“The electronic media haven’t wiped out the book: it’s read, used, and wanted, perhaps more than ever. But the role of the book has changed. It’s no longer alone. It no longer has sole charge of our outlook, nor of our sensibilities.” As familiar as those words may sound, they don’t come from one of the think pieces on the changing media landscape now published each and every day. They come from the mouth of midcentury CBC television host John O’Leary, introducing an interview with Marshall McLuhan more than half a century ago.
McLuhan, one of the most idiosyncratic and wide-ranging thinkers of the twentieth century, would go on to become world famous (to the point of making a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) as a prophetic media theorist. He saw clearer than many how the introduction of mass media like radio and television had changed us, and spoke with more confidence than most about how the media to come would change us. He understood what he understood about these processes in no small part because he’d learned their history, going all the way back to the development of writing itself.
Writing, in McLuhan’s telling, changed the way we thought, which changed the way we organized our societies, which changed the way we perceived things, which changed the way we interact. All of that holds truer for the printing press, and even truer still for television. He told the story in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which he was working on at the time of this interview in May of 1960, and which would introduce the term “global village” to its readers, and which would crystallize much of what he talked about in this broadcast. Electronic media, in his view, “have made our world into a single unit.”
With this “continually sounding tribal drum” in place, “everybody gets the message all the time: a princess gets married in England, and ‘boom, boom, boom’ go the drums. We all hear about it. An earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk, away go the drums again.” The consequence? “We’re re-tribalizing. Involuntarily, we’re getting rid of individualism.” Where “just as books and their private point of view are being replaced by the new media, so the concepts which underlie our actions, our social lives, are changing.” No longer concerned with “finding our own individual way,” we instead obsess over “what the group knows, feeling as it does, acting ‘with it,’ not apart from it.”
Though McLuhan died in 1980, long before the appearance of the modern internet, many of his readers have seen recent technological developments validate his notion of the global village — and his view of its perils as well as its benefits — more and more with time. At this point in history, mankind can seem less united than ever than ever, possibly because technology now allows us to join any number of global “tribes.” But don’t we feel more pressure than ever to know just what those tribes know and feel just what they feel?
No wonder so many of those pieces that cross our news feeds today still reference McLuhan and his predictions. Just this past weekend, Quartz’s Lila MacLellan did so in arguing that our media, “while global in reach, has come to be essentially controlled by businesses that use data and cognitive science to keep us spellbound and loyal based on our own tastes, fueling the relentless rise of hyper-personalization” as “deep-learning powered services promise to become even better custom-content tailors, limiting what individuals and groups are exposed to even as the universe of products and sources of information expands.” Long live the individual, the individual is dead: step back, and it all looks like one of those contradictions McLuhan could have delivered as a resonant sound bite indeed.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.