10 December 2011

Understanding Media

This is my third and final post on my reading of Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media is the most widely heard-of book of his. People know three sayings from the book: hot medium, cool medium, and the medium is the message.

Hot versus cool media have to do with their level of definition. "Hot" refers to high definition and "cool" refers to low. In McLuhan's thought world radio was the prime example of a hot medium. From it one receives the impression of getting the full gamut that sound waves have to offer. It feels close, intense, and personal and stands in stark contrast to print. Print encourages a view that the world is primarily visual and linear. It thus facilitated the interchange of cultural knowledge and provided the conceptual framework for science and the industrialization of technology. The assembly line is a linear, one-step-at-a-time process and (I would add) the forerunner of the digital computer. Radio, on the other hand, has the effect of de-civilizing and re-tribalizing us. This occurs primarily from two effects: the sound medium, which is eminently social and non-linear, and the instant access around the globe (radio waves travel at the speed of light). Radio tribalizes millions of people at once. McLuhan said that Hitler was primarily a radio phenomenon: a charismatic leader extends the power of his word and presence by means of amplification of sound at rallies and by the radio.

Television is a cool medium because it was (until very recently) characterized by low definition. It invited us in because it forced us to fill in what was visually missing (color, sharp outline of people objects, etc.). It additionally garnered great strength from being visual and, since it is capable of showing far-off events live, it lulls us into thinking that the immediacy it can provide makes it always more relevant than books.

The effect of the medium, whether print, radio, or television, is considerably more important than the message contained in any particular book, radio emission, or television program. That is what McLuhan meant by "the medium is the message." In the modern period it was the leisurely access to a linear depiction of knowledge and truth in printed books that drove the Reformation, democracy, science and progressivism. Radio helped the creation of fascism. Television replaces all else and lulls us into thinking it holds the truth. In the Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan proposed that advertising (he was describing print ads) is destructive of all traditional cultures. Television ads and programming are now the principal conveyor of information to people and they are the main educators of children, more influential than years of schooling.

McLuhan was never a good stylist nor was he easy to understand, but his warnings are well worth listening to. Why are we driven to continue buying, filling our houses and lives with things we do not need nor bring us satisfaction but then try to fill the unmet need for satisfaction by buying yet more? Advertising on television has now destroyed all political discourse. I have one suggestion for all who wish to be closer to their families, who long for community, who wonder where American culture and democracy have gone, who seek satisfaction in living: turn off your TV. Limit your viewing drastically. Then you can get out of the house and meet people. Eat with your family with all electronics turned off. Read to your children every night when they're little and take them to concerts. Unplug to commerce and put it in its proper place (since we can't live without it). Turn on to life, to the people around you.

Angela Fournier, the main character in my series of three novels, never watches TV because it bores her. She is too young to know all this stuff I'm writing about, but at some level she intuits that there is a much richer life away from the screens. Such wisdom is rare but, here and there, you find very interesting people who have it. Please check out my book at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html Thanks!

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