“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.”
In this passage from Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan reminds us of the difficulty that frictionless connection brings with it and how technological media advances have worked not to preserve but rather to ‘abolish history.’
Perfection of the means of communication has meant instantaneity. Such an instantaneous network of communication is the body-mind unity of each of us. When a city or a society achieves a diversity and equilibrium of awareness analogous to the body-mind network, it has what we tend to regard as a high culture.
But the instantaneity of communication makes free speech and thought difficult if not impossible, and for many reasons. Radio extends the range of the casual speaking voice, but it forbids that many should speak. And when what is said has such range of control, it is forbidden to speak any but the most acceptable words and notions. Power and control are in all cases paid for by loss of freedom and flexibility.
Today the entire globe has a unity in point of mutual interawareness, which exceeds in rapidity the former flow of information in a small city—say Elizabethan London with its eighty or ninety thousand inhabitants. What happens to existing societies when they are brought into such intimate contact by press, picture stories, newsreels, and jet propulsion? What happens when the Neolithic Eskimo is compelled to share the time and space arrangements of technological man? What happens in our minds as we become familiar with the diversity of human cultures which have come into existence under innumerable circumstances, historical and geographical? Is what happens comparable to that social revolution which we call the American melting pot?
When the telegraph made possible a daily cross section of the globe transferred to the page of newsprint, we already had our mental melting pot for cosmic man—the world citizen.The mere format of the page of newsprint was more revolutionary in its intellectual and emotional consequences than anything that could be said about any part of the globe.
When we juxtapose news items from Tokyo, London, New York, Chile, Africa, and New Zealand, we are not just manipulating space. The events so brought together belong to cultures widely separated in time. The modern world abridges all historical times as readily as it reduces space. Everywhere and every age have become here and now. History has been abolished by our new media.
But long before those famous words were ever spoken, McLuhan offered advice on the evolving media landscape. This interview from 1960 offers as much wisdom today as it did then.
When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.
Let’s think about this for a second. “When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. … We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form.”
We do this with knowledge as well. Generalists are largely a thing of the past. To get a job we have to know a niche and we have to know it well. This process of specialization, however, comes with high cost. We fail to learn about the dynamic world in which we operate. Over years and decades, we come to fit the world into our knowledge. Rather than see things as an interconnected holistic system we fall into what Daniel Kahneman calls “What You See Is All There Is” (WYSIATI). The way out of this, of course, is to arm yourself with the great models of the world.
“The thing that is most likely to guide a person’s behavioral decisions isn’t the most potent or familiar or instructive aspect of the whole situation; rather, it’s the one that is most prominent in consciousness at the time of the decision.”
Separations are prominent in the consciousness of our mind – not connections. What’s different stands out and gets our attention. Knowing how this works will help you better persuade your lover and everyone else.
Recently, a team of research psychologists in Texas recruited dating couples into a study of communication patterns. The researchers asked each pair to identify and discuss an unresolved issue in their relationships, one that either partner (or both) sought to change. With recording instruments running, the scientists registered precisely what the communicators said, as well as the effectiveness of the communicators’ various appeals in swaying their intended targets.
The findings are eye opening. The communicators used three differing styles to gain persuasive success. Some tried what we can call the coercive approach, threatening their partners with regrettable consequences if they didn’t yield (e.g., “If you can’t change on this, I’m just going to have to do some things you really won’t appreciate” or “Unless you’re willing to agree here, I don’t see how I could possibly help you with x”). This hardball strategy was a disaster. Not only did it fail to spur the desired result, it produced the opposite effect, driving the partner farther away from the communicator’s position.
Other communicators tried a less combative technique that we might label the rational approach. They attempted to argue that theirs was the more reasonable view and that it only made sense for their partner to adopt it (e.g., “If you’ll just look at this thing rationally, you’ll see my point” or “Once you take everything into consideration, you’ll want to change your mind”). Although not as misguided as the coercive approach, this persuasive style didn’t fare well either, leaving its targets wholly unchanged.
But there was a third set of communicators who employed a breathtakingly simple and successful procedure that we term the relationship-raising approach. Before making a request for change from their partner, they merely made mention of their existing relationship. They might say, “You know, we’ve been together for a while now” or “We’re a couple; we share the same goals.” Then, they’d deliver their appeal: “So, I’d appreciate it if you could find a way to change your stand on this one.” Or, in the most streamlined version of the relationship-raising approach, these individuals simply incorporated the pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” into their request.
The outcome? The relationship partners exposed to this technique shifted significantly in the requested direction.
Two qualities of this approach are worth noting.
First, its functional essence is a form of evidentiary non sequitur. Stating, “You know, we’ve been together for a while now” in no way establishes the logical or empirical validity of the communicator’s position. Instead, it offers an entirely different reason for change—the relationship itself, with all its attendant trust, strength, and security. Back in the 1960s, the brilliant media commentator Marshall McLuhan observed that often in the realm of mass communication, “the medium is the message.” I’m willing to claim that often, in the realm of social influence, the relationship is the message
The second remarkable quality of the relationship-raising route to persuasion is that it provides nothing that isn’t already known. Typically, both parties well understand that they’re in a relationship. But that implication-laden piece of information can easily drop from the top of consciousness when other considerations vie for the same space. True to its name, the relationship-raising approach merely elevates one’s awareness of the personal connection in the moment before a request so that it will have due impact on the response.
As Cialdini concludes, “[w]e’d be fools to think that a force as primitive and powerful as human connection can direct change only within romantic relationships.”
Understanding Media contained the simple prophecy that electronic media of the twentieth century—at the time consisting of telephone, radio, movies, television, but also including newer technologies like the Kindle, the Internet, the iPad—were breaking the traditional limitations of text over our thoughts and senses. Thanks to McLuhan’s ability to turn a phrase, Understanding Media is a work more talked about than read. At the core of the book is a phrase that most have heard: “The medium is the message.”
