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Marshall McLuhan – A Prophet Well Before His Time

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Most people today have no idea who Marshall McLuhan was, except for those working in media related jobs. McLuhan was an English professor, a philosopher, whose most famous line is “the medium is the message,” meaning that the technology you use to convey information is in itself a message.

McLuhan explains that humans when humans started using technology to communicate, the first technologies were image based. Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinse characters are two examples of idiographic language, in which the images are used to communicate. For thousands of years this was the way in which information was shared between people beyond face to face communication.

The invention of the alphabet between 1800 and 1900 BCE in Egypt was not widely used beyond it’s roots in the semitic culture until it was transformed by the Phoenicians in the city of Byblos in Lebanon in about 1100 BCE. The idea of using symbols in a combination of consonants and vowels to represent reality was world-changing.

What McLuhan pointed out was that we are in the beginning stages of another remarkable transformation in the technology of communication. Our brains are able to filter information and assess whether or not to believe it in a relatively slow fashion. The Reticular Activating System, which is housed in our brains from the brain stem through the middle part of the brain, is able to filer out 99% of incoming sensory inputs, giving us time to think things through. Electronic media, though, comes in to our brains faster than we can screen, and as a result, we are less able to judge whether or not to believe what we hear and see.

Here is a quote from McLuhan:

Because all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of humans that cause deep and lasting changes in them and transform their environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it. It’s a process rather like that which occurs to the body under shock or stress conditions, or to the mind in line with the Freudian concept of repression. I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby human beings remain as unaware of the psychic and social effects of their new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible. This problem is doubly acute today because human beings must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to them, despite the attendant pain of such comprehension. The fact that we has not done so in this age of electronics is what has made this also the age of anxiety, which in turn has been transformed into its Doppelgnger–the therapeutically reactive age of anomie and apathy. But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms, the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us–indeed, compelling us–to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious, toward a realization that technology is an extension of our own bodies.

The current polarization we are experiencing is a direct result of the ways in which we communicate. Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker who documented Hitler’s massive rallies realized that visual images, paired with the spoken word, would be able to manipulate perception. Her film Triumph of the Will, which documented the 1934 Nazi convocation in Nuremberg is considered the greatest propoganda film ever made.

McLuhan said that the artist was the only person who would be able to discern technological changes in the middle of the change process. The rest of us are just along for the ride, or perhaps being taken for a ride. As we attempt to understand all the incoming stimuli we need to learn to take care of ourselves and meet our own needs by periodically unplugging from our technological world so we can live life, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, of “quiet contemplation.” To do anything less will make it all the more difficult to filter out disinformation from reality.


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