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Welcome to the Jungle

Marshall McLuhan, Media, and the Ecology of the Digital Age

by John Coleman

Chicago’s “L” screams to a halt three stops from O’Hare airport, and a twenty-something Asian girl saunters into the car. You know the walk. It’s a subtle rock-sway-rock-sway-rock-sway-stop. Her white ear buds fall like thick strands of hair to the iPod dangling by a lanyard at her chest. Her feet pop rhythmically from the platform to the train. Her hands are steady—clutching a copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted—and her head bobs slightly, eyes darting from feet to fellow passengers to page. This girl is connected! Her check-marked Nike jacket rustles with every heave and halt, and her cell phone bulges from its home on her backpack. Whereas I am unsteady, her feet move seamlessly with the floor of the car as it streaks over the Chicago streets. She occupies her own environment—a canopy of compact prose and MP3s.

Zoom out. Across from our Asian girl, a young black professional checks his Blackberry compulsively while cradling his laptop on his knees. The pulse of his Bluetooth earpiece is like an electric heartbeat. He is switched on and plugged in—simultaneously globalized and self-contained, a computerized communication machine.

Zoom out, and we all sit on one of a series of tracks engineered to criss-cross the Midwest’s Gotham, a computer-programmed transportation monopoly racing to keep pace with the modern era’s thirst for immediacy. Our Blackberries, handsets, and Zunes reach out to the world around us with tentacles that hungrily seek other organisms with which to communicate. Around the world, global connectivity is changing politics, entertainment, and society. In Saudi Arabia, where males and females are forbidden social contact under all but the strictest of circumstances, young people communicate secretly via Bluetooth as they pass each other in malls. In China, Google struggles internally with demands for government censorship; and at the bottom of the world—Antarctica!—a band of scientists uses live satellite feeds to reach a global audience for Live Earth 2007.

Zoom out, and the source of much of this connectivity is clear—thousands of satellites circle the earth like giant silver spiders spinning a web of signals and synchronicity. This is our world now. Human communication is no longer bound by the voice’s physical limitations or a horse-drawn carriage’s speed. Knowledge is no longer a product of the Gutenberg press—translated from reality to thousands of inexact characters sprawled in a jumble of paper and ink. It is instead television, cinema, Xbox, and MP3.

Zoom in. Our Asian girl exits the car. Rock-sway-rock-sway-rock-sway-stop. Her world is both connected and insulated, interactive and isolated. And from the Austin Powers-like age of 1969, a bespectacled Canadian academic named Marshall McLuhan gives us a perspective on this point in history: “All media, from the phonetic environment to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment.”

Now, in the early morning of the new millennium, we have to ask: What did McLuhan mean?

Marshall’s Media Ecologies

For four decades, Marshall McLuhan has been the Bob Dylan of the communication academy. In the late 1960s, Tom Wolfe entertained the thought that McLuhan might be “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov . . . the most famous man his country ever produced.” Woody Allen gave him a cameo in the movie Annie Hall, Wired magazine named him its “patron saint,” and bands from Genesis to Radio Free Vestibule have written him tributes. He is more than an intellectual; he is an icon. But Marshall McLuhan, who passed away in 1980, always seemed an unlikely candidate for oracular status.

Born in Alberta, Canada, in 1911, McLuhan was what every concerned father calls a “permanent student.” He received his first undergraduate degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1933 and took ten years to get his Ph.D. He was a professor his entire professional life, a bookish man with a love for classic literature and an unholy affection for James Joyce’s treatise Finnegan’s Wake; but McLuhan was also Delphic—a prophet for the electronic age—and his aphoristic predictions transcended the academy to seize the imagination of the mainstream.

To oversimplify, McLuhan’s great insight was to see media in its broadest sense: as ecology. The word “medium” (from which “media” was derived), refers to “an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on.” And that’s the key. McLuhan’s claim was that the intervening substances we use—phonetic letters, radio broadcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, and whispers—are just as important as the messages they convey.

