Marshall Mc Luhan: What If He Was Right? (Part 2)

A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on April 9, 2014, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois

Leo Segedin   |   April 9, 2014 |   Print this essay

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The increasing dominance by technological media over public communication systems during the last 60 years has all but destroyed 600 years of Western book culture. Although some of us continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre–electronic age, media such as the telephone – film, – radio – TV and the Internet have – for all practical purposes – replacedÊit. We may feel that this electronic technology is only a recent addition – a supplement to old, technical practices – but – in that people born during the last 60 years have grown up in a culture increasingly dominated by such media – we can no longer think of it as new or superficial. Those of us who grew up before this transformation are – in a sense – ‘digital immigrants’ – in what is an intimidating, foreign country. Our efforts to use what for us is new technology are much like learning a new language where the most fluent speakers are our grandchildren. Three generations of people have been influenced by such media even before they acquire print literacy. Even infants are not immune. 38% of children younger than two have used a mobile device, up from just 10% in 2011. Time spent in front of mobile devices has tripled, from five to 15 minutes per day.

We truly live in an electronic media environment from infancy. Whereas, during the book period – literacy was primarily a characteristic of the middle and upper classes – most people today – regardless of income – are electronic media literate. In a typical family today – all members use some sort of electronic media device. Because of this –the shift between the generations has intensified – but it has reversed its direction. In the past, children had to become book literate in order to fit into our adult culture. Now we oldies have to become techies to fit into theirs.

The personal privacy we took for granted in pre 1950s culture is rapidly disappearing; – through technological media, everyone is becoming ‘connected’ with everyone else. People born between 1980 and 2000 “are accustomed to living in a world of vast transparency – tweeting – texting and emailing one another in a nonstop exchange of information and opinions.” They desire ‘involvement and participation – talking rather than reading – action rather than reflection – withdrawal and observation’. McLuhan attributes this transformation to the re–orchestration of the senses caused by the electronic media. It is the result – he says – of the past visual culture becoming multi–sensory.

In 1969, McLuhan said: The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems are immersing us in a world–pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric–information movement is decentralizing – rather than enlarging – the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized – this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity – a vacuum of the self – which generates tremendous violence – violence that is simply an identity quest – private or corporate – social or commercial.

In this electronic world – the need for physical representation and preservation of information has disappeared. Communication and record keeping – even money – has gone ‘paperless. Knowledge – which previously required physical representation – now exists in virtual space – in electronic circuitry. Chronological time and space – conceptualized from a single viewpoint – the boundaries between “here“ and “there“ and ‘now’ and ‘then’ – have been obliterated. We see, read and hear what is happening in the world all the time, all at once. Something happening in Syria and the Ukraine feels just as relevant and important as something happening in our own neighborhood.

On news telecasts – events which occurred in the past are mixed with ongoing events – all reported in small, rapidly presented segments. Unless blog writers identify their locations – we have no way of telling where in the world their messages are coming from. We now have instant access to information from all over the world. Wikipedia –, which did not exist 13 years ago – now has 17 million entries with 500 million users. Google answers over 1 billion questions a day. Since, 2006 – ‘google’ is in the dictionary as a verb. Without such access to information – advances in finance – communication – travel – publishing – journalism and dozens of other professions and industries would be impossible. The whole process of political organizing and protest has been transformed. The medical profession shares patient information electronically and instantaneously – increasing diagnostic efficiency. Medical staff no longer has to keep asking patients the same questions over and over again. Information which would have taken hours for professional researchers to discover in libraries is now instantly available to everyone with a click of a finger on a mouse.

On a personal level – so much have we become dependent on the Internet for information that – according to researchers – some of us have come to suffer from what they call ‘the google effect’. As a result of being online all the time – the borders between personal memories and internet information starts to blur. The subjective sense of self changes and we come to believe that internet information is our memory. We may think we know more – but we actually know less.

If – during the medieval period – the illiterate majority of people received their information in multi sensory sermons from biased Church friars in churches in groups – today they receive it in multi sensory, TV commentaries from biased Fox news commentators at home alone.

