Daily Archives: May 6, 2013

‘What’s the Frequency,’ Marshall?

“I never understood the frequency…
I couldn’t understand…”
From the song What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
By R.E.M. (from the album ‘Monster’)

I’ve always felt that I’d never understand Marshall McLuhan. But looking past what I took to be mere clichés, witticisms, and celebrity-seeking statements of the outlandish, I now find that his message about how people use technology – and how they feel about the technology they use – offers tremendous insight.

One of many essential ideas of McLuhan is that the modern technology we use ‘is the extension of the nervous system in the electronic age’ (from Paul Benedetti & Nancy DeHart, eds, Forward through the rear-view mirror: reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan, p. 147). If I am ‘understanding McLuhan’ properly (which I am never certain) that smart phone or other mobile device is actually connected to our body, it becomes one. This runs counter to many modern critiques (like Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget) of how technology is taking over too many aspects of our personal lives.  For McLuhan the moral compliant is beside the point; it is happening whether we like it or not, the more important issue is to understand it.

For me the fascinating element is that he could only use the examples of his real world of radio, television, and the emerging power of computers, but it was not a great leap of logic for him to anticipate the internet, and probably more powerfully, social media. McLuhan takes the entire information technology explosion as a return to a ‘oral culture’, which challenges and overturns the power of print. As print moved from ideograms to an alphabet and then to formal language, it allowed abstract ideas and norms to be deemed official and correct.

If electronic technology is the modern return to oral culture, it is best expressed  by social media: we update our personal pages, we follow and are followed, and there is no right or wrong but only our individual thoughts, emotions and feelings. It truly is an electronic version of oral culture where the appearance of hierarchy is abolished, or at least buried under the surface. (I’m not going to  take on the issue of manipulative advertising, exposure to propaganda and temptations to hunt for witches and find scapegoats here.)

How this relates to our politics, our relationships with each other, and how we conduct ourselves is an open question…but taking a twist to the R.E.M. song…

“…I think I understand!..”

Thanks for the frequency, Marshall!

For more on this topic, check out:

Gutenberg Galaxy
by Marshall McLuhan
The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland (Extraordinary Canadians series)
The Virtual Self by Nora Young
Too Much Magic by James Howard Kunstler
iDisorder by Larry Rosen

– Phil