McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man. GINGKO PRESS.
This book has been a tremendous read which has opened my eyes in a new way to the significance of media on our lived experience. It has also given me insight on why there is so much existential stress in modern living. I will add McLuhan to my pantheon of writers who have had a big impact on me including Buber, Perls, Sebald, Khanamen, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Rushdie and Sartre.
It starts with ‘ “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.’ (p9). As with many statements in this book it begs reflection. In this case the words medium and message. Medium means ‘agency or means of doing something’ source and message means ‘recorded communication sent to or left for a recipient who cannot be contacted directly’ source. The point being made here is that it is not the content that is the message but the medium.
Distilling my reading of the book the big insight is that throughout history human beings have invented new technologies to extend the range of their senses and capability to act. This allows us to act faster and more efficiently to meet our needs. The wheel made us walk faster, the alphabet made us communicate quicker and further, the printing press accelerated this to share learning and manage whole communities of people and the clock allowed us to parcel up time. What becomes clear in the book is that we quickly lose control of each new technology as it corrodes any current way of living and interferes with all existing media until a new equilibrium is established. Before that equilibrium is established new interventions arise and the cycle of discomfort continues. The author makes the point that all the significant technology changes that ‘improved’ our lot were very uncomfortable times for those living through the changes.
The insight is important for my photography project. At once I can realise that photography is a global language that does not need translation in the way words and language do. That is not to say it has cultural homogeneity because someone brought up in Eastern cultures will see a photograph in very different ways to the way I see it. Each person is conditioned to respond to an image with their own projections. For the work I do I can know that people will see an image and I do not need to provide a translation but will equally know that everyone will have their own unique interpretation. This is important for my work to make sure I understand what I want to say or to what extent I am happy with all ensuing interpretations.
A big message from the book is that we as human beings are not in control of the media we create. It will create a life of its own, interfere with all existing media and trap most of us in to an existence we would not plan. I thought about my own experience of life and my own extensions.
In the morning I wake with emerging and troubling thoughts. Words are in my head asking me what I am going to do today and to justify my choices. To satisfy my ego I will articulate a number of activities that have to be completed to a certain standard and within acceptable time limits. Media I choose (or that I am conditioned to look at?) will tell me what is important for me to think about. I will eat because it is breakfast and during the day by the clock for whichever part of the world I live in. In the UK lunch is around midday in Spain it is between 2pm (early) and 4pm. I will rarely do anything in response to my own senses but to norms that are accepted for the society I am contained within. I will read, drive my car, watch television, constantly look at my iphone, sit in a comfortable chair and chase a string of thoughts that take me away from what it would be like to be my cat, Smokey.
‘Pope Pius XII was deeply concerned that there be serious study of media today. On February 17th, 1950 he said:
It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the stability of its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual’s own reaction.’ (P21)
I looked at Smokey today and realised I could not follow her example. Once you have language, wifi, defined eating times and a car it is not possible to not have them. We are trapped in our extensions. We have no control over that which we invent but then become mesmerised as we chase the promise of what it offers.
‘One of the most common causes of breaks in any system is the cross fertilisation with another system.’ (P43)
‘Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new rations ornew equilibriums amongs the other organs and extensions of the body.’ (P49)
‘Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve to ever new forms.’ (P51).
‘media, or the extensions of man, are “make happen” agents, but not “make aware” agents.’ (P53).
‘Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body.’ (P 86).
‘The electronic age cannot sustain the very low gear of a center margin structure such as we associate with the past two thousand years of the Western world.’ (P101)
‘new speed and power are never compatible with existing spacial and social arrangements.’ (P109)
‘when a community develops some extension of itself, it tends to allow all other functions to be altered to accommodate that form.’ (P151)
‘just as work began with the division of labour, duration began with the division of time’ (P158)
‘Time measured not by the uniqueness of private experience but by abstract uniform units gradually pervades all sense life, much as does the technology of writing and printing. Not only work, but also eating and sleeping, came to accommodate themselves to the clock rather than to organic needs.’ (P157)
‘basic function of media – to store and to expedite information.’ (P172)
‘All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values.’ (P216)