Because information is now stored on the Internet – the long rows of bookshelves in libraries and law offices have been replaced by long rows of computers. Entire libraries have been digitalized and made available to everyone. (According to another report, only about 16% of all books have been digitalized.) People can now order the text of books – called e–books – from Amazon, and – in a few seconds – can read them on Kindles and Ipads. Over the first quarter of 2011 – e–book sales were up 160 percent. Print sales – book sales – were down 9 percent. Although it keeps its sales figures secret – it is estimated that Amazon – with a 182 million customer base and 615 million users of its website –, – alone sold close to 22 million e–books three years ago, more than it did printed books. (According to another report, 6% more books were printed in the US in 2012 than the previous year) As a result – book stores are closing and publishers are merging or going out of business. People no longer write or type letters on paper; – they email – twitter and iPhone. Today, there are almost 1.5 billion iPhone users around the world. Over 2 billion people use the Internet and e–mail. More than 2 out of 3 people in the U.S. communicate with email. It has been estimated that in 2009 – 247 billion emails were sent per day. A year later – in 2010 – the estimate was around 294 billion. 294 billion messages per day means more than 2.8 million emails are sent every second and some 90 trillion emails are sent per year. 90% of these millions and trillions of messages, however, are spam and viruses.


Electronic media has transformed the character and social relationships of those who grow up under its influence. People create public images of themselves on media; – they perform popular roles and – in a sense – market themselves on Linkedin – Twitter and Facebook – rather than in person. We have become what we appear to be in media images. Such images replace face to face relationships. We ‘meet’ people – make ‘friends’ electronically. “Friending” is now a verb. We can also ’unfriend’. Even though we only know the person virtually – a ‘friend’ we instant message on Facebook will be almost as important to us as a “real–life“ friend we meet at lunch. We spend far more time talking to friends on cell phones – whether we are walking down a street – sitting on a bus or sipping coffee in a restaurant – that we ever did on our line phones at home – let alone ‘face to face’. Cell phone users check their phones up to 150 times a day. People make, receive or avoid 22 phone calls every day and send or receive messages 23 times a day. We have become virtual people.

(Along with googling and friending – so are texting and surfing verbs. Also, a search engine is not an engine – a platform is not a platform – a bookmark is not a bookmark – a cookie is not a cookie and a cloud is not a cloud (E. L. Doctorow).

Even one of the most used means of communication, – the iPhone – is a lot more than a traditional phone. While talking on the phone – you also can email – text and tweet on it. In addition to being a communication medium – it is also a source of information, a social service and an entertainment device. You can check out the latest news – sport and celebrity gossip. You can collect cinema tickets – boarding passes – concert tickets. You can play games on it. It is also a camera and can accommodate 3d satellite imaging. Iphones are now totally voice activated. They don’t have to be touched at all. Add to this, live visual imagery and you have oral communication with voice modulation, facial expressions and body gestures. For all practical purposes, we now live in a virtual, tribal society.

It's almost as if something hasn't really happened to us until it's been posted on Facebook or YouTube. Add that to the huge amount of personal information now stored on the Internet – births and deaths, marriages, telephone numbers, credit ratings, holiday pictures – and it's sometimes difficult to know where we end and the virtual world begins. Social networking has made it possible for people to know 500–600 other people in some sort of meaningful sense. Facebook – which began in 2004 – now has 1.6 billion users. 2 years ago – it had 500,000 users. As far back as April, 2009 – it logged in 13,872,640,000 minutes. Twitter has 49 million users in the U.S and more than 200 million users worldwide. One billion people use You Tube each month. 58% of all the people in the U.S. and 98% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 use social networks. In 2007 – more than half of all Americans between the ages of twelve and seventeen used some online social networking.

Google members click a ‘like’ button or leave a comment nearly 3 billion times a day. The significance of social media is evident internationally. 70% of You Tube’s and 77% of Twitter’s monthly users are outside the U.S. There are now dozens of such social media and apps – each with millions of users. Only one thing is certain: – those boundaries of our individualities are rapidly disappearing. As a result of easy, free access to electronic media – everyone is an equal opportunity authority – his words and pictures seen and heard instantaneously all over the world. Everyone has a platform to express their political views, –to judge current events and to defame celebrities. Every ignorant – irrational kook – racist and anti Semite has his or her say – a place to vent their venom. It’s as if electronic media finally gives previously ‘invisible’ people a public identity which literate culture denied them. They exist virtually in the media – if nowhere else.

