I’ll probably be posting several thoughts on McLuhan’s Understanding Media over the next while, as the McLuhan reading group I’ve joined is just getting underway. I don’t think there’s any forum set up for discussion, and anyway I prefer to post here since I can feed out to platforms like Twitter and FB, allowing for people outside the group to interact.
One of the themes I’m tagging in the margins of my paper copy of the book is Scale. After reading the first two chapters, this seems to me as part of his main thesis – that there’s a higher scale of human psyche that is emerging from an autonomous reaction to an increase of extensions of ourselves through media/technology. (He’s writing 50 years ago, before the digital boom – and even hints at his context being a transition age – so perhaps I should scratch the ‘is emerging’ and write ‘has emerged’?)
Related to this Scaling, is the division between “individual and society”. His narrative, even this early on in the book, certainly presents an unbalance between these two degrees of considering ‘man’, nearly always neglecting the idea that to live as an individual and in a society aren’t mutually exclusive. In his slower, less dramatic moments, it doesn’t seem like he fully believes this need be the case. However, perhaps his point is to warn of the unbalanced power of the emerging, technology induced, collective scale. After all, one of the drawbacks of long popular capitalism is its tendency to alienate the individual. What could be more powerful than a remedy to that?
It was the capitalist inspired line in chapter 1 (titled The Medium is the Message) that jumped out at me:
In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one and other and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out Cornflakes or Cadillacs.
I’ve often actually felt something wrong about the famous line The Medium the Message, and have preferred to think that the Medium has the potential to be the Message. But, here I began to see what he’s trying to say. Translating between scales uses one level’s medium as the destination level’s message. The individual wants breakfast cereal or a car; the society cares not which exact person buys what food or major appliance, but sees the production numbers that have been tallied up for decision making purposes. And, the latter consideration wasn’t nearly as easy to enact 200 years ago as it is today…to state it undramatically.