Brain Pickings

Marshall McLuhan on New Forms and Old Assumptions (1960)

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What the golden age of television has to do with human nature and today’s Internet intellectuals.

It seems fitting that we conclude the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan with one of his timeless and remarkably timely observations, which in just 30 seconds manages to capture in 1960 a folly of human nature that rings all the more true in 2011 as we trek forward into this constantly evolving media landscape.

When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.”

The segment comes from the tribute site Marshall McLuhan Speaks, originally featured here in July. (Though, it warrants noting, the lack of embedding capability for their footage is particularly ironic in light of McLuhan’s words above.) It is also adapted in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by McLuhan’s daughter and with a foreword by Tom Wolfe offering a 21st-century perspective on McLuhan’s life and work. (To be supplemented with Douglas Coupland’s fantastic Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.)

What McLuhan gets at, of course, could also be said not only of media but also of media theory itself, especially today. As Internet scholar Evgeny Morozov writes in The New Republic:

Our Internet intellectuals lack the intellectual ambition, and the basic erudition, to connect their thinking with earlier traditions of social and technological criticism. They desperately need to believe that their every thought is unprecedented. Sometimes it seems as if intellectual life doesn’t really thrill them at all. They never stoop to the lowly task of producing expansive and expository essays, where they could develop their ideas at length, by means of argument and learning, and fully engage with their critics. Instead they blog, and tweet, and consult, and give conference talks—modes of discourse that are mostly impervious to serious critique.”

(Thanks, Kristen.)

So, where does this leave us as we round out McLuhan’s centennial? With more questions than answers, no doubt, but the questions about the future of information abundance, the future of journalism, and the future of the Internet might be a good place to start.

Thanks, Bob

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