Wednesday, December 7, 2011

McLuhan 100

The medium is the message. The world has become a “Global Village”.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the Canadian English professor who coined these provocative phrases and went on to reinvent media studies. He was born into a world of printed words and black-and-white TV but ended up predicting the effects of new technology on psycho-social environments.

This visionary was born on July 21, 1911 and died on December 31, 1980. Since July this year, several events have been organized around the world to celebrate the centenary of his life and works. The advent of new media, digital technologies, and the Internet has led to a revival of interest in this enigmatic new media prophet.

McLuhan could be relevant to our experiences in Nepal where we have become increasingly wired. We are more enticed, as McLuhan would put it, to the forms of “platforms” and “tools”, blind to the true character of these new media. His centenary offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on some of his ideas.

In Nepal, the Media Foundation, in collaboration with the Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research (IACER), and Creative Press, is celebrating the occasion tomorrow afternoon in Kathmandu. Against this backdrop, I share some thoughts on McLuhan.

I first encountered McLuhan at RR College in the mid-1990s while I taught Media Studies to MA English students. I found him ambiguous and difficult to understand. Yet, he was captivating in his one-liners and puns, imparting illuminating insights here and there.

In 1999, while in the US, I had the privilege of taking a semester of graduate seminar on McLuhan. It was a rare opportunity to immerse myself in the study of the “media guru”, and to leaf through the musty volumes by McLuhan in the university library. Until then, journal databases were not up to the mark, and Google Books were inconceivable. My professor, Dr Paul Grosswiler, had promised that McLuhan would be a unique experience, but he warned not to overlook the media scholar’s weak points. Besides, it is easy to fall into the trap of the cult, the McLuhan fanatics.

It has been noted that even as a media scholar, McLuhan did not own a television set. And for him, “media” were not merely “news media”; they included “artifacts” ranging from wheels to airplanes, nail-cutters to missiles. The structures of these technologies alter how we perceive and understand the world around us, and shape and define who we are. In other words, for McLuhan, khukuri, gundruk, palsi kura, or mohi (buttermilk), as much as sarangi, Gorkhaptra, NTV, or Koshi barrage are major media of Nepal, historically. He considered all media technologies as extensions of our bodies: a khukuri is an extension of hands, the wheel, or an airplane an extension of the feet, the telescope an extension of our eyes, etc.

Even as a vociferous reader, McLuhan read only one of the two facing pages. The reason: with the advent of instantaneous electrical age, he argued, the old patterns of linear reading were out of date! Fifty or sixty years ago, imagine the impact of McLuhan’s scandalous statement among his peers who staunchly adhered to academic rigor. As a scholar of media, McLuhan was hardly interested in the content.

Sure, the “early” McLuhan, as reflected in The Mechanical Bride (1951), appears concerned with the content of the medium, attacking the commercial advertisements and mass culture. He is paranoid about the modern technology, and utterly pessimistic about the future of mankind. After the Bride, perhaps on some epiphany, he started saying that the medium is the message. Since The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), he concentrated on the medium specifically. The “later” McLuhan, in Understanding Media (1964), appears very optimistic about new technologies and the future of mankind.

McLuhan took a “transformative” approach to media studies, as opposed to the traditional “transmission” model of communication, focusing on causes and hypodermic effect on audience. And that effect is the “message”, as he writes: the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. Just think of the influence of mobile phones or cyber cafes in Nepal, or the impact of Maoist guns, large scale human exodus (and perhaps a hike in Nepal-bound international airliners) and wire transfers. The political/social transformation of Nepal is yet to be analyzed from this type of media perspective.

According to McLuhan’s Laws of Media, any artifact does four things simultaneously—it enlarges or enhances, it erodes or obsolesce something already there, it retrieves something that had been there earlier, and it reverses or flips into something when pushed to the limits. To look at these four effects is to study media. For example, shopping mall (something we relate to these days), enhances choice, erodes our hatbazaars, retrieves crowds, and reverses into vanishing public squares. Understanding these relationships is the key to human autonomy, he observed.

Else, there is the danger of us falling into media “massage” or manipulation. For example, the print culture of linear thinking and over-rationalization led many western countries to disregard the analogical and the intuitive, a feature of oral and electronic culture.

McLuhan believed in the transformative power of new media, and wrote his many books in a “mosaic” or collage form by juxtaposing various forms of medium (content)--alphabets, pictures, symbols, blurbs, etc, almost like on a Web page. The effect, he showed, was startling. He responded to the “poetry and the beauty of the new technological environment”, and embraced pop-culture, and was indifferent to academic critics who derided his lack of references. In fact, he often used others’ phrases and ideas as if they were his own.

McLuhan’s reference to the eastern cultures is perhaps of interest to us. He saw them as pre-literate, with integral sense awareness, now retrieved in the West in the form of electronic simultaneity. However, Hinduism, stripped of its alternative meanings, such as the rational Nyaya system of logic, served him as one of the several “counter-environments” that he surmised to critique the dominant typographic culture of the West. This is evidenced by his recurrent use of eastern analogies, his study of classical and modern Hindu texts, and his interest in aphoristic writings such as the Upanishads.

There are parallels between McLuhan, the avatar of technology fashioning our artificial environments, and Krishna, the Hindu spiritual avatar in a natural environment. The texts Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads devote much space on the nature of perceptions in the pre-technological world, a world McLuhan sees as retrieved in the form of electronic transcendence.

In recent decades, massive transformations in literacy and technology are reconfiguring India and Nepal, the ancient grounds of Hinduism, possibly making them more visual or rational. Indian and Nepali print industry is actually growing, not declining, unlike in the West. It would be interesting to see how their rapid adoption of homogenizing alphabet may have, as McLuhan observed, eroded the East’s obsession for the cosmic and the ritual, and fostered “intense concentration on minute segments and specialist tasks”.

But McLuhan also noted the countervailing power of radio, “the supreme form of communication” in India, and by extension now in Nepal. Despite radio’s power to contract the world to size of a village, he observed, it did not homogenize the village. The increasing shifts towards digital, two-way and participatory communication such as mobile phones and the Internet today, which McLuhan could not foresee during his days, have also challenged the center-to-periphery model of communication. In Nepal, for instance, where mobile radio is gaining ground and WiFi connections continue to expand.

Clearly, the parallel growth in broadcast and electronic media in Nepal and India suggests an increasing trend toward hybridization, perhaps breeding a new release of energy and change, as McLuhan would put it. We can only guess what such energy has done to our politics and culture, or our way of life.

There is an element of technological determinism in McLuhan’s views and some contradictions, but we do see some of his visions coming true, for example, his idea of the “city as classroom”. He championed greater use of new technologies in academia, bemoaned the persistent “literate bias”, and despised the culture that did not encourage youths to embrace creativity, diversity, counter-culture, fieldwork, decentralized or individual-focused customized learning, etc.—the attributes and consequences of new media. In Mchuan’s reckoning, only giving up long-held biases and taking critical approach to learning would suit the changing times.

(The McLuhan Centenary event, open to invited guests, will be held at Shangri-La hotel, on the afternoon of Dec. 8, Thursday)

Published in Republica, Dec 07, 2011