Monday, May 18, 2015

BookPastor >> "Understanding Media" (Marshall McLuhan)

TITLE: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
AUTHOR: Marshall McLuhan
PUBLISHER: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994, (368 pages).

This is a classic by the late Marshall McLuhan, whose most famously coined the influence of media on society as: "The Medium is the Message." First published in 1964, this book has been republished several times due to the relevance and powerful insights McLuhan has on understanding the nature of media and its effects on people. Born in Edmonton, Alberta Canada, he was a former Director of the Center of Culture and Technology at St Michael's College, the University of Toronto. Influenced by the writings of GK Chesterton, he converted to Catholicism in 1937. His work on media and its effects on culture has become a standard reference in universities offering courses on media ethics and technology influences upon culture. The key conviction lies in studying the culture by studying the influences of media.

"Examination of the origin and development of the individual extensions of man should be preceded by a look at some general aspects of the media, or extensions of man, beginning with the never-explained numbness that each extension brings about in the individual and society." (6)

Comprising of two parts, McLuhan in Part One lays the theoretical foundations of his thesis. Beginning with the now famous chapter, "The Medium is the Message," he contrasts the electric bulb as "pure information" and "medium without a message" versus other mediums that essentially "shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. Mediums like movies that shape public opinions; paintings that enchant people; and technologies that compel people to behave in "uniform and continuous patterns." He argues:

"The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, 'What is the content of speech?' it is necessary to say, 'It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.'" (8)

McLuhan is basically looking at the media as influencer of opinions and how it shapes people. He distinguishes media into hot and cold, on the basis of low and high audience participation respectively. Hot media includes radio that blasts out data in "high definition" while the telephone is cool media because only the ear is given a small amount of information at any time. Things get a little confusing as McLuhan tries to distinguish not only the medium but also the content being hot or cool. In "The Gadget Lover" McLuhan describes how man can fall in love with the gadgets used to communicate a message. What was narcissistic for the Greeks, is idol to the Hebrews. The motorcar, the television, and the new technological gadgets soon become the very extensions of ourselves that we grow to love. In "Hybrid Energy" McLuhan observes how two different kinds of media combine to form a hybrid, a new form of human extension. Instead of a skeptical look, this chapter affirms the hybridization process as an opportunity for man to take a breather from the influence of the two primary media individually. He calls the primary mediums as "make happen" agents and the hybrid as "make aware" agents. As the "make happen" agents meet, it brings about a temporary respite for the human to be free from any trance or seductions from the "make happen" media. The media also influences by playing the role of "translators" that change original forms into new forms of communications. Technology translates human experiences into plain information. Nature gets translated into art forms. Money translates from being a medium of product exchange into a status symbol or human worth. In "Challenge and Collapse," McLuhan warns about the "technique of the suspended judgment" where new technology numbs the natural creativity of humans. One's natural sense of perception and judgment becomes impaired as technology replaces the normal chores of man. He quotes the story of Tzu-Gung who tried to introduce new mechanization processes for a farmer, only to receive angry responses on why Tzu-Gung is trying to turn the farmer into a machine-like person, where the farmer insists that "He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine." The concern here is not the technology per se, but how the technology is changing the person to be more like the technology. I remember my concern in this similar light, that man who creates the computer, may eventually behave like the computer. In trying to program computers to think like man, there may come a point where the reverse occurs, that as machines start to become more human while humans become more machine-like. With technology extensions come the threats of the modern stresses of life, the demise of relationships,  and the fragmentation and disembodiment of the human person.