What is also startling is the rapidity with which this technology is upgraded and the easy acceptance – the eager anticipation – of such changes. Devices, such as iPhones and iPads are updated almost every year and long lines await their initial distributions. Not that long ago – such changes would have been resisted as threatening to the status quo. All this information exists in virtual space where anyone with the right technology has access to it. Whether we like it or not – as in a tribal village – we are now all potentially exposed to each other. We have become ‘transparent’.

Not only friends – doctors and strangers – but also Congress and the Justice department – along with federal prosecutors – the local police – the F.B.I. – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – the N.S.A. – telecommunications companies and universities have access to information about you – collect and dispense such information – often without your permission or knowledge. Search programs can now – not only determine what you are likely to buy – but also how you are likely to vote – catch influenza – even whether you are likely to become a criminal or terrorist. Your music downloads and magazine subscriptions might indicate race and allow financial institutions to deny a mortgage. Considering that both access to private information and the control of public information dissemination are now consolidated in the hands of those who control the technological media – we might agree that – as McLuhan predicted – electronic technology has brought us all together. We have moved from the individualism of the past culture to a collective identity – but although I doubt this is quite what he had in mind – it certainly is what McLuhan would have to call a ‘global village’.


There are problems with McLuhan’s descriptions of the electronic age. McLuhan’s description of the culture resulting from the unifying impact of contemporary media is overly naive and idealistic. McLuhan was aware of the anxiety which people would feel with the advent of an electronic – oral – multi–sensory world of “total interdependence and superimposed co–existence”. He wrote, – “as our senses have gone outside us,ÊBig BrotherÊgoes inside…. Terror is the normal state of any oral society – for in it everything affects everything all the time.“ But he also assumed that this new world would satisfy “.. our long striving to recover for theÊWestern worldÊa unity of sensibility and of thought” that was lost during the book era.. Although he does suggest at one point that the ‘global village’ might be unpleasant and claustrophobic – he takes for granted that the ultimate result of the transformation from book to electronic culture would be positive – that the return to a multi–sensory, media environment was a good thing.

He is quoted as saying:
‘the golden age (the electronic world) as one of complete metamorphoses or translations of nature into human art – that stands ready of access to our electric age… we are now in a position… to transfer the entire show to the memory of a computer.’ And ‘if the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved – then might not our current translation of our entire lives into spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family a single consciousness?”

Implicit in the theory is the assumption that – in this new world – a student’s attitude toward education would be improved by such conversion. We are told that – according to most young students today –traditional education – which relies on the book and lecture – to them just reading from written or printed script – is obsolete. In that it takes more effort; – knowledge in print is also more difficult to learn. It requires longer attention spans. Compared to electronic, multi–media presentation of information – the old, sequential media is not pleasurable. It has little connection with simultaneous – immediate – multi–sensory experiences that electronic media offers. For these students – it is too impersonal. Since it is not involving – it is boring.

McLuhan said:
Because education – which should be helping youth to understand and adapt to their revolutionary new environments – is instead being used merely as an instrument of cultural aggression – imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age. Our entire educational system is reactionary – oriented to past values and past technologies – and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power. The generation gap is actually a chasm – separating not two age groups – but two vastly divergent cultures. I can understand the ferment in our schools – because our educational system is totally rearview mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation.
Our current schools… are intellectual penal institutions. In today’s world, – to paraphrase Jefferson – the least education is the best education – since very few young minds can survive the intellectual tortures of our educational system.

The mosaic image of the TV screen generates a depth–involving nowness and simultaneity in the lives of children that makes them scorn the distant visualized goals of traditional education as unreal – irrelevant and puerile. Another basic problem is that – in our schools – there is simply too much to learn by the traditional analytic methods; – this is an age of information overload. The only way to make the schools other than prisons without bars is to start fresh with new techniques and values. Multi–sensory, involving electronic education is assumed to eliminate such problems. But, while technology certainly makes certain procedures more efficient – does electronic teaching improve education? Are contemporary students more knowledgeable and skillful in functioning in today’s society and in preparation for tomorrow? Enthusiastic supporters of electronic media maintain that that such media does. They believe that it results in the development of what they call a hypertext mind. According to them – such minds jump around – using cognitive structures that work on many levels at the same time – rather than linear, sequential structures of traditional thought. They multitask. Students – they say – can read, listen and speak at the same time. They can talk on the phone while typing an email. Computer game playing – they say – is good training for the development of such skills. People who have grown up in this electronic environment are said that – in institutional situations – they “work more closely together – leverage right– and left–brain skills – ask the right questions – learn faster and take risks previous generations resisted.”

