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.
- SMW Toronto: Updating Marshall McLuhan for Social Media – Is The Social Medium The Message? (socialtimes.com)