Social Medium

On the way to work this morning I saw an advertisement for a local Chicago college that posed the question: Is social media making us anti-social? This question is common enough these days, but it made me think of Marshall McLuhan. He’s the man who saw all of this social media/internet/world-wide-web stuff coming back in the 60s. If you are unfamiliar with McLuhan, you should really check him out. I know that Douglas Coupland has a very fine little biography of him which is a good place to start. I can also point you to an article by John Coleman from the Salvo archives. Posted below is a short sidebar from that article.

From Welcome to the Jungle: Marshall McLuhan, Media, and the Ecology of the Digital Age by John Coleman. Salvo issue 3, Summer 2007.

We Are Marshall

Who is Marshall McLuhan? If you can answer that question, then you are privy to information that no one else on earth has. For McLuhan was many people simultaneously and none of them wholly. Even his theories were provisional and constantly in revision. When a noted American sociologist challenged one of his assertions, McLuhan responded, “You don’t like those ideas? I got others.”

In terms of education, McLuhan was a Cambridge-trained English professor. In terms of influence, he was a pop-cultural savant, equally as adept at analyzing the miniskirt or the twist as at assessing the potential impact on the culture of various media technologies. McLuhan once patented a formula for removing urine odor from underpants. He tried to convince Tom Wolfe that they should write a play together in which the media would appear on stage as characters. And he tried his hand at two different musicals, one of which involved Russian Elvis fans who were permitted for a time to govern America.

In both his writing and his conversations, McLuhan was often impenetrable. Like the French philosopher Jacque Derrida, he reveled in wordplay and ambiguity. And like the young John Lennon, he loved to “put on” his audiences, intentionally providing nonsense answers to serious questions, making straight-faced jokes, and employing doubletalk.

To one detractor, McLuhan wrote,

“I have no theories whatever about anything.
I make observations by way of discovering
contours, lines of force, and pressures. I satirize
at all times, and my hyperboles are as nothing compared to the events to which they refer.”

As Gary Wolf notes in a recent article for Wired magazine, McLuhan’s evasive personality is part of the reason why he has enjoyed such staying power. His “slogans circulate because they are snappy but also because they have never been understood,” Wolf writes. “Were they neatly wrapped up in a systematic sociology of media, they would be absorbed, superseded, and forgotten.”

McLuhan’s elusiveness also explains why his fans are spread among such disparate quarters. Embraced by liberals and conservatives, the religious and the secular, the East and the West, he is “owned” by everyone, and all find in him exactly what they want and need to find. Indeed, if McLuhan appears oracular, it is partly because his work resonates with just about any theory, development, or trend; the man can be so opaque that the only thing you see is your own reflection, which is most likely what you were hoping to see anyway.

Who is Marshall McLuhan? In this sense, I suppose we all are. And given his belief that it is people who are ultimately the content of a given medium’s message, this is a situation that would have probably pleased McLuhan greatly.


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