[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.
Marshall McLuhan

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. 

Further Reference

The orig­i­nal record­ing of this lec­ture is avail­able at Culture Digitally.

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