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Class 5: From hammer to pixel

March 4, 2021

John opened the class with a request for contributions to a discussion of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas informed by your interpretation of the reading and viewing material prepared for the class. He suggested basing the discussion around the three questions posed in the introduction to the reading:

  1. What impact did McLuhan believe mass media was having on 20th Century Western society?
  2. Why are his theories relevant to our online digital environment today?
  3. How do you respond to McLuhan’s ideas and how might they influence your behaviour, if at all?

You noted that McLuhan suggested that the infrastructure of a medium had a greater impact on us than the content of any message that might be conveyed. For instance, the effect of television on families and society led to a change in family dynamics – the tv set came to dominate the house and captivate attention in a way that hadn’t happened before. However, as there would have been only a single set in a household it also brought families together – gathered around it as they might have previously gathered around the fire in the hearth. We spoke about the difference between a largely oral culture that existed before the development of the written word and the gradual shift that took place following the development of printing: reading became a solitary exercise and led to the emergence of the individual. We became a society of individuals rather than social groupings. Electric media, as McLuhan called tv, was closer to oral culture than written and as such harkened back to the time of villagers gathering to tell stories and listen to fables. Hence McLuhan’s reference to the Global Village.

The emergence of the internet, as predicted by David Bowie during an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1999, has led to even more change:

The potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we are actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying

This ‘alien life form’ has facilitated the emergence of the phone as we know it today: a totally different beast from Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. You noted that the ‘always on’ feature of instant communication with anyone, anywhere has now become a feature of physical social engagement – you can sit in company comfortably not talking to one another, just using your phones.

Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Fountain, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.

 

Bowie also spoke of the importance of the public in the creative process, referring to the prescience of visual artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, in the early part of the 20th Century he said that:

the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st Century is going to be about.

We tried to envisage how the impact of the internet as a ‘medium’ might continue to impact society. You spoke of issues around the changing understanding of privacy, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), the changing nature of work and jobs. This reminded you of McLuhan’s suggestion that we create our tools and thereafter they shape us. The approach to understanding tools as an extension of our selves, a mechanism for interpreting and negotiating our environment, where everything from language to the computer chip is seen in the context of human nature, provides a different lens through which to see possible futures. With the numerous threats to the future of our planet as a result of our developing technologies it is important to try and be more aware of the possible outcomes from our inventions.

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