The Medium is the Massage: Shepard Fairey + Marshall McLuhan
Presaging the digital revolution by a half century, or what Telstar has to do with global wisdom.
By Maria Popova
I have a longstanding obsession with iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and I love equally iconic graffiti artist Shepard Fairy, so I was instantly in love with The Medium is the Massage — a phenomenal little book by McLuhan and designer Quentin Fiore, synthesizing McLuhan’s meatiest ideas in a powerful combination of words and images, with a stunning new cover by Shepard Fairey. The original book was published in 1967, but the remarkable art direction and distinct style are equal parts timeless and timely — so much so, some say, that Wired appropriated stylistic elements from the book in its acclaimed editorial design.
When information is brushed against information… the results are startling and effective. The perennial quest for involvement, fill-in, takes many forms.
The book is divided into several sections, each exploring a different facet of how “electric media” are changing everyday life, from self to family to education to government.
The family circle has widened. The worldpool of information fathered by electric media — movies, Telstar, flight — far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.
McLuhan explores the big-picture significance of worldwide connectivity, best articulated in his concept of the global village, presages today’s discussions about the death of books by a half-century, and blends information theory and existential philosophy with such poetic grace it’s hard not to surrender to his words with full transcendence.
The stars are so big,
The Earth is so small,
Stay as you are.
Perhaps most notably, reading McLuhan’s observations from 1967 feels eerily like reading the latest intellectual debate on media theory today, bespeaking our culture’s chronic and patterned conditioned response to new technology: resistance, subversion and, eventually, surrender.
These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for in stance, we saw the fear of the new print technology expressed in the theme The Dance of Death. Today, similar fears are expressed in the Theater of the Absurd. Both represent a common failure: the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.
The Medium is the Massage is a pocket-sized cultural treasure, the kind you’d want to share with all your friends and keep by your side at all times as a timeless lens on the evolution of contemporary culture.
Published June 20, 2011