It’s People: Notes on McLuhan, Hansen readings

It is relevant to note that the essay we read comes from Mcluhan’s book titled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (my italics). As Hansen also emphasizes, humans are by definition technological beings. It is in our nature to continually create the tools, which shape our interactions and perception of the world. These media are part of our actual being and not separate from us. To borrow from the famous line in the 1970’s film Soylent Green – the medium is people! This is what makes McLuhan so applicable to any contemporary discussion of online media; his concern that we take media personally. All messages are missives from people to people regardless of if they are public, private, mass or personal in nature or content. It is crucial to remember who you are talking to and what the context is, where you may be reaching them.

For Mcluhan context is king, he asks that we take into consideration the context in which a message is produced and in which a medium is functioning. In order to be aware of context, we must consider our own perspective. He even suggests getting outside perspective by physically putting yourself in a different location and ultimately forcing shift in perspective so great that you become aware of how deeply individual perspective shapes comprehension. Any number of concrete examples of this can be called out one in particular comes to mind, that of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map versus the more dominant, Mercator Projection. Fuller, concerned with the equitable global distribution of resources, created a visualization of the earth that was not distorted by physical limits of projecting a 3 dimensional sphere onto a 2 dimensional flat surface.  His belief was that if individuals had a more accurate picture of what the world looked like they would naturally change their behaviors to be more inline with this conception. Fuller’s idea that how individuals perceived of the world on a very basic level had the potential to impact how is directly in line with McLuhan’s text.

The the medium is a  complex plasma, constantly in flux. On a basic level McLuhan is asking that we are aware of this and make sure to step back and consider it as a changing whole. Each new media effects how the next media will develop. Each media prioritizes a certain audience and a certain kind of voice. It is important to take into consideration all of these influence to derive larger meanings from a particular media. McLuhan does not shy away from these complexities and, in fact, warns against standardizations which might offer a perspective for looking at something however are prone to over-simplification if not total miss reading of a situation that could in certain circumstances have terrible effect. He asserts that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”  Media changes the way we perceive physically, mentally and ultimately how we behave.

Mcluhan speaks of perception shifts, as I described before, creating them for yourself by physically moving to another position in the world. He calls out the serious artist, as the only person capable of “encountering technology with impunity” because they are particularly sensitive and trained to call out these subtle but deeply impacting perspective shifts. It is interesting that points to artists in this way because artists are so deeply connected to the art which they produce. Making art is often described as if one is having a child, as an actual part of the person physically despite the fact that it does grow to have a life that extends beyond the creator. So often media is given a special power because individuals who create it do not take responsibility for it.  Commercial media is typically created by a group and responsibility relates more to how successfully it is delivering a message rather than whether the effect of that message is negative for the populace which it is addressing.

Many factors impact the overall experience one has with a media and thus the takeaway message.  One media functioning within another and yet another create a message that is larger than the sum of it’s parts which is what I think he is getting at when writing about “embedded” media.  Ultimately, it seems McLuhan hoping to inspire. He is telling us that, while communication tools can be used to dominate and alienate, if we understand media in a holistic way it does not have to control us. By accepting that media are extensions of ourselves we must also take responsibility for the way we use them.

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One Response to “It’s People: Notes on McLuhan, Hansen readings”

  1. “the medium is a complex plasma, constantly in flux. On a basic level McLuhan is asking that we are aware of this and make sure to step back and consider it as a changing whole. Each new media effects how the next media will develop. Each media prioritizes a certain audience and a certain kind of voice.”

    Mica, to add on to a discussion in class in which you and Peter were talking about one of the great weaknesses of the Internet as a medium being its immediacy and what I would call “erase-ability” (i.e. Web sites get uploaded, edited and otherwise significantly changed everyday) I wanted to point out a resource that some colleagues showed me one day which can be helpful for research, a good source of anecdotal material and sometimes just a fun distraction.

    It seems that out there in cyberspace, even after a Web site is taken down, there are still fragments of the site’s original code that remain searchable. Think of them as Web ghosts. http://www.archive.org/index.php

    Plug in a Web site into the Wayback Machine’s URL search, and you are taken to a directory of the Web “ghosts” that still exist on server caches somewhere out there, dating all the way back to the site’s launch. For example, MTV.com has links all the way back to Dec. 22, 1996.

    When I first discovered this resource, I immediately thought of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Kaleidescope” when the astronauts get expelled from their ship and one of them gets caught in a net of old radio transmissions from Earth — voices from the medium of an era past which used to occupy the living rooms and psychic space of the populace at large.

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