If Part One is the main theory, Part Two gives ample applications of the theory. The general idea is that "all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed. (90)" Media includes:
  1. The Spoken Word: causes us to change tones and affect gestures
  2. The Written Word: increases literacy in cultures through language, writing styles shaped by the alphabet
  3. Roads and Paper Routes: McLuhan argues that the "lack of homogeneity in speed of information movement creates diversity of patterns in organizations." It even brings about conflicts within organizations. High speed imply greater domination in lands both near and far. The simplicity of village living gets complicated by city like efficiency and processes.
  4. Number: The use of numbers can separate an individual from the masses, calculates the worth of a person, defines the meaning of rationality, and also reduces people to a statistic.
  5. Clothing: It can keep one warm but also changes how people look at us in public.
  6. Housing: It is not only shelter but is a status symbol.
  7. Money: The rich use credit cards, the poor pay cash. The term "money talks" has become an extension of power and domination. The story of Midas is compared with technology having a Midas touch in turning everything it touches into a translator, a transmitter, or a transformed being.
  8. Clocks: It quantifies time and create uniformity of behaviour. McLuhan adds: "It was not the clock, but literacy reinforced by the clock, that created abstract time and led men to eat, not when they were hungry, but when it was 'time to eat.' (154)"
  9. The Print: Basically used to store and expedite information, it makes information more accessible over time and distance. The main message is that it is repeatable, reproducible, and readable.
  10. Comics: It gives people a chance to laugh at society, people, ideas, even themselves. They can challenge or change consumers.
  11. Printed Word: The typography of the printed word is a way for people to "act without reacting." A word being italicized, bold, or underlined can be forms of expressing moods. What is powerful about this medium is the chance for readers to be distanced or connect, to be interested or disinterested, or to be engaged or not. It homogenizes the tone of speech. "Psychically the printed book, an extension of the visual faculty, intensified perspective and the fixed point of view." (172)
  12. Wheel, Bicycle and Airplane: Like the invention of the wheel that changes the face of transportation, we become seduced to want more power, more efficiency, and more speed. The very technological advancements have defined us.
  13. Photograph: Power of the camera to fix people in a "superior stare." Communicates posture and gesture speak. While it brings out the best form of a person or situation, it can also "cheapen" or deceive people when a small picture tries to represent the whole. Museum without walls.
  14. Press: If a book represents a personal point of view, a press release is a "communal form that provides communal participation." From the classified ads, the newspaper, the government channel, the press can play a special role in the "process of cleansing by publicity."
  15. Motorcar: The car has become a leveler of distance and space. It is also a social separator between the haves and the have-nots.
  16. Advertisements: It creates wants and promotes a product's desirability.
  17. Games: This includes gambling, card games, stress relievers, extensions of our inner lives. In management we have game theory which is about strategic planning. In sports, we have mass participation. Games are designed to create an effect in people.
  18. Telegraph: Where a message can be communicated from any level to any other level.
  19. Typewriter: Originally intended to help one to read, write, spell, and punctuate. Create typist jobs.
  20. Telephone: Power to involve a whole person. Speech without walls.
  21. Phonograph: music halls without walls.
  22. Movies: classroom without walls; power to store, convey, and to tell a story visually through a particular context
  23. Radio: Provides a "speed-up of information that also causes acceleration in other media."
  24. Television: "The cool TV medium promotes depth structures in art and entertainment alike, and creates audience involvement in depth as well." (312)
  25. Weapons: Direct expression of power.
  26. Automation: "Projection of mechanical standardization and specialization." 
Full of insights on society more than forty years ago, if McLuhan is alive today, he would have a lot more precious observations of our world of Internet, smartphones, tablets, Google, social media, modern gaming, simulation programs, Instagram, Wikipedia, Youtube, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Apple products, and new technologies. I find it very helpful to dig through each of the 26 examples on how McLuhan explains the effects of technology as extensions of man and domination. McLuhan's basic principle continues to be very applicable today as media is increasingly a device used to influence public and private opinion.

In Social Media circles, the power of sensational news, engaging videos, moving audios, and speed of distribution have turned the dissemination of information far more powerful than traditional means. Good news can be shared widely and quickly, with the praises and accolades showered on people who turn into overnight Internet stars. Many have rose to superstardom with huge deals, advertising revenues, and many offers of employment or commercial endorsement. It increases visibility for the originators or stars highlighted. It raises the profile of common folks into pop sensations. It focuses attention of the global Internet population to a single point of interest. Think about viral sensations like Gangnam Style, Justin Bieber, the ice bucket challenges, and many amateur videos that turn ordinary people into overnight stars.

At the same time, modern media can be used for bad and misrepresentations as well. Cyber-bullying continues to be a problem in many countries. As more people put their private information that can be easily accessed by the public, there is always a threat of invasion of privacy or abuse of personal data. Worse, the Internet has made it so easy for people to put their information on the web or social media that people have unwittingly make themselves vulnerable to Internet predators. Abuses, bullying, crimes, blackmails, and suicides have occurred. Once information is out on social media, it stays there. Personal information while it is an extension of self is also an additional weapon for unscrupulous people to use the information against that person. In this sense, it is no longer simply an extension of self but an extension of another person's power and control over us. It is an invitation for unwanted attention. It is like giving gunmen our personal bullets for them to use against us.

If we understand the media's potential advantages and positive points, we can use the media for good and charitable acts. Otherwise, there are risks, dangers, and serious implications for its use. Let me offer three tips for our application of media. First, know the potential as well as the limits of media for self extension or expressions. Just because it is available for us to use does not necessary mean we MUST use them. Know the tool. Know the way to use it for good. Know the risks when using them. That way, we are better equipped to deal with the consequences of using them. Second, be extremely careful when using new media. The speed and spread of information will continue to rise. Privacy concerns must be talked about more. Take shaming for example. For every regrettable act, we need to remember that because humans are never perfect in the first place, allow room for grace. Just because the Internet is a powerful tool for shaming, also remember that once a person's image is tarnished, it may affect that person for the rest of his/her life. We all are guilty of some embarrassing act at one point or another. Will we want to be shamed until we cannot face the world forever? That is how some people take their own lives. The "deterrent" argument can only work so far. Does the punishment fit the crime? Is it proper for us to judge another person on the basis of the limited information we see? Third, we need to be educated on the ethics and etiquette of use of media. Every media will have their pros and cons. As media continues to evolve, new teachings and guidelines need to be in place to guide. This calls for organizations and interested individuals to come together to formulate strategies and guides for the rest of the population.

This book is very powerful. With the wide use of examples and applications, readers can be equipped to start thinking of ways to use media for good. Great book!


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