world’s yours. You know how they talk about the world getting smaller? Well, it’s thanks to these that it is. Everywhere is now our own neighborhood. We know what it’s like go on safari in Kenya, or to have an audience with the Pope, to order a cognac in a Paris cafe.
But not only is the world getting smaller, it’s becoming more available and more familiar to our minds and to our emotions. The world is now a global village. A global village.
Alan Millar, “Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the global village”
Joshua Braun: Welcome to Media, Technology, & Culture. During our time together, we’re going to talk at length about new media. And in our first few installments we’re going to begin by thinking for a bit about what makes a medium new.
The clip you just heard comes from a 1960 CBC broadcast. The announcer is lovingly caressing a rotary phone as he begins his monologue, before stepping to the side to reveal a room filled with a television set and other mid-century media appliances. Clearly, this audio isn’t recent. You can practically hear his Mad Men suit and haircut alongside the soft static that permeates the recording.
But all that stuff he’s saying? About the globe being ever more connected. About information and experiences from around the world being at our fingertips? That sounds…kind of familiar. There are a couple reasons for this.
First, in all fairness, the announcer is about to introduce Marshall McLuhan. That phrase “the global village?” That’s his phrase. And you may have heard it bandied about to describe the Internet or social media. That’s not coincidental. McLuhan was something of a pop culture icon in the 1960s and 70s. You may have seen his cameo in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, for example.
Marshall McLuhan: How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.
Alvy Singer: [breaking the fourth wall] Boy, if life were only like this!
Annie Hall [YouTube]
Timothy Leary credited Marshall McLuhan with coining the 60s mantra “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” He’s also responsible for other lasting gems like “the medium is the message.” This last is in reference to his key argument that the technology through which content reaches us, whether it’s a book or a TV set, can have a greater impact than the message being delivered. And as historian Fred Turner points out, many of his ideas were particularly popular with influential members of the 1960s counterculture like Stewart Brand and others who went on to shape a lot of the language, and many of the metaphors we would use in thinking about digital devices and online media. More about that in a moment.
McLuhan himself was a brilliant mind, and for a long time he was something like the voice of the zeitgeist when it came to media technologies. For example, he was one of the more prominent cultural critics to dub Vietnam “the living-room war,” in reference to the manner in which television sets piped grisly images of battle into American households, if not for the first time then with greater immediacy than ever before.
Marshall McLuhan influenced a generation of scholars and thinkers, both in the sense of inspiring many people, and in the sense that he was big enough that even the haters were kind of forced to voice an opinion on him. But, as communication professor Gary Gumpert has noted, over the course of the 80s and 90s, Marshall McLuhan dropped off a lot college syllabi. Part of the reason, according to Gumpert, was that scholars who study communication and journalism felt that the essence of their craft was examining media content, not the medium itself. Their attention, he says, was focused on teaching and analyzing skills like public speaking, or on things like audience research, which might be aimed at examining how the messages in the news or on the television influenced consumers, but seldom gave as much consideration to the technologies used to deliver those messages.
And then there’s the fact that McLuhan’s own rhetoric is well…very 1960s. Even when he’s being super articulate, you always kinda, sorta, a little bit, get the feeling that he might be on drugs.
The line, the individual event, was the book. The field, the all at once. Tribal drum, the new medium.
Marshall McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the global village at 6:37
I’m not the first person to have this thought.
Audience Member: Have you ever taken LSD?
McLuhan: No. I’ve… I’ve thought about it.
“Q&A with Marshall McLuhan: Do you like TV?” at 0:08
That’s McLuhan responding to audience questions at an event in 1967. Whether the person in the audience was asking because they thought he sounded hip, or because they thought he sounded high, I’m not sure. And then there’s that psychedelic album he cut with Columbia Records the following year.
The medium of our time, electric circuitry, profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still more information.
Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience co-exist in a state of active interplay.
There ain’t no grammatical errors in a non-literate society.
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage [at 4:38 in course podcast]
Overall, listening to or reading McLuhan is a bit conversing with a genius who’s gone a little bit mad. There’s a lot of strange stuff.
I have, by the way, a peculiar reading habit that I’ve developed in recent years. I read only the right-hand page of serious books.
Marshall McLuhan, “Our present as predicted half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan”
But then, more often than not, he’ll come out with something brilliant, or eerily prescient. His notion of the global village, for example, can sound an awful lot like Facebook or Instagram half a century before those things existed.
The global village is not created by the motor car or even by the airplane. It’s created by instant electronic information movement. The global village is at once as wide as the planet and as small as a little town where everybody is maliciously engaged in poking his nose into everybody else’s business. The global village is a world in which you don’t necessarily have harmony. You have extreme concern with everybody else’s business.
Spend a bit of time soaking up this strange combination of the weird and prophetic (the phrase “McLuhanatic” has appeared more than once) and you begin to understand why a lot of hippies loved him. And, why in 1991, just over a decade after his death, Wired magazine named him their patron saint.
From all our discussion so far, I’d have you take away two points. First, hold onto one of McLuhan’s key ideas, that media technologies, not just media content, deserve consideration in their own right for the ways in which they influence the way we think and live. McLuhan wasn’t alone in this assertion. He may be the most fun to talk about, because of his quirky and larger-than-life personality, and the ways he influenced both mainstream culture and the counterculture movement.
