The Medium that is our Mind: A McLuhanesque Meditation
Brandon Sun, June 24, 2019 - David McConkey
Something profound is going
on with media today, especially smartphones and social media. But
how do you understand a revolution when you are in the midst of it?
Coming in handy here is recalling Marshall McLuhan, the late media
guru. To get a better sense of where we are in the media landscape,
I offer a meditation in four McLuhan-inspired probes.
Who was Marshall McLuhan? During the 1960s and ‘70s, McLuhan was an intellectual superstar. He was read by some; he was quoted by many more. McLuhanisms – like “global village” – became ubiquitous. McLuhan even made a cameo appearance in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall.
And he was Canadian. Born in Edmonton in 1911, McLuhan grew up in Winnipeg and attended the University of Manitoba. He became an English professor and spent most of his career at the University of Toronto. McLuhan died in 1980.
McLuhan is still hotly debated. Like: Were his ideas nuts? Maybe, but for me, McLuhan’s notions are an invitation to take another look, to see a bigger picture. McLuhan characterized his pronouncements less as concrete conclusions and more as playful “probes.” A McLuhanism can be a tool prodding us into a new insight, like a Zen riddle.
McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride in 1951, was about popular culture, like advertising and the comic strip character Dagwood Bumstead. After that, McLuhan shifted from studying the content of a medium to the medium itself.
Because we are drawn to the content, we fail to notice the medium. To get informative and entertaining content, we might turn to, for example, a newspaper, the radio or TV. But McLuhan’s contention was that – regardless of content – each medium has its own impact on us. We are influenced differently when we read a newspaper or listen to the radio or watch TV. McLuhan’s famous 1964 book was Understanding Media. McLuhan’s famous aphorism was “the medium is the message.”
McLuhan did not live to see the personal computer, internet, smartphone or social media. But his ideas are still relevant – perhaps even more relevant – today. As technology and society advance, I often think: What would McLuhan say now? Like, what would he say . . . about texting? About Twitter? About Trump?
McLuhan was a punster. One of his puns was a play on his own words: “the medium is the massage.” (He also played with: “the medium is the mass age.”) The massage observation is especially prescient. Today’s social media and smartphone work us over more thoroughly and more intimately than media of the past.
We used to make conscious decisions: to pick up a book, turn on the TV, leaf through a magazine, go to the movies. But today, the internet is always there, the phone is always with us, the content is always streaming.
We are now immersed in the “attention economy.” The attention – of billions of us – has become a major commodity. Sophisticated website algorithms manipulate us by grabbing our attention. We look at our phone 150 times a day. Soon we will be connected to everything: the “internet of things.” Talk about a massage! Talk about a mass age!
McLuhan challenged us to look beyond the content and examine the medium itself. But what if we could take an even bigger step back, gain an even deeper understanding? What if we could observe the nature of our own mind?
What the heck am I talking about? Well, we experience the world through our mind. In McLuhanesque terms, we might think of our mind as the “medium” and the world as the “content.” By paying attention to the medium that is our mind, we might become more aware of our experience of the content that is the world. A way of paying attention and noticing the working of our mind is mindfulness meditation.
Today we are becoming absorbed in – even addicted to – all-encompassing media. Perhaps we can take back some control by being more mindful. Being mindful can be an alternative to being mindlessly lost in media.
Mindfulness meditation is attracting increasing interest in the western world. But it has long been a practice in Buddhist and other eastern traditions. To draw attention to this kind of cultural change, McLuhan coined an expression inspired by the novelist James Joyce. That McLuhanism was: “The East shall shake the West awake.”
See also:Surfing World Wide Web Breeds Shallow Thinking
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