While Marshall McLuhan is a well known scholar and most people have heard his phrases, “global village” and”the medium is the message” bandied about, I admit that was the extent of my knowledge. After reading our first course module, I decided to learn more. I started with Paul Levinson’s Digitial McLuhan as an updated look at McLuhan’s ideas relate to social media.
I must thank Levinson for introducing more of McLuhan’s concepts to me. Here are a few:
- McLuhan’s tetrad, his four questions of media:
- What does it enhance or amplify in the culture?
- What does it obsolesce or push out of prominence?
- What does it retrieve from the past, from the realm of the previously obsolesced?
- What does the medium reverse or flip into when it reaches the limits of its potential? (p.16)
- Hot and cool: McLuhan uses hot to describe “loud, bright, clear and fixed” media or subjects (e.g. political candidates) while cool media or subjects are “soft, shadowy, blurred and changeable.” For example, movies seen in a theater are hot, while television is cool; radio is hot, while telephones are cool. Cool media engage us more because there’s more to pour over and consider.In this system, social media with its messiness and interactive possibilities are cool.
- Discarnate: an interaction that does not involve the body (much*). This notion denotes the disconnect between the body and the message. Our voices are “disconnected” from our voices when we talk on the phone. When a dancer’s performance is uploaded to YouTube we can see the dance has been severed from the dancer in a sense. The term virtual has become the most popular expression for this idea. However, McLuhan’s discarnate seems more powerful to me because it emphasizes the message severing from the person who expressed it.
- Light-through media: hypnotic media in which animated light comes through the media to the viewer, e.g. stained glass windows, television, computer screens, the sky. Such media hypnotize in a way and have a certain religious intensity.
- Light-on media: light bounces off the medium so we can perceive it, e.g. books, magazines, paintings. Even the most glossy, vivid, masterfully done images and words don’t produce that little buzz that TV or computers do. It’s always easier to put down even the best book than it is to turn off an iPad that’s got a banal game or message. The iPad’s a light-through, whereas your favorite book is light-on.
These trenchant concepts help me understand my own experience using media. They explain why I can watch TV hour after hour, but can’t read all the books I’d like to in a week. I will use McLuhan’s questions in every reading and media I examine throughout the course.
Related: Video interview of Digital McLuhan author, Paul Levinson.
Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan. London, UK: Routledge.