Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore is a now classic work from 1967. I have been interested in McLuhan since the mid 1980's, when I was a student at the University of Toronto. What kind of a fan of the Beatles and sixties culture would I be if I didn't share an interest in McLuhan and his visionary media observations? At the time of its initial publication, The Medium is the Massage must have seemed far out. The book is a mishmash of text and visuals, some pages full of words and some with next to nothing. You could turn twenty pages in two minutes or spend twenty minutes on two pages. The reading experience felt like watching a TV show, with the main show occupying the most time followed by brief spurts that were like commercials.
Forty-five years later, I can see how the book's format and the message within presaged the effects of worldwide media and the publishing industry:
"The Medium is the Massage" reveals how the medium, or process, of our time--electric technology--is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of your personal life. How it is forcing you to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought and every institution you formerly took for granted."
The book's appearance, that of mixing visuals and text, reminded me of later novels such as Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and Dennis Rodman's memoirs Bad As I Wanna Be and Walk on the Wild Side, all of which were written for readers with ever declining attention spans.
After Arab Spring, I could only read the following remark with mouth agape:
"Youth instinctively understands the present environment--the electric drama. It lives mythically and in depth. This is the reason for the great alienation between generations. Wars, revolutions, civil uprisings are interfaces within the new environments created by electric informational media."
Twitter and Facebook are these new environments which affect us all, even those like myself who adamantly remain selectively disconnected. I couldn't come to this conclusion fast enough, for McLuhan stated later:
"The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible."
Technological advances scare some of us, and I count myself among the scaredy-cats. My reaction to dealing with the future? McLuhan must be reading my mind:
"The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land."
For an introduction into McLuhan's media studies, The Medium is the Massage is 160 pages of wondrous futurisms. Some of the text seems rather Joycean in structure; I would read passages over and over and the only reason I did not finish this book in one day was that I dwelt on this complex and ungrammatical phraseology. The global village had certainly come to town and McLuhan was its first mayor. 

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