Medium as Environment

I had a small revelation, a nice bit of understanding, while reading on the train earlier tonite. This is from an article called Towards an Ecology of Understanding (which I’m pretty sure I discovered though the McLuhan Misunderstood paper that was posted a few weeks ago), which is a fantastic article:

Over and over I’ve talked to groups and individuals about new technology as new environment. Content of new environment is old environment. The new environment is always invisible. Only the content shows, and yet only the environment is really active as shaping force.

The content of a medium is always older mediums. And the latest, newest medium is the active shaping force of society because we are unaware of its effects – we can’t act any choice on them. So long as this is the case, development of society is out of our control. Society is in the backseat, along for the ride & paying the gas fare, as media technology sits behind the wheel, advancing for its own goals.

Medium and Message is a relationship directly linked to development and progression. It’s the image of Vygotsky again, and his ZPD with the boundaries of Potential and Completed. Except, as a collection of people, compared to one single human, development is so much more difficult to autonomously shape…probably because at that level of distinction, consciousness is a lot less lucid or focused.

One way out of this abusive Medium and Message relationship is to diminish the idea of progression. To stop thinking that a car is better than a horse, that an iPhone17 is better than an iPhone16, and that this year’s model is better than last year’s. Seeing, as a default, available technology as a spectrum of tools, ready for use depending on the situation and need, will make you more aware of the effect of any medium, old or new. This will clarify the choices both in and of environment.


The Flower of Evil

Here’s a summary of Chapter 8 of Understanding Media – The Spoken Word. I’ll publish summaries of Chapters 9 and 10 in future posts. I’ll also add some extended commentary below each summary about an interesting point or quote from each chapter.

Chapter 8 – The Spoken Word: Flower of Evil?

Back in chapter 6 (p.57 in my edition) McLuhan introduces the idea that spoken word is the first technology that allowed humans to consider themselves from an outside perspective. He builds on this idea in Chapter 8, which is a little more than 3 pages long.

McLuhan uses two examples to show that spoken experiences are much different than written experiences. Spoken word experiences are participatory, sensuous, unified, dramatic, and involved. Such orally based cultures even have a distaste for silence, and a strong affectionate characteristic, as illustrated by the travel guide to Greece excerpt.

Contrasting this, the phonetic written experience values privacy, separation of the senses, and the individual. McLuhan goes so far as to claim that individualism cannot occur without the written word. It is the speed or the automatic nature of the spoken word that affords situational reactions not only of language but also of tone or gesture or action, separating it from the detached, emotionless phonetic experience.

At this point McLuhan steps back and flips the script a bit. He considers the spoken word, or language itself, as the first fragmentation of humans – as written word is to speech, so is speech to instinct. Taking from Henri Bergson, he explains how the development of language increased consciousness of the individual at the expense of the consciousness of the collective mankind. The uniqueness of language, with its ability to contain style, created individuals.

McLuhan ends the chapter with a paragraph about how electronic technology has strong implications for the future of language, or, for a future without language. Electronic technology holds the potential return to some type of collective unconscious.

How would a future collective unconscious differ from the past collective unconscious?

To what extent is spoken word (language) an extension of man as opposed to a definition of man?


I’m not exactly sure what McLuhan means with his subtitle to this chapter (The Flower of Evil). It makes me think of the Jungle Book, but that’s fire. Maybe it’s meant to be sarcastic or, alluringly dramatic.

Twice in this very short chapter McLuhan mentions the act of reacting to oneself. This concept of being able to relate to the self is a major aspect of consciousness, I believe, and found in the idea of higher order thinking or learning. It’s stepping outside a self and being able to see is from a larger or smaller scale. It’s the process of reflecting. Dewey would simply call this thinking.

The affordances of (first electric media, and now) digital media have created a different level in which society can relate to itself. “Big Data” gives us this view of society, action, experience, that we don’t get to see in a daily, face-to-face. Technology can give us this ability to relate to ourselves at different scales, however the cost is that often we become numb of the individual at the one-to-one level. Consciousness, created by the emergence of spoken language itself, may be great…but is that evil flower progressing without me?

…always reacting to his own actions.” (p77)

…reacting in tone and gesture even to our own act of speaking.” (p79)

Financial Instruments as Mediums

How are financial instruments such as mortgage-related investment packages an extension of our senses or ourselves? How are they reorganizing our world? And are they an indication of what McLuhan and Kenneth Boulding call a “break boundary?” (the full question is here – scroll to the end of the text)

I would say yes, these financial instruments/systems have undergone a ‘break boundary” – they have emerged as entities or mediums in themselves.

The week before last I read Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, and in it he makes the strong case that marketizing something (a product, a service, an activity…anything) changes what that things is. It corrupts it. In other words: The Medium is the Message.

His book is powerful because he’s not exactly anti-markets, he thinks we need to look at individual situations closer, finding the decision points about where markets suit and where they do not. One of the most memorable lines in the book is something like Western Society has gone from having a market culture, to being a market culture.

To continue with Sandel’s example in a McLuhan light, when culture is put wholly through the medium of market we become numb to any cultural goals except for accumulating money (perhaps with a nice side order of justification). It becomes a closed system that tends not to consider any outside suggestion about what to do with our lives, imploding on itself as all activities start to fit this ultimate goal. It reminds me of the Super Mario video game where Mario is supposed to be saving Princess Toadstool, but it’s really just an excuse for him to go around jumping after gold coins. Why couldn’t they have been stars, hearts, unicorns or just plain circles, even?

With a market systems at our disposal (having them as opposed to being them), we can suspend judgment for a time, reflect and decide if it is suitable for that particular activity. We can better asses what the corruptions of that system might be (ie: what the message will be) closer to present time, rather than looking at it in the past. Emergent media comes at us faster than previous, thus we need this separation. In this case, we would be better able to select when we want to use a medium and when we want to experience it.

Throughout my daily routine, I come across numerous other similar examples of medium being the message. When education at the junior or high school level becomes the memorization of dates, names and phrases; When academia becomes not much more than a series of handshakes and a collection of citations; And at any given time when I look around my commuter train and note three-fourths of the riders staring at a smartphone…I feel no surprise that even video game characters can’t escape the numb pursuit of money.

four coins

Cornflakes and Cadillacs

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.