McLuhan and the Internet

If you are unfamiliar with Marshall McLuhan’s work, Jerry Janquart wrote in a post last month, you should really check him out. McLuhan wrote before the internet, yet his observations about our communication technologies are perhaps more relevant now than ever before.

McLuhan observed that in assessing the effect of new technologies, we invariably get caught up in an analysis of the content coming through the medium. In doing so, we tend to neglect a more fundamental question: how is the form of this medium altering our reception of the content being conveyed through it?

Building on McLuhan’s oft-quoted dictum that “the medium is the message”, Nicholas Carr has written an invaluable book showing how the internet is changing the way our brains receive, process and store information.

His book The Shallows begins by taking the reader on a fascinating journey through some of the different ‘intellectual technologies’ (that is, technologies which effect how we communicate information) that have dominated human civilization, showing that “in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”  To give just one example, when Nietzsche switched from writing by hand to using one of the prototypes of the typewriter, a friend commented that his writing style had changed, becoming tighter and more telegraphic. “You are right,” Nietzsche replied. “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

Of course, this is nothing new. We have probably all read about the way the clock changed the way people thought of time, or how the map altered our perception of space, and so forth. Where The Shallows breaks new ground, however, is in bringing the history of communication up to date with the latest discoveries in neuroscience.

More about this tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “McLuhan and the Internet

  1. Pingback: More about The Shallows » » Signs of the Times Sign of the Times | Salvo Magazine

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