The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan criticized using Noël Carroll: Philosophy of Mass Media

Content inspired or extract from Daniel Pinkas, seminar for HEAD Media Design Master, Nov 2010

Essay: The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan. Playboy Magazine, March 1969.

Digest
Marshall McLuhan from the university of Toronto wrote two main books that made him famous – The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) – he became the so-called “high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media”. His (frequently baffling) theories about the impact of the media on man and the flashy metaphors of his own became very famous. They need to be balanced with nowadays critics.
For McLuhan, communication is the communication of lived experience and the aim of communication is, in a way, to duplicate this experience. As experience is not linear and multi-dimensional, media that get close to this definition are the best.
Here is an overview of some of his main theories.

Summary
• We shape our tools thereafter our tools shape us (and change the society)
• The medium is the message
• Alphabet brought linear thinking and logic, it killed other rich “juxtapositional” way of thinking
• Electronic media and mass media retrieve man sensory balance, it is the electronic revolution
• There is hot and cool media
• TV is a hot and tactile medium
• Electronic child spend so much time in front of TV before first grade that his harmonious senses ratio is not adapted to old style schools and society
• Gutenberg invention (type) is the beginning of capitalism. While Marx says it comes from evolution of industrial forces of production, He says historical society evolution is communication technologies driven, leading to the Global Village.

We shape our tools thereafter our tools shape us (and change the society)
• Like a fish not conscious of the water it swims in. Man is not conscious of what is happening to him, he calls this Narcissus narcosis.
• “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”
• Concerning this unawareness, “an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment”, he says, he calls it the rearview-mirror view of the world.
The medium is the message
• McLuhan’s definition of media is broad, it includes “any technology whatever that creates extensions of the human body and senses, from clothing to computer”
• Because of this pervasive effect of media on man the medium itself become the message, not the content
Technology extends senses and give primacy to some of them, it breaks the sensory balance.
• All media, from phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. […] and is like “an amplification of an organ, senses or function.”
• Prehistoric (what he calls “tribal”) man perceived the world equally through a harmonious balance of his senses, hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste. As technological innovations are extensions of capacities and senses, it alters the human sensory balance.
Alphabet brought linear thinking and logic, it killed other rich “juxtapositional” way of thinking
• The alphabet gave advantage to linear modes of thinking loosing other modes more imaginative, intuitive, of juxtaposition.
• The writings of egyptian, chinese, etc were an extension of the senses as they gave pictorial expression to reality, unlike phonetic writing which semantically meaningless letters. Alphabet and it’s simple visual forms served to neutralize all these complex and rich divergencies. Alphabet gave advantage to the sense of the eye and made man transform from a complex synaesthesia to a fragmented man. Phonetic alphabet is then a psychic and social disaster. For McLuhan, Type, the prototype of all machines, ensured the primacy of the eye and the doom of tribal man.
Electronic media and mass media retrieve man sensory balance, it is the electronic revolution
• The best communication media preserve experience and the tribal sensory balance.
“The electric media are the telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, all of which have not only extended a single sense or function as the old mechanical media did — i.e., the wheel as an extension of the foot phonetic alphabet as an extension of the eye – but have enhanced and externalized our entire central nervous system, thus transforming all aspects of our social and psychic existence” retrieving the integral man.
There is hot and cool media
• The ear is sensitive, hyperaesthesia, all-inclusive, whereas the eye is more neutral, focused. The ear unlike the eye cannot be focused and is synaesthetic rather than analytical and linear.
As ear is hot and eye is cold, spoken words is more emotionally laden than written one. Vocal expression contains intonations rich in emotions, therefore tribal man was more spontaneous and volatile without written word.
• “TV viewing is, in short, intense participation and low definition – what I call a “cool” experience, as opposed to an essentially “hot”, or high definition / low participation, medium like radio.”
“Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes; hot media are low in participation, or completion, by the audience and cool media are high in participation. A hot medium is one that extends a single sense with high definition. […] a complete filling in of data without intense audience participation.”
• The telephone and speech is cool (gives little data and demands filling in). Radio is hot (greats amount of high-definition information, little to be filled in). Lecture, book : hot and seminar, conversation : cold.
TV is a cold and tactile medium
• Unlike film or photograph, TV is primarily an extension of the sense of touch rather than of sight. Because of the low resolution of TV the viewer has to be on an active participation state. He becomes the screen whereas in film he becomes the camera.
• TV is a tactile medium – Understanding media p. 365-366 – (Find it in english)
“L’image de télévision en somme, plus encore que l’icône, est un prolongement du toucher. Là où elle se heurte à une culture alphabétique, elle s’épaissit nécessairement le mélange sensoriel en transformant des prolongements fragmentaires et spécialisés en un inextricable filet d’expérience. Les jeunes gens qui ont subi dix ans de télévision ont naturellement contracté une impérieuse habitude de participation en profondeur qui fait paraitre irréels, dénués de sens et anémiques les objectifs lointains et imaginaires de la culture courante.”
Electronic child spend so much time in front of TV before first grade that his harmonious senses ratio is not adapted to old style schools and society
• Educational system is not adapted to new generation (of the 70’s), the TV child finds it difficult to adjust to the fragmented visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by electric media. Electric child’s natural instinct is to have a unified sensorium approach to the book that resolutely rejects that approach demanding an isolate visual attitude.
• TV child has been relentlessly exposed to all the “adult” news of the modern world, his parents plopped him down in front of a TV set at the age of 2 to tranquilize him, and before to enter kindergarten he clocked as much as 4000 hours of television.
Gutenberg invention (type) is the beginning of capitalism. While Marx says it comes from evolution of industrial forces of production.
• He says that all of contemporary man’s traditional values, attitudes and institutions are going to be destroyed and replaced in and by the new electric age.
For McLuhan technologies of communication is the key to historical process more than the rest of production forces. In opposition to Marx and the historical materialism
He says historical society evolution is communication technologies driven, leading to the Global Village, not centralized, community based, as an ed to individualism.
History evolution
• In 3 phases
Tribal era to Renaissance (before Gutenberg)
Gutenberg era, until XXe century
New era taking place, post-Gutenberg, mass communication media, electric media, it was TV era (and now it can be applied to our era where computers take a bigger role in our everyday lives).
• The three basic technological innovation are the phonetic alphabet (dominance of the eye sense), movable type in the 16th century (that accelerated this process) and in 1844 what McLuhan calls the beginning of an electronic revolution came to restored hearing: the telegraph.

