Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth”.  – Understanding Media (1964), p. 46

By Tristan Eldritch

Marshall McLuhan remains essential reading today primarily for two reasons.The first, of course, is that he was writing for and about today way back – worlds of past tense away – in the 60s and 70s. That is to say that McLuhan, in his philosophical examination of media and technology in the age of television and space exploration, seemed to extrapolate or intuit the effects, or emotional and sociological contours and lines of force, of our current internet epoch:

“In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering. Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of “culture”, exactly as the primitive food-gather worked in equilibrium with his entire environment.Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and “workless” world, is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society.

If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?”

That many passages in McLuhan seem almost uncannily to pre-empt the concerns and character of post-internet culture is a fact no less remarkable for the frequency with which it has been noted, particularly when one considers that many of us today have the sense of living in a world wholly altered from that of a mere decade or two ago. This degree of prophetic insight, not into the specific nature of the technologies themselves, but rather of the subtler social and emotional reconstituting of human nature engendered by them, is traditionally the preserve of the artist, as McLuhan himself points out:

“In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral effects of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transformative impact occurs. He, then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand”.

Art retains some essential link to its deep historical or pre-historical roots, where its function was magical, visionary, and oracular. The artist, or at any rate the artist accomplished enough to warrant the mantle, actively cultivates the still mysterious skill of heightened and passive receptivity, the ability to cultivate an intuition of things distant in time and space which resembles a cultural equivalent to the “spooky action at a distance” of the new physics that perturbed Einstein so much. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from the poetry of the era or eras which directly precede it. This is perhaps why McLuhan chose a mode of writing which was as much poetic in character as analytic; here, he adopts a striking image from Samuel Butler’s satirical utopia Erewhon: Or, Over the Range:

“Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and evolve ever new forms”.

McLuhan understood that electrical communication technologies were transforming the essential modes of human production and social activity into the instantaneous transfer of increasingly overwhelming volumes of visual, aural, textual, and tactile information – and that this transformation would utterly change the world in which we live – not merely in the obvious sense of altering the physical or social contours of the world, but rather in the far more profound and less visible sense of changing the dominant metaphors, sense ratios, and whole panoply of perceptual tools by which we experience, interpret, and hence define that world. McLuhan’s most significant and enduring achievement was thus not concerned simply with man’s relationship to media in the modern electrical age, but rather with our on-going relationship with tools, technology, and all mediums by which commodities, particularly ideas and information, are exchanged.

The boldness of his writing lay in its assertion these tools and media were not merely convenient adjuncts and servants to a lofty and autonomous human nature; rather, the tools and media themselves were an integral part of the crucible wherein that human nature and its underlying worldviews were formed. Beginning with language itself, no medium is the world, or even describes or represents the world in any kind of innocent or uncomplicated fashion. A speech, a painting, or a moving cine-camera, do not describe or represent the world according to some universal standard of fidelity or accuracy; rather each medium translates, limits, and alters its given subject according to certain properties intrinsic to itself. As each medium prioritises a certain sense, or a certain ratio of sense usage, it subtly engenders certain habits of mind and ways of viewing the world. Read the rest of this essay at .


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