As McLuhan famously put it, the medium is the message; and if, as he claimed, all media are extensions of man, then we are not just the passive recipients of media but a critical part of media itself. This makes media an ecosystem—like a marsh, savannah, or swamp—that surrounds us, consumes us, and works us over in every imaginable way. McLuhan writes, “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns of environments elude easy perception.”

And the advent of electronic media in the twentieth century may be the biggest shock to that ecosystem in at least 500 years. McLuhan comments, “The new media are not ways of relating us to the old ‘real’ world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.”

Whereas the printed word is just an extension of the eye, and the spoken word an extension of the ear, McLuhan claimed that electronic media are an extension of man’s central nervous system—all inclusive and limitless, interactive and multi-sensory. Their nature—light, electricity!—grants them power to impact not simply individual locales, but entire nations in real time, transforming the world from a mass of separate villages to one global village with shared experience and imagery.

Obviously, McLuhan’s volumes of work are too extensive and nuanced to treat comprehensively in one essay, but his basic analysis forces us to ask questions. What are our environments and their boundaries? How do we identify these complex interactions and view our ecosystem in new and interesting ways?

The Rise of the Global Village

In the cyberspace era, perhaps no concept proffered by McLuhan is as commonly discussed as his contention that the advent of electronic media would bring about the rise of a global village, upsetting the former boundaries of geography and nation state and reinstituting a shared society. To quote McLuhan:

After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies into space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time. . . . The human family now exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space.

These words are all the bolder in that they were penned in the 1960s—thirty years before our parents purchased their first bag phone or 286 DX desktop machine; and looking at the globe today, it is hard to argue that we aren’t inhabiting some kind of shared electronic space.

According to a 2006 report commissioned by the GSM Association, approximately 80 percent of the world’s population now has mobile phone coverage, and that number will reach 90 percent by 2010. Around 40 percent of the world’s population actually owns a mobile phone, and in some areas, like Hong Kong and Luxembourg, many consumers own two or more. As of June 2007, more than 1.1 billion people use the internet worldwide, with usage growing at an astonishing 214 percent per year, and access to television and radio is almost universal.

The impact of communication globalization is clear. Political elections are now broadcast around the world, and wars are fought on real-time TV. McLuhan writes that “the television war has meant the end of the dichotomy between civilian and military.” Watching from our living-room chairs the media embeds broadcast from Middle Eastern riots in Gaza, we are tempted to agree with him. Technology undermined communism, and it continues to frustrate censors from Atlanta-area high schools to the suburbs of Beijing. Communication technology is a liberating force, bringing a world of ideas and images to every personal PC.

We, the owners of those PCs, are reciprocating—adding our own personal lives to the village’s electronic commons. In 1970, McLuhan wrote, “There is no inside or outside under electronic conditions.” And we are proving him right. The blog service Gartner estimates that there will be 100 million active blogs this year. The social networking site MySpace claimed more than 100 million accounts in 2006, and a study by Student Monitor named Facebook the second most “in” thing among college undergraduates, tied with beer and sex and losing only to the iPod. These websites are not sterile, but often mirror the exhibitionist culture of reality television, exposing the details of a person’s personal life to the permanence of online record. For those who do not voluntarily submit their personal information to the public domain, governments from Chicago to London are using electronic surveillance to monitor the city streets.

The environment is changing. Almost everyone now has global access, and the old geographic and national boundaries are falling under the barrage of boundless electronic connectivity. But is the girl on that “L” really more connected? Are we more connected? Or are the consequences of this global media ecosystem not everything they seem?

Refragmentation, the Long Tail, and the Need for Place

You see, accompanying this globalization is a refragmentation of society into smaller social groups based on shared interest rather than locality. As Derrick De Kerckhove of The McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology says, “The web is both collective and individual at once.” Where radio and TV destroyed the dominance of local geography, replacing it with national or international communities, cyberspace is further dominating the importance of local geography, splitting the new global village into interest-based virtual communities and one-person “iPod” environments.

