McLuhan on Electronic Media

I’m reading McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) as I prepare a paper for the Media Ecology Association conference this summer. I’m struck by his prophetic insights into the effect of “electronic media” on the human condition. My MEA conference paper will challenge some of his basic assumptions from a (surprise, surprise) Whiteheadian panexperiential and anthrodecentric perspective. But for now, I just wanted to share some excerpts and brief commentary.


“The principle of numbness comes into play with electric technology, as with any other. We have to numb our central nervous system when it is extended and exposed, or we will die. Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness and unconsciousness, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body. Apparently this could not have happened before the electric age gave us the means of instant, total field-awareness. With such awareness, the subliminal life, private and social, has been hoicked up into full view, with the result that we have ‘social consciousness’ presented to us as a cause of guilt-feelings. Existentialism offers a philosophy of structures, rather than categories, and of total social involvement instead of individual separateness or points of view. In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.” -McLuhan (UM, 47).

What he says about intensified social consciousness causing guilt-feelings seems to refer to the all too common phenomenon of mob-like social media shaming. E.g., the recent Tuvel Affair, or any number of recent anti-etc. protests where chants of “shame!, shame!, shame!” break out, each protestor with one hand clenched in a fist pumping in rhythm, while the other holds an iPhone to livestream themselves in the hopes of being retweeted by others equally #woke. I’m being cynical, since of course the problem is not being woke to the variety of oppressions infecting our late capitalist society, but the way resistance to these forms of oppression is all too easily co-opted by corporate-owned social media and transformed into a narcissistic celebration of identity rather than lasting political and institutional change.


Below, McLuhan seems uncharacteristically optimistic about the potential of electronic media to create a “global village,” a scenario that has not played out as we may have hoped:

“The immediate prospect for literate, fragmented Western man encountering the electric implosion within his own culture is his steady and rapid transformation into a complex and depth-structured person emotionally aware of his total interdependence with the rest of human society.” -McLuhan (UM, 50-51).


Below, McLuhan speaks to the way what we have come to call the Internet has extended our nervous system and consciousness far beyond the already arbitrary skin barrier. He also discusses the great speed of this new information superhighway. But I’m reminded of the Anthropocenic reversal or figure-ground shift discussed by Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures, and developed further by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in a recent talk at UC Davis on the coming cosmopolitical war. Modernity defined itself by the bifurcation of Nature, whereby human agents charged themselves with achieving mastery over an inert nature largely passive before our historical projects. The rapidity of modernization has transformed the planet beyond recognition in only a few generations, such that our species is now recognized as a geological force. But just as we enter the Anthropocene, a shift in agency and in speed has occurred, such that, as de Castro cleverly put it, the glaciers are now melting faster than our social system can change its mode of production in order to mitigate said melting. It now seems that we humans are the passive and inert ones, while Gaia is waking up to her own catastrophic agency.

“By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls—all such extensions of our bodies, including cities—will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of mediation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must serve his electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs. But there is this difference, that previous technologies were partial and fragmentary, and the electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as private consciousness. With the new media, however, it is also possible to store and translate everything; and, as for speed, that is no problem. No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier.” -McLuhan (UM, 57-58).


Finally, McLuhan predicts Facebook’s business model a generation before Zuckerberg was even born.

“Electric technology is directly related to our central nervous systems, so it is ridiculous to talk of ‘what the public wants’ played over its own nerves…Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly. Something like this has already happened with outer space, for the same reasons that we have leased our central nervous systems to various corporations.” -McLuhan (UM, 68). 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. ashramdiary says:

    Instructive! Mcluhan’s precognitive insights are amazing, especially the metaphor of the brain “worn” outside the skull and the nerves outside the hide. Does this suggest that we are morphing toward a consciousness almost cosmic while still tethered to the skin that encapsulates the ego?

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