But he was ultimately part of a larger cadre of scholars making this argument around the same time, many of them Canadian, who came to be known as the Toronto School. Professor Joshua Meyrowitz calls them “medium theorists,” a term he uses to distinguish them from media theorists, who focus more of their attention on the content of media. While a handful of researchers kept working on so-called “medium theory” beyond the 1960s and 70s, for a time their focus on media technologies fell out of favor with the larger community of communication and journalism scholars. Or, at the very least, technologies when they were talked about became shorthand for genres of content, like television journalism or print news.
Personally, I’m not going to argue like McLuhan did that the influence of media content is insignificant in comparison with that of the technologies of media. No less a technologist than Bill Gates has famously declared that “content is king.” But I do take McLuhan’s point that media technologies deserve to be taken and studied seriously. And these days I’m far from alone in this belief. Even as many media scholars backed off of their attention to technology, a whole academic field called Science and Technology Studies was blossoming. This project was populated by philosophers, historians, sociologists, and other researchers keen to examine the social and cultural aspects of how technologies are developed, and how they impact our lives. Fred Turner calls this,
the kinds of social visions that are bubbling up around emerging technologies.
Fred Turner, Class Day Lecture 2014 — Stanford University
And over the last decade especially, as the technologies of the Internet and digital media have become so closely associated with changes in our communicative and journalistic landscape, the people who study news and media have turned their attention back to media technologies and sought to document their significance and influence in our lives. In the process, they’ve borrowed a lot of useful ideas and examples from Science and Technology Studies, which we’ll get to in the coming weeks.
Another takeaway from our narrative so far is that you can trace a lot of the rhetoric about the Internet and digital media, the buzzwords and metaphors we use to talk about them, back at least as far as the 1960, when the ideas of people like McLuhan and other influential thinkers like Buckminster Fuller mingled with the ideals of the counterculture and the technologists inspired by them. As Fred Turner points out, a lot of this happened by way of a guy named Stewart Brand and his compatriots. Or, as Brand himself put it,
The crowd I was running with, we loved technology. And science and art were going be blended together at [?] and things like that. So that’s why suddenly Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan had an audience. And we were the crowd that took their ideas and ran off in various directions.
Stewart Brand, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: The Legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog” at 24:33
Brand was the creator of one of the most influential publications of the 1960s counterculture, The Whole Earth Catalog, which was a sort of hub for information, tools, and opinions useful to the between seven and ten million mostly young Americans who were then starting communes, along with those who were sympathetic to them. The publication was nothing short of inspirational for a lot of the folks who would go on to found or work at influential technology companies. If you’re wondering why, it’s worth pointing out that Northern California was at the time becoming the epicenter of both the 1960s counterculture and what would soon be known as the Silicon Valley.
Steve Jobs, for example, talked about the Whole Earth Catalog in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address, which you may have heard.
When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 60s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.
Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address [transcript]
But Brand’s influence and role in connecting counterculture ideals and emerging technologies was more direct in places, and extended quite a bit beyond the Whole Earth Catalog’s original run, which ended in 1971. He also wrote about computers and technology as a journalist.
There was this tiny tiny unknown subset of longhairs who were hanging out with computers. We had nothing—very little to do with politics. Nothing to do with drugs. They had a way better drug. And that their world was getting better and better and better. This was not true of drugs and it was not true of politics. And that was one of the reasons I figured that was where the action was going to be.
Stewart Brand, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: The Legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog”
And in the 1980s, he went on to help create one of the first online communities, The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link or, The WELL for short. It was patterned, to a large extent, after the subject matter of his Whole Earth Catalog, and today’s social media still draw inspiration from its example.
Not only that, Kevin Kelly, one of Brand’s longtime collaborators on the Whole Earth Catalog and The WELL, went on to help found Wired magazine, a publication that was hugely influential in introducing the public to online media throughout the 1990s. And he brought with him many of the counterculture-inspired folks he’d been working and talking with for years.
So in a nutshell, there’s a clear intellectual lineage that you can trace between many of our contemporary ways of thinking and talking about digital devices and online media that goes all the way back to the 1960s, and even further back by way of folks like McLuhan and a range of other thinkers whose ideas became indelible within various corners of the 1960s counterculture.
The link Fred Turner and other scholars like Tom Streeter have drawn between the 60s counterculture on the one hand, and the culture of the Silicon Valley and designers of today’s digital media on the other, is a particularly compelling one. Because it’s a bit of living history that we’re able to trace through particular times, places, and people.
But it’s possible to look even further back in history and see that the way that we talk about new media technologies, the hopes, fears, and other sentiments we invest in them, involves major recurring themes that have been around for a very long time. We’ll pick up this idea in our next installment. For now, I’ll let Marshall McLuhan play us out.
Education must shift from instruction, from the imposing of stencils on brainpans as it were, to discovery—to probing and exploring and to the recognition of the language of forms.
We have now to accept the fact and responsibility that the entire human environment is an artifact. An art form. Something that can be staged, manipulated, like showbiz.
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage [at 13:02 in course podcast]
Thanks for listening. This installment drew heavily on the scholarship of Fred Turner, Joshua Meyrowitz, Gary Gumpert, and of course Marshall McLuhan. The recording included excerpts from the album The Medium is the Massage, along with clips from CBC, Makerstreet, Henrik Bennetsen, and Stanford University.
As always, you can find a complete bibliography for the course lecture, along with music credits and other contextual information, on the class website.
The original recording of this lecture is available at Culture Digitally.