Marshall McLuhan Explains Why We’re Blind to How Technology Changes Us, Raising the Question: What Have the Internet & Social Media Done to Us?

Image of Mar­shall McLuhan at Cana­da, by Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

So many of us use Face­book every day, but how many of us know that its enor­mous pres­ence in our lives owes, in part, to mod­ern phi­los­o­phy? “In the course of his stud­ies at Stan­ford,” writes John Lan­ches­ter in a recent Lon­don Review of Books piece of Face­book, Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire Peter Thiel, an ear­ly investor in the com­pa­ny, “became inter­est­ed in the ideas of the US-based French philoso­pher René Girard, as advo­cat­ed in his most influ­en­tial book, Things Hid­den since the Foun­da­tion of the World,” espe­cial­ly a con­cept he called “mimet­ic desire.”

“Human beings are born with a need for food and shel­ter,” writes Lan­ches­ter. “Once these fun­da­men­tal neces­si­ties of life have been acquired, we look around us at what oth­er peo­ple are doing, and want­i­ng, and we copy them.” Or as Thiel explained it, “Imi­ta­tion is at the root of all behav­ior.” Lan­ches­ter reports that “the rea­son Thiel latched onto Face­book with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a busi­ness that was Girar­dian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy,” yet few of us, its users, have clear­ly per­ceived that essen­tial aspect of Face­book and oth­er social media plat­forms.

Mar­shall McLuhan, despite hav­ing died decades before their devel­op­ment, would have caught on right away — and he under­stood why even we savvy denizens of the 21st cen­tu­ry haven’t. “For the past 3500 years of the West­ern world, the effects of media — whether it’s speech, writ­ing, print­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, radio or tele­vi­sion — have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly over­looked by social observers,” said the author of Under­stand­ing Media and The Medi­um is the Mes­sage. “Even in today’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary elec­tron­ic age, schol­ars evi­dence few signs of mod­i­fy­ing this tra­di­tion­al stance of ostrich­like dis­re­gard.”

Those words come from an in-depth 1969 inter­view with Play­boy mag­a­zine that broke the celebri­ty lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor McLuhan’s ideas to an even wider audi­ence than they’d had before. In it he diag­nosed a “pecu­liar form of self-hyp­no­sis” he called “Nar­cis­sus nar­co­sis, a syn­drome where­by man remains as unaware of the psy­chic and social effects of his new tech­nol­o­gy as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, pre­cise­ly at the point where a new media-induced envi­ron­ment becomes all per­va­sive and trans­mo­gri­fies our sen­so­ry bal­ance, it also becomes invis­i­ble.”

As McLuhan saw it, “most peo­ple, from truck dri­vers to the lit­er­ary Brah­mins, are still bliss­ful­ly igno­rant of what the media do to them; unaware that because of their per­va­sive effects on man, it is the medi­um itself that is the mes­sage, not the con­tent, and unaware that the medi­um is also the mas­sage — that, all puns aside, it lit­er­al­ly works over and sat­u­rates and molds and trans­forms every sense ratio. The con­tent or mes­sage of any par­tic­u­lar medi­um has about as much impor­tance as the sten­cil­ing on the cas­ing of an atom­ic bomb.”

Just last month, no less omnipresent an inter­net titan than Google cel­e­brat­ed McLuhan’s 106th birth­day, and a social observ­er called PR Pro­fes­sor saw in it a cer­tain irony: though “it seems like tech­nol­o­gy that extends man’s abil­i­ty to expe­ri­ence and inter­pret the world is pos­i­tive and desir­able,” McLuhan point­ed out “that the inher­ent ten­den­cy to focus on the mes­sages with­in the media make us blind to the lim­its and struc­tures imposed by the medi­ums them­selves.” This blind­ness has con­se­quences indeed, since, accord­ing to McLuhan, each time a soci­ety devel­ops a new media tech­nol­o­gy, “all oth­er func­tions of that soci­ety tend to be trans­mut­ed to accom­mo­date that new form” as that tech­nol­o­gy “sat­u­rates every insti­tu­tion of that soci­ety.”

This went for speech, writ­ing, print, and the tele­graph as well as it goes for “social media plat­forms like Twit­ter, which reduce expres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties to 140 char­ac­ters of text or express­ing one’s self through the ‘re-tweet­ing’ of posts by oth­ers.” McLuhan believed that at one time only the inter­pre­tive work of the artist, “who has had the pow­er — and courage — of the seer to read the lan­guage of the out­er world and relate it to the inner world,” could allow the rest of us to rec­og­nize the thor­ough­go­ing effects of tech­nol­o­gy on soci­ety, but that “the new envi­ron­ment of elec­tric infor­ma­tion” had made pos­si­ble “a new degree of per­cep­tion and crit­i­cal aware­ness by nonartists.” At least more of us, if we step back, can now under­stand our afflic­tion by mimet­ic desire, Nar­cis­sus nar­co­sis, or any num­ber of oth­er trou­bling con­di­tions. What to do about them remains an open ques­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­shall McLuhan Pre­dicts That Elec­tron­ic Media Will Dis­place the Book & Cre­ate Sweep­ing Changes in Our Every­day Lives (1960)

Mar­shall McLuhan in Two Min­utes: A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the 1960s Media The­o­rist Who Pre­dict­ed Our Present

Has Tech­nol­o­gy Changed Us?: BBC Ani­ma­tions Answer the Ques­tion with the Help of Mar­shall McLuhan

McLuhan Said “The Medi­um Is The Mes­sage”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

Mar­shall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buck­min­ster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Mod­ern Tech­nol­o­gy & Media (1971)

New Ani­ma­tion Explains Sher­ry Turkle’s The­o­ries on Why Social Media Makes Us Lone­ly

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.

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Comments (3)
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  • Sue Stevenson says:

    In the light of this, I won­der how much twit­ter is to blame for these peo­ple’s utter inabil­i­ty to con­tex­tu­alise and to under­stand the role of an author cre­at­ing char­ac­ters who are racist, etc:

  • HitlerLovesCIAfakeMSM says:

    Doubt­less the social jus­tice take news media cru­saders like those work­ing for Soros at Salon and those at the sell out fas­cist CIA mouth­piece Wash­ing­ton Post who destroyed Pewdiepie’s Dis­ney con­tract with their b.s. alle­ga­tions of racism not only missed Mel Brooks “Spring­time for Hitler”, but would go cross eyed bark­ing star­ing slack jawed and drool­ing, if ever asked their thoughts on McLuhan.

    Mind you, it’s not that I’m impugn­ing their jour­nal­is­tic integri­ty, just that I doubt it’s ever hav­ing exist­ed.

  • Matt Michael Kibbie von Schwerin says:

    Ummm… what are you say­ing? Did YOU read the sub head­ing of that arti­cle which said “often with­out even read­ing them”? Are you say­ing authors can’t cre­ate racist char­ac­ters? That’s what we need. MORE SJW virtue sig­nal­ing and CENSORSHIP for but­thurt snowflakes. By all means- CENSOR race too. Oh unless it’s white males. THEY must ALL DIE for set­ting up this “sys­temic racist soci­ety cul­ture and gov­ern­ment”… Christ wept.

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