Definitions
• McLuhan’s definition of media is broad, it includes “any technology whatever that creates extensions of the human body and senses, from clothing to computer”
• Electric media : telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television. They didn’t extend a single sense contrary to mechanical media but the all sensorium balance.
• TV is the most significant of the electric media because it permeates nearly every home, extending the nervous system of the viewer and reach its entire sensorium
• Mass media (news paper, photography, comic strips, cinema, phonograph, radio, TV, computer)
• Tactile sense demands the greatest intensity of all senses

Critics (based on Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Mass Media, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998, pp. 145-171.)
• Noël Carroll says that TV doesn’t change our senses, it’s our senses and their capacities that made man to design a media (TV) adapted to it. Our perception capacities influence design, not the opposite.
• About the primacy of written communication and the eye over the speech Carroll says that at the time where alphabet is supposed to be dominant people were still talking more than writing. Moreover McLuhan doesn’t give any proof of human perception changing because of the media.
• For McLuhan, communication is the communication of lived experience and the aim of communication is, in a way, to duplicate this experience. As experience is not linear and multi-dimensional, media that get close to this definition are the best. Carroll says, a that complete information is often not necessary, communicating the experience is rarely the only aim of communication. As communication is linked to practical activities it tends to be selective and abstract. More inclusivity could be too much and obstruct the message.
• The way McLuhan associates media and senses is very arbitrary. From the TV = touch to the book = eye. Therefore we could be free to think the contrary and associate touch to books, etc.
• (There are more critics in the book, nearly everything is dismissed)

Thoughts
• He asks what TV can bring into schools that classrooms can not? It makes me think of http://www.learn.motion.com/
• McLuhan electric era was TV’s era but is can be expanded to the Internet era : that’s why interest for McLuhan’s theories came back nowadays
• In Modernized country most child born after 2000 won’t know the world without internet. Every child that is born after 2010 won’t know the world without ubiquitous instantaneous connectivity.
• McLuhan definition of Hot and Cold is not intuitive, it is not how I feel and use it in my researches for now, however I do understand the importance he stresses out that communication should communicate the experience (but not only, for that I also agree with Lewis Caroll).

References
• Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot. Artists that discovered a totally different approach based on the identity of the process of cognition and creation
• The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)
• Understanding Media (1964)
• Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Mass Media, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998, pp. 145-171.)

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