Since such abilities are necessary to function in contemporary society – educational institutions should support them rather than traditional approaches. As a result – school upgrades today consist of replacing textbooks, chalkboards and lectures with iPads and laptops and children taking exams online. Even University courses are taught online.

However, others are not so sure. Problems have resulted from such teaching. It's pretty clear that the electronic media world we all now inhabit is producing changes in behavior and that such behavior is not positive. We know – for example – that the spread of home computers and high speed Internet access has caused significant shortening of attention spans required for reading and reflection and declining math and reading scores. Not only are attention spans shorter – but personal communication skills are reduced and there is a marked reduction in the ability to think abstractly.

Also, it has been shown that multitasking is not as workable as times spent at concentrated study. In general – people are severely frustrated when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time – if both tasks require selecting which one to do and then deciding what should be done. Many researchers believe that such action planning represents a “bottleneck“ – in which the human brain can only perform one task at a time. Multitasking has been described by critics as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” Some researchers have concluded that it is difficult, and possibly impossible to learn new information while engaging in multitasking.

They have found that students who engaged in more multitasking reported more problems with their academic work. Facebook and text messaging while studying were negatively related to student grades – while online searching and emailing were not. Multitasking and constant connectivity is creating a distracted generation with a short attention span. Multitasking frazzles the brain, making it less productive.Ê Heavy multitaskers have trouble paying attention and filtering out irrelevant information. The failure to filter suggests that they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information – or – in other words – their cognitive ability is impaired.Ê While multitaskers think they are accomplishing more – studies show the opposite to be true.Ê Their performance suffers greatly. The brain is not wired to multitask efficiently and effectively. As a result of such changes in our educational systems – U.S. students are losing out to those in countries which maintain to a greater extent the older educational systems. A few years ago – a college teacher reported that students – who are 20 year–old and under have grown up connected – yet will admit that focusing on one thing for any length of time is problematic. Wedded to their phones – they glance at them numerous times in class – jump when it jiggles and bolt out of the class to answer it; and as for critical thinking…humm, is it necessary?ÊÊ Some students sleep with their phones, – and have separation anxiety at the thought of being disconnected from them. In contrast – students in their late 20s and upward tend not to be connected all the time. They are certainly not connected 24/7 – tend to ask questions and generally are more engaged in class. This age group reads both online and printed text. About 80% of the 20 under group didn’t read on or offline. Everyone used social networking.

On the other hand – the printed page focuses our attention and promotes creative thought – while the Internet encourages rapid sampling of small bits of information from numerous sources. “Studies in the past two decades indicate that people often understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen. Screens may inhibit comprehension by preventing people from intuitively navigating and mentally mapping long texts.” The brain reads differently online and offline; – the online brain scans and gleans information – often taking in bites or small bits of information; the offline brain scans less – tends to read rather than scan – underlines and stops to contemplate and reflect more than online. His theory exaggerates the difference between the linearity of books and the non linearity of electronic media. Contrary to what McLuhan maintained – the book, unlike the scroll – is not necessarily linear or sequential. Although the text of a scroll and a book are necessarily sequential – reading them is not. With a book – you can jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly. You can flip back and forth between two pages and even study them both at once. It is the paper equivalent of random–access memory on a computer. You can’t do that on an Ipad. Reading a book on an Ipad is more like reading a scroll. You either creep through the book – page after page – or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term.

It is inconvenient – to say the least. It’s no wonder that the rise of e–reading has revived two words for pre–print–era reading technologies:– scroll and tablet.


McLuhan’s theory also exaggerates literacy in the book period. All through the periods where literacy was dramatically creating all the social changes he describes – the majority of people remained illiterate, and – although public literacy has always been considered a characteristic of our democratic society – in reality, over half the people in the U.S. at the end of the book period were virtually illiterate. In fact – if we think of book culture as consisting of those who take books seriously – of scholars and critics – of people likely to be found in universities – publishing houses and newspapers – we are considering a very small culture indeed.


