What would Marshall McLuhan make of twitter?

Marshall McLuhan

If Marshal McLuhan, father figure of media theory, was alive today, what would he make of twitter? Would he consider it the ultimate reality-defining medium? Would he consider it a force for cultural enrichment or cultural impoverishment? Or would he grasp the opportunity to be a foci of cultural influence by joining the twitterati?

Marshall McLuhan had a lot to say about media versus content and their impact on human experience and society. McLuhan’s famous mantra ‘the medium is the message’ pithily captures his thesis that the historical points at which a new medium (such as print or electronic) is adopted corresponds with significant shifts in both culture and distribution of power. Media revolution takes place when a new medium sweeps away the previous one but the content does not substantially change or is not more potent or significant than before. Hence the medium is more powerful as a force on perception and culture than the content.

McLuhan argued that the printed page as a medium promoted a hierarchical and bureaucratic model of human knowledge in which those who control and distribute content exert power over others. In stark contrast, the information age with its global, real-time communication channels promote a liberal and empowering form of knowledge. This age promises the re-emergence of a ‘tribal culture’ amidst the collapse of the world’s formerly separate bureaucracies into a ‘global village’, characterised by immediacy, involvement and a strong sense of social cohesion. In the electronic era, ‘action and reaction occur almost at the same time’.  Neil Postman summarised McLuhan’s theory of medium and perception:

The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information.  They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another.  They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like.  Through these media metaphors, we do not see the world as it is.  We see it as our coding systems are.  Such is the power of the form of information.  Page 39, Neil Postman, 1979. Teaching as a Conserving Activity.

McLuhan subsequently morphed his famous aphorism from ‘message’ to ‘massage’ — the medium pummels, kneads and manipulates its subjects, affecting them more than the content does.  In modern times, governments, regimes, communicators, advertisers and designers have overtly and subconsciously used and abused the undeniable effect of media on message for their own political, commercial and social purposes.  Spin is barely removed from reality and just about everyone in any publicly bestowed position of power knows and exploits this.

McLuhan’s early awareness of the emergence of the global village, the collective consciousness and its ‘total social processes’ led him to modishly declare that ‘Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave’ (1962, page 248). This declaration of Heidegger as philosopher du jour recognised the magnitude of the shift occurring in world culture. Heidegger’s concern for ‘being’ and his treatment of objects in contemporary context made him attractive as a philosopher flag-bearer for the information age. Others concerned with software and systems (particularly Winograd and Flores) subsequently based their arguments on the phenomenological philosophy of Heidegger for similar reasons.

Design and culture are mutually definitive. Change one and you change the other. The design of the world’s first mass-scale micro-blogging service unavoidably imposes filters and modifiers on the information it conveys, which in turn changes perception and ultimately culture. In his Pulitzer-nominated book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that the internet is changing fundamental modes of human cognition.  Once established, the impacts of new media on society can be interpreted but never reversed or crisply defined.

Culture contextualises and constrains design but also frames pragmatic design action. Design constitutes one of the primary forces capable of shaping and diverting culture when its artefacts are subsumed into the experience of existence. Twitter is quintessential Web2.0 design.  And it is software.  It is not too great a leap to argue that software is the fabric of all new media, and the design of software a primary means of cultural transformation. As software mobilises from desktop computers to computers in the pocket and jacket sleeve, the speed with which it influences culture will increase exponentially.

Recent biographers have claimed that McLuhan was much more of a sceptic than an advocate of the cultural shifts he identified. His critical, sceptical stance makes him the perfect choice for posthumous patron saint of Wired magazine. He surely would have made characteristically astute observations of the twitter phenomena rather than jumping on the bandwagon.  Pity, I would have very much enjoyed following the insightful and sardonic tweet stream from @marshallmcluhan.

For more on updating McLuhan in the age of social media, see Robert K. Logan’s new book Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan in which the author names ‘fourteen messages of new media’ — Two-way communication, Ease of Access to and Dissemination of Information, Continuous Learning, Alignment and Integration, The Creation of Community, Portability, Convergence, Interoperatability, Aggregation of Content, Variety, Choice and the Long Tail, Reintegration of the Consumer and the Producer, Cooperation, Remix Culture and The Transition from Products to Services.

Marshall McLuhan, 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man .

Marshall McLuhan, 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man .

Winograd and Flores, 1987. Understanding Computers and Cognition.


7 thoughts on “What would Marshall McLuhan make of twitter?

  1. Though we will need to begin to define the impacts of new media on society, for technology is never neutral. As McLuhan presciently alluded to, the interesting question to ask is how much of Twitter, or any other software’s design is led by technology versus the structuring of its technology led by design. I would be wary to let the pull of technology be the primary mode of a cultural transformation, especially if we do not know how to define what technology wants. At what point does the technics of new media culture stop needing the human?

  2. Hi golis150,
    Thanks for your thoughtful reply on the primary driver of cultural change. Postman’s quote makes McLuhan’s argument clear — ‘The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information… they are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another.’ Humans control and perform design but we design within the limits of our imagination, and these limits are set by the tools we use. This relationship (between humans and objects) is discussed by a number of philosophers, most notably Heidegger. I find it interesting to wonder how twitter and today’s social media tools are shaping us.

