It happens today that when one is writing about media use and the vanishing of perspective in our culture, Marshall McLuhan is inevitably invited to play the role of discussant. McLuhan famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” And, in many essays on media effects, this line is about all that he is credited with.Yet, he is infamous, not merely for coining such perfectly relevant phrases, one other being that media are the “extensions of man,” but with positing ideas that range far deeper and far wider than any of these phrases could fully capture.
And thus we are left with a generation of writers and critics today who have heard of McLuhan and his phrases, but fail to fully understand them in theory or practice. His words are diminished to support notions of technological determinism because it makes sense to us and because talking about technological determinism is a convenient way to talk about our own normative beliefs, or how we think culture has gone wrong. With technological determinism, technology are the inanimate actors, and we are the passive recipients of their actions.
McLuhan, on the other hand, was profoundly human-centric. I don’t believe he would have written the way he did had he not thought this way. Technology is, by the way, the “extension of man.” Not the soul of man. Not the purpose of man. Therefore, one could argue against the very existence of technological determinism on the grounds that it really isn’t technology that determines anything in the first place. We thought of the technology and we built it. We just didn’t think about the effects that technology would have on us. As if you could blame the spoiled meat for making you sick when, in all reality, you had no idea meat could spoil in the first place. Perhaps you grew up in an environment where this was not talked about or your parents made certain either to eat everything before it went rancid or to toss out the spoiled food before you knew it had spoiled.
It isn’t the food’s fault. It isn’t the fault of the technology that helped us create new preservation methods. It’s simply the way things are.
While McLuhan is famous for his phrases, his definitions of those phrases seldom attract attention. In Understanding Media, McLuhan says this of the medium-message relationship: “For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” As he says, by inventing the railroad, man did not invent or reinvent transportation, but rather shifted the scale on which transportation operated. He made it bigger and faster. But, we like to argue that transportation caused globalization. Transportation takes us away from our families and encourages encounters with individuals who are dissimilar to us. Transportation subverts traditional normative assumptions about the way life is supposed to be.
None of this is true in practice, though most things are true in hindsight. To live as though our lives have been predetermined because of the speed of technological advancement is a fallacy that certainly will result in a life not fully lived. Messages have unintended consequences. This is true. Yet this fact does not immediately indicate that determinism is the way of life for all mankind. It ought to, on the other hand, challenge us to craft a greater wisdom about what it means to make decisions in our culture – one where we realize the possible unintended consequences of our actions for those existing in our global environment.