McLuhan’s theory is oblivious to the psychological effect of technological media. “Today’s student is constantly connected and relies on social networking to stay in touch. Yet – the relentless connection to it has led to a new solitude.” Some worry that more time online means missing out on important face–to–face interactions. “Facebook depression“ can result when young people who spend a lot of time on such sites exhibit symptoms of depression because their lives aren't as interesting as the posts of others. Being so hyper–connected can even make us behave as if we have real psychological disorders.

Technology is causing some people to exhibit symptoms of problems including narcissistic personality disorder – obsessive–compulsive disorder – addiction and depression – among others. Technology today is “so user–friendly that the very use fosters our obsessions – dependence and stress reactions“. Such dependence on media resembles addiction. You get used to it – you want it and it's hard to do without it. Students asked to go without media for 24 hours liken their experiences to addiction withdrawal. “People made explicit connections to drug addiction, alcohol addiction, addiction to smoking. They talked about needing a fix.“ “There's good evidence the feedback we get from technology – the retweets and bings and pings that come out of the phone every time somebody sends us a text message – create a reward system in the brain that gives us a little squirt of dopamine each time“. “For some people, that can turn into what looks a lot like addiction.


The hostility and apprehension with which many of us greeted ‘the end of the book’ – the threat we felt to our values and way of thinking – is much like what Socrates feared with the development of writing. As far back as the 5th century BC – Socrates worried that writing would destroy the Greek tradition of dialectic. His primary concern was that people would write things down instead of remembering them. He wrote, “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s soul because they will not use their memories.” Plato quotes him as saying, “They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Such concerns were similar to the alarm and revulsion the growing quantity of books aroused in the latter seventeenth century. They were and are valid fears. The impact of university administrators and faculty who employ electronic media as a substitute for – rather than an implementation or re–articulation of traditional books – have done much damage to the education of the last several generations of students.

But there may be another reason for our discomfort. Most of us who grew up before the electronic age – we ‘digital immigrants’ – have difficulty understanding and participating fully in this world in which our children – and even more so – our grandchildren – function so easily and naturally. The reason for our incomprehension may be due – not only to rapid cultural changes to which we have trouble adjusting – but also to the fact that the brains of these ‘digital natives’ are likely to be physically different than ours as a result of the digital input they received growing up. People who grow up in different cultural environments do not just think about different things; – they actually think differently. It may be that these differences are due to people using different parts of their brain or that there may be actual physical changes in its structure brought about by changes in media stimulation. Cognitive processes in the brain apparently are far more malleable than we previously thought. Evidence for this is supported by the changes found in the brains of trained musicians. Intensive musical training and practice resulted in a 5% increase in the size of musicians’ cerebellums. Other research supports the conclusion that intensive practice results in changes in the brain’s wiring and chemistry. Electronic devices have an impact on the micro– cellular structure and complex biochemistry of our brains. It is likely that a total, constant environment of media stimulation has the same effect. “Our brains are sensitive to stimuli moment to moment, and – if you spend a lot of time with a particular mental experience or stimulus – the neural circuits that control that mental experience will strengthen. At the same time – if we neglect certain experiences – the circuits that control those will weaken. If we're not having conversations or looking people in the eye – human contact skills – they will weaken. And that, in turn, affects our personality and our behavior. In short – on this basis – the modern world could well be altering our human identity.

One implication of this on cultural change is that the thinking processes of people in different cultures and in different historical periods are not only determined by the social influence of media – by fundamental cultural shifts – but also by the resulting physiological brain changes. Whatever else media does or doesn’t do – it does change brain structure and behavior and thus has an effect on the way we perceive the world. As the media change – so do our brains and – as our brains change – so do we. In other words – people who develop in different cultural environments have different brain structures and therefore live in different mental realities. Communication between them thus is very difficult – if not impossible. Although McLuhan says that the reason for understanding what is going is necessary if we want to control it – the stresses and conflicts we feel may be understandable – but also difficult and possibly impossible to resolve. They are intrinsic and unavoidable.

They are physical as well as sociological facts; – this is the world we live in – like it or not. We cannot change it – anymore than fish can change the water they swim in – even assuming that they are aware of the water.

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