As part of my winter break reading list, I’ve been trying to plow through Essential McLuhan by Marshall McLuhan because for a while now I thought I was missing out on some crucial piece of my education in media theory, some lost piece about the medium I’m working in.
As it turns out, not so much.
While still an interesting read and while some of the concepts, namely “The Medium is The Message” which the internet makes perfectly obvious day after day, are still sound, a lot of these writings seem hopelessly dated and almost laughably irrelevant now, 40 years later. Saying that, for instance, radio is Hot (demanding the use of a single sense) while TV is Cool (requires more participation) seems, if not obvious, then at least non-helpful as a model in the age of satellite radio and TV like Lost. And the internet? Well, it pretty much blows the Hot/Cool thing to hell. It’s Hot and Cool, often at the same time, and as far as I can tell, the Hot/Cool model doesn’t much help us understand the medium (or its message) any better.
His simplistic take on the electronic world seems quaint now, almost Victorian in its language, filled with bad puns and quotes from Shakespeare and Joyce to prove his points. He’s not a fan of television and god knows what he would make of the web. He saw electronic media as the end of civilization and of the printed word. Satan is a great electrical engineer, he noted. And although he invented the term “global village,” he certainly doesn’t seem like he wants to live there.
In short, I don’t know what to make of his work. He could simply be one of those seminal figures who turned a critical eye on something overlooked (in his case television) and went on to influence other critics. Maybe he’s the Velvet Underground or Big Star of media theorists. Or maybe, just maybe, he was wrong about a lot of things. Electronic media like what you are reading now hasn’t destroyed the world or the printed word. The global village? Probably a good thing. Television? Awesome.
The most damning piece of evidence? The Wikipedia articles around McLuhan do a better, more concise job of explaining his theories than he does.
As for me, I’d rather watch TV.