Marshall McLuhan and Aubrey “Drake” Graham in Toronto context

“No Canadian city has played Elsewhere as effectively or as often as Toronto. . . . If the most salient characteristic of the English-Canadian identity is its lack of identity, Toronto is the place where that lack feeds and thrives. Perhaps this is why the city has produced some of the country’s most adept generalists, chameleons, observers and shape-shifters: Harold Innis, Jim Carrey, David Cronenberg, Moses Znaimer, Robert Fulford, Wayne and Shuster, Norman Jewison, Ivan Reitman, Atom Egoyan, the Kids in the Hall, SCTV- all did hard developmental time in Hogtown, the same place from which McLuhan would scramble the world’s receivers with the publication of Understanding Media in 1964.”

TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

Marshall McLuhan on why women are better suited for the modern workforce

“The electric world, because it does not favour specialism, does favour women. Men are naturally specialists compared to women. Men are very brittle and unadaptable people compared to women. Women have had through the centuries to adapt to men rather than vic versa. So, specialization, which used to be taken for granted in modern industry, has now become very very shaky and roleplaying has taken over from job holding in big business. Role playing means having several jobs simultaneously or being able to move rapidly from one job to another. A good actor can play many parts. So women’s lib is really a reply to the new electric conditions of employment in which huge information is available simultaneously to everybody. In the electric world the simultaneity of information is acoustic in the form that it comes from all directions. Role playing is a very different thing from goal seeking and in the electric time we are moving very much in that direction. The reason that most of you in this room find it difficult to imagine a goal in life is simply that you’re living in an electric world where everything happens at once. It’s hard to have a fixed point of view in a world where everything is happening simultaneously. It is hard to have an objective in a world that is changing faster than you can imagine the objective being fulfilled. Women’s lib therefore has very deep roots in the new technology and is not just a matter of votes for women. It means that the work that is being performed today can in many cases be done better by women.”

Marshall McLuhan on Karl Marx, communism and “service environments”

“The mechanizing process that began in the eighteenth century and led to the development of new service environmentsthe press, the highway, the postal routes—was soon augmented by steam and rail. By the middle of the nineteenth century the extent of environmental services available to the workers of the community greatly exceeded the scale of services that could be monopolized by individual wealth. By Karl Marx’s time, a “communism” resulting from such services so far surpassed the older private wealth and services contained within the new communal environment that it was quite natural for Marx to use it as a rear-view mirror for his Utopian hopes. The paradox of poverty amidst plenty had begun. Even the pauper lived, and lives, in an environment of multi-billion dollar communal services. Yet communal wealth developed by the mechanical extensions of man was soon outstripped by the electric services that began with the telegraph and which steadily enhanced the information environment. With the advent of an electric information environment, all the territorial aims and objectives of business and politics tended to become illusory. By now Communism is something that lies more than a century behind us, and we are deep into the new age of tribal involvement.”

Marshall McLuhan on the return to “acoustic space,” writing, civilization and “our electrically-configured world”

“Until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror. Speech is a social chart of this bog.

The goose quill put an end to talk. It abolished mystery; it gave architecture and towns; it brought roads and armies, bureaucracy. It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of civilization began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind. The hand that filled the parchment page built a city.”

“Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village . . . a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.

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 newer 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 coexist in a state of active interplay.”

This is one of Marshall McLuhan’s famous claims about media and social change. Electric technology has created a “global village” defined by “acoustic space.” Writing—a visual medium—supplanted the “primordial” acoustic world and was subsequently dispatched by electricity, a return to the ear.

McLuhan’s claim rings true in the context of podcasts, audio books, voice ordering/assistants, voice/text services, ASMR and all the other superficially visual media experiences like video calling, streaming, TikTok etc. that are ultimately more defined by audio. All the above consumed on smartphones in every manner of intimate environment, ensuring maximum “involvement.”

daily notes #4: What does “the medium is the message” really mean? Here’s Marshall McLuhan in his own words

What does Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” actually mean? Let’s go straight to the source. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Understanding Media:

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. . . . Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology [e.g., the assembly line]. The essence of automation technology [e.g., computers] is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.”

Want a more explicit definition? Here’s one from a 1974 lecture. Speaking of Cadillacs…

“The motorcar as the supreme form of privacy has been threatened, in fact superseded, by television. Television brings the outside inside and takes the inside outside. It really pulls the rug out, or the highway out, from under the car. It deprives the car of its rationale and its meaning. If the car had not lost its real meaning in our lives there would be no oil crisis whatever. That is, nobody would even dream of allowing the oil crisis to occur . . . It is something that could not have happened if the car had not already been obsolesced. The car has lost its place in the heart of the people. That doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear overnight. Not at all. All it means is that the effect of the car are disappearing, and privacy and service environment are part of the effects. When I say “the medium is the message” I’m saying that the motorcar is not a medium, the medium is the highway, the factories and the oil companies, that is the medium. In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car. When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone. The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects. The car is a figure in a ground of services. It’s when you change the ground that you change the car. The car does not operate as the medium but rather as one of the major effects of the medium. So “the medium is the message” is not a simple remark and I’ve always hesitated to explain it. It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation. And the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people. It is the environment that changes people not the technology.

A medium is “any extension of ourselves” but whatever given object or innovation -ie. the extension- is not the point, the message is what’s key. And the message is “a hidden environment of services created by an innovation.” In other words, since McLuhan’s central preoccupation is “effects on people,” the “hidden environment” -the message- is what concerns him because it is “the environment that changes people not the technology.”

Bonus: guidance from the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology

“Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. Thus, the message of theatrical production is not the musical or the play being produced, but perhaps the change in tourism that the production may encourage. In the case of a specific theatrical production, its message may be a change in attitude or action on the part of the audience that results from the medium of the play itself, which is quite distinct from the medium of theatrical production in general. Similarly, the message of a newscast are not the news stories themselves, but a change in the public attitude towards crime, or the creation of a climate of fear. A McLuhan message always tells us to look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.”

daily notes #3: The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (book review)

This book is a “highlight reel” of Marshall McLuhan’s major works and a good introduction to his thought. Quentin Fiore’s photo layouts and graphic design hold up well.

Some content and summary: “All media work us over completely.” The conflict between electronic and linear print mediums is generational and has particular implications for education. The printing press created a new era of book authorship which “Xerography” is bringing to a close. “Visual space is uniform, continuous and connected,” creating fragmentation and specialism. Gone are “jobs,” the kids want “roles” in the context of simultaneous audio. We are now -as of 1967- in “a global village.” Electronic communication “profoundly involves men with one another.” “Print technology created the public. Electronic technology created the mass.”

I’m personally very conflicted about McLuhan and whether or not to pursue him. There was a McLuhan revival in the 90’s and many attempts to do “Digital McLuhan” since. Media discourse is oversaturated and becoming banal as the social media era drags on. Much of it is preoccupied with “content” as opposed to social environment, scale and the medium itself. In that context McLuhan’s major insights are still extremely important. There you have it.