“What’s been forgotten,” argues author Nicolas Carr in The Shallows, “is that McLuhan was not just acknowledging, and celebrating, the transformative power of new communication technology. He was also sounding a warning about the threat that power poses—and the risk of being oblivious to that threat.
“The electric technology is within the gates,” McLuhan wrote, “and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed.”
“McLuhan understood,” Carr continues “that whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information—the content—it carries.” With new mediums for communications come standard arguments. Enthusiasts praise the new content the technology allows, interpreting new methods as a way to reduce the friction of information sharing. This, they argue, is good for democracy. Skeptics, on the other hand, condemn the content and see any assault against existing mediums as an effort to dumb down our culture.
Both, however, miss McLuhan’s point that in the long run the content of a medium—be it a television, radio, the internet, or even a kindle—matters less than the medium itself in influencing us (whether we realize it or not).
Carr argues “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals” and collectively as a society.
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather they “alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”
In Understanding, McLuhan proffered “A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” We see this today as newspapers transition to a digital world and how the medium—the internet—remakes the papers to fit its own standards. Not only have newspapers moved from physical to virtual but now they are hyperlinked, chunked, and embedded within noise. If he were alive (and healthy) McLuhan would argue these changes impact the way we understand the content.
McLuhan foresaw how all mass media would eventually be used for commercialization and consumerism: “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.”
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Here is a clip from a 1968 CBC show featuring a popular debate between Norman Mailer and McLuhan.
Before you decide if McLuhan was a genius or crackpot you should know that McLuhan suffered from a few cerebral traumas—including multiple strokes. One stroke was so bad he was given his last rites. Only a few months before the debate with Mailer, a tumor the size of an apple was removed from his brain. McLuhan’s stardom—and some argue his mind—started fading shortly after this video.
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Perhaps nothing demonstrates McLuhan’s brilliance as well as his craziness as this 1969 interview with playboy. In the excerpt below, McLuhan describes his vision of cloud computing—he was well ahead of his time, keep in mind we’re talking 1969. Carr sums up this interview brilliantly: As is typical of McLuhan, there’s brilliance here, but there’s also a whole lot of bad craziness. At least I hope it’s bad craziness.
MCLUHAN: Automation and cybernation can play an essential role in smoothing the transition to the new society.
MCLUHAN: The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness. Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.
PLAYBOY: How do you program an entire society – beneficially or otherwise?
MCLUHAN: There’s nothing at all difficult about putting computers in the position where they will be able to conduct carefully orchestrated programing of the sensory life of whole populations. I know it sounds rather science-fictional, but if you understood cybernetics you’d realize we could do it today. The computer could program the media to determine the given messages a people should hear in terms of their over-all needs, creating a total media experience absorbed and patterned by all the senses. We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. By such orchestrated interplay of all media, whole cultures could now be programed in order to improve and stabilize their emotional climate, just as we are beginning to learn how to maintain equilibrium among the world’s competing economies [ha! -Rough Type].
PLAYBOY: How does such environmental programing, however enlightened in intent, differ from Pavlovian brainwashing?
MCLUHAN: Your question reflects the usual panic of people confronted with unexplored technologies. I’m not saying such panic isn’t justified, or that such environmental programing couldn’t be brainwashing, or far worse – merely that such reactions are useless and distracting. Though I think the programing of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically, I don’t want to be in the position of a Hiroshima physicist extolling the potential of nuclear energy in the first days of August 1945. But an understanding of media’s effects constitutes a civil defense against media fallout.
The alarm of so many people, however, at the prospect of corporate programing’s creation of a complete service environment on this planet is rather like fearing that a municipal lighting system will deprive the individual of the right to adjust each light to his own favorite level of intensity. Computer technology can – and doubtless will – program entire environments to fulfill the social needs and sensory preferences of communities and nations. The content of that programing, however, depends on the nature of future societies – but that is in our own hands.
PLAYBOY: Is it really in our hands – or, by seeming to advocate the use of computers to manipulate the future of entire cultures, aren’t you actually encouraging man to abdicate control over his destiny?
MCLUHAN: First of all – and I’m sorry to have to repeat this disclaimer – I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends. Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn’t stop them, so why waste my time lamenting? As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, “I accept the Universe”: “She’d better.” I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress.
The point to remember here is that whenever we use or perceive any technological extension of ourselves, we necessarily embrace it. Whenever we watch a TV screen or read a book, we are absorbing these extensions of ourselves into our individual system and experiencing an automatic “closure” or displacement of perception; we can’t escape this perpetual embrace of our daily technology unless we escape the technology itself and flee to a hermit’s cave. By consistently embracing all these technologies, we inevitably relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. Thus, in order to make use of them at all, we must serve them as we do gods. The Eskimo is a servomechanism of his kayak, the cowboy of his horse, the businessman of his clock, the cyberneticist – and soon the entire world – of his computer. In other words, to the spoils belongs the victor …
The machine world reciprocates man’s devotion by rewarding him with goods and services and bounty. Man’s relationship with his machinery is thus inherently symbiotic. This has always been the case; it’s only in the electric age that man has an opportunity to recognize this marriage to his own technology. Electric technology is a qualitative extension of this age-old man-machine relationship; 20th Century man’s relationship to the computer is not by nature very different from prehistoric man’s relationship to his boat or to his wheel – with the important difference that all previous technologies or extensions of man were partial and fragmentary, whereas the electric is total and inclusive. Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull and his nerves outside his skin; new technology breeds new man. A recent cartoon portrayed a little boy telling his nonplused mother: “I’m going to be a computer when I grow up.” Humor is often prophecy.