  3. Geat to see someone trying to do some media ecology on the Twitter phenomenon. Two points: I think he would highlight the way Twitter and FB turn the culture of the word, which was once all about objectivity (which McLuhan loved) into the immersive culture previously established by TV. Part of the loss of objectivity has to do with simple things like Tweets disappearing off the bottom of the page – Tweets have to be recent, have to be “now” – they no longer have the objectivity of the book standing solidly on the shelf apparently for all time, breaking out of the immersive flow of the now.

    Second point: You imply that McLuhan painted a negative picture of nasty power-hungry book culture and a glowing view of the new tech. Far from it. I came acrosss a great quote (made to a friend) in which he said about TV: “Do you really want to know what I think of that thing? If you want to save one shred of Hebrao-Greco-Roman-Medieval-Renaissance-Enlightenment-Modern-Western civilization, you’d better get an ax and smash all the sets.”

    • Thanks for your comments Torn Halves. I like your observation that the tiny window on a Twitter client amplifies both the currency and the datedness of twitter ‘content’ — the ‘content’ of tweets is pure ephemera. They are the opposite of ‘the record’ and its objective content. That opens it up to the masses — not everyone can write a book that holds an argument together but anyone can tweet. It is a mass media. So the medium (Twitter.com) really does massage the message. I am pretty sure MM would have loved social media! Great comment on MM’s attitude to TVs too! I wish we had a picture of him smashing an old valve wooden cabinet TV! But again, what insight!

      • Late reply but I don’t think Marshall McLuhan would have loved the idea of getting immersed in a constant present, or worse a never ending false sense of real time, with information decontextualized and stripped of any meaning or purpose besides that of being entertaining.

        Social media is a furthering of the effect of television, of this decontextualization of information. Information has value when it informs our decisions and actions. But what’s the worth of an information if it is to be consumed and in the next moment forgotten and replaced by another information, and this flow of unconnected information is what we call social media is everything but social.

        I think you’re sadly mistaken. Yes Marshall McLuhan had a more optimistic view that Postman, Barthes or Debord, but he was no fool. What he hated about television is magnified in social media. The loss of context, the loss of relevancy, the loss of meaning. What is left of what we call information is not something to be consumed until the next bit of information comes along?

        This Brave New World is exactly what Huxley had warned us against. We read more indeed, but what we read has less potency for action, what we call reading is glorified consuming for its own sake, for the pleasure of being held captivated by headlines and decontextualized texts, pictures, videos, and endless stream of meaninglessness.

        How has it changed our culture? It has created a black hole at the center of culture, culture is now advertisement and marketing, where everything is made to say anything, hence the growing confusion between all things and all terms. This loss of meaning is the coming age of nihilism.

        Go to any stream of social media and look for a meaningful tread of information: you cant find one. All things are juxtaposed to say neither is really saying anything worth stopped the endless stream. The fact that we cannot stop this present real, the fact that nothing can stop the newsreal, that we can move from terrorism to sports, from celebrity culture to mass murder, from politics to trivia is summed up in the tweet.

        The furthering of senselessness is not empowering. I think you are blinded by entertaining value, but at loss to point to what the purpose of social media would/could be.

        Don’t look at its potential, look at its actual everyday use, don’t look at what it could do, look at what it is, at any moment you will read this, what will be true is the endless flow:

        “The show must go on.”

        What’s sad is none will ever again ask why. This is nihilism.

      • Thanks for your detailed and thoughful comment!

        I agree that some social media (twitter, facebook) exemplifies the dumbing down of popular media. But this is a more general phenomenon than social media, it is a trend across all public media. A few hours of evening commercial television in any Western city is enough to convince anyone. I don’t blame twitter or facebook for this. For whatever reason… the end of capitalism, unchecked libertarianism, economic and social inequity, , consumption and nihilism are the religion du jour and drive the kinds of facile interactions you rightly criticise.

        But true to postmodernsim, the one master narrative has smashed into millions of local, personal, contextualised micro-narratives, and the web is postmodernism’s platform. Just as in all parts of life, there are good micro-narratives and pointless/bad micro-narratives. Besides the countless nihilistic twitter feeds, there exist intelligent people engaged in global communities of interest, understanding technologies, doing social research, learning to be makers, reviewers and debaters of every available product and experience. In 2016, you can instantly reach out to like-minded similarly capable people in whatever your chosen field or interest may be. In 2016, you need never be isolated.

        Look on reddit.com for sassy, sharp, informed discussions of just about anything tech. These threads and the people involved in creating them didn’t exist 10 years ago. Many of these threads accumulate thousands of contributions over many months, thereby accumulating relevance, meaning and context. I think McLuhan would have shined in this part of today’s internet culture. He might have used it to pummel mainstream media to great effect.

  4. Pingback: Did You Help Winky Dink Escape? « MowryJournal.com

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