Dr. Andrew Wood, a professor at San Jose State University and author of Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture, notes that the migration to virtual communities is natural for many people because virtual communities are interesting, self-affirming, and convenient. On his blog he writes, “I’ve learned that far-distant strangers share more of my interests than most of my neighbors. I think that my preferred ‘community’ . . . is increasingly an ephemeral, customizable, widget-based collaboration of strangers who identify around common areas of interest, rather than the geography-based collective of strangers forced to become friends.”

This has a lot of positive implications. In Chris Anderson’s 2006 book The Long Tail, he describes the phenomenon by which modern markets for media and entertainment are increasingly able to cater to a broad variety of “niche” tastes. Whereas a geographic bookstore can only offer 100,000 books or so, an online bookseller can offer millions. As with “virtual communities,” these products are more specific to each of us; they are conveniently available to us wherever we live—from New York City to Montego Bay—and they unquestionably increase social diversity.

But the impact of these fragmented communities and products may be negative as well. While Dr. Wood participates in virtual communities, he also notes that “there is a natural human desire for home and hearth. We need to ground ourselves in a sense of place.” Online communities offer what he terms “interaction without consequence”—you can leave whenever you want—and one has to wonder if we are hampering our ability to relate to others more meaningfully and to deal with interpersonal difficulty by eliminating the old communities that once gave us identity and comfort.

You see, while many Americans have hundreds of Facebook friends, they seem to be losing individuals with whom they can really relate. A 2006 Duke study found that between 1985 and 2004, the average number of people with whom Americans could discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third. The percentage of people who talk only to family members about important matters increased from about 57 percent to about 80 percent, and the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. And behind every satisfied glazed-over iPod gaze may lie a human being growing more isolated by the day.

Are there other effects? Is the sensory overload of millions of online news sources destroying our trust in the media or in the concept of absolute truth? Are all of these virtual communities echo chambers that actually allow people to retreat from normal, socially diverse interactions and grow more radical among their ideological peers? Certainly these are all possibilities. But that is the problem with environments—particularly media environments. They are complex, full of both liberation and danger, and must be handled with care if we hope to operate within them in a conscious way.

Asking Questions: Engaging the Ecology

So we have more access to global people and events, but we may be losing our shared experiences and our sense of place. We have broader social groups—web-like online communities that join disparate souls from far-flung cities—but we may be trading depth for breadth, losing our most meaningful conversations to wall posts on MySpace. We are the plugged-in products of the electronic age, integrating mind and circuitry in a pulsing global brain, but as people, we may be losing our sense of certainty and direction in all the noise—retreating in a haze of passivity. Those are the conundrums—some of the challenges we face.

It is interesting to note that while Marshall McLuhan proclaimed millennial revolutions in one-liners, and wrote essays about the death of American civilization, he was no radical, and he wasn’t right about everything. A conservative Catholic, McLuhan once tried to convince Playboy readers that the miniskirt was simply not sexy, and he argued that electric technology would usher in a world in which the real Christian church—interconnected, a single organism—could finally find its place. But as Gary Wolf wrote in the pages of Wired magazine, despite his own sense of trepidation in the face of a rapidly evolving media environment, McLuhan considered a stagnant conservatism—moralistic resistance to change—”futile.” “On a moving highway, the vehicle that backs up is accelerating in relation to the highway situation,” he wrote. “Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it, but ahead of [the environment]. Anticipation gives the power to deflect and control force.” That was Marshall’s challenge to us: Look ahead.

The problem with an ecosystem such as a Chicago “L” train, situated on a satellite-wrapped planet spinning in the middle of an ever-shrinking electronic space, is that we are part of it whether we like it or not. Far from being immune to its influence, we are affected every day not only by the overt messages of the other participants—eloquent articles or art-house movies—but by the media they use, the very nature of the communications we navigate.

In the face of this rock-sway-rock-sway-rock-sway-stop, how active are we in anticipating the direction of this fast-moving media machine, how well do we know the waterways of this digitally wired swamp, and how are we—the world’s most impressive pieces of circuitry—aware of our ecosystems and seeking to influence them in positive ways?

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