Reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media: Join Me! (#umrg)

Technology is never neutral. It is not just a tool. We know that technology has affordances and makes certain things harder and other things easier. As Benkler says “Technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice.”

One of the most fundamental thinkers on what media does to us was the “oracle from Toronto” Marshall McLuhan. He was a prominent figure in the sixties who was well known for his ability to speak in insightful but opaque “McLuhanisms”. Who hasn’t heard of “the medium is the message” or his predictions for “a global village”?

Let me whet your appetite with a few short video clips to give you a better idea of how he spoke and thought:

He defines technology as the extending our human body. This clip is from 1965:

Here he describes what he means with the medium is the message through talking about cars as a technology. The following clip is from 1974:

The talk about products becoming services feels pretty recent. McLuhan already talked about this in 1966 in this clip (and predicting how we would access information using networked computers):

If you want to see more, then check out all the videos uploaded by YouTube user McLuhanSpeaks.

Understanding Media

Very few people nowadays have read his original works. His magnum opus is the Understanding Media (1964). Reviewers of the book at that time wrote things like:

Every so often, the semi-intellectual communities at the fringes of the arts, the universities and the communications industries are hit by a new book, which becomes a fad or a parlor game. This summer’s possible candidate, with what may be just the right combination of intelligence, arrogance and pseudo science, is Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. (Time Magazine, 1964)


This is an infuriating book. It offers a number of brilliant insights but mixes them in with some extravagantly turgid incoherencies. Adopting a tone of Machiavellian candor and acquiescence, Dr. McLuhan loftily records the death of the “literally-logical” spirit in Western Man. This results, he says, from the impact of contemporary mass communications such as television and the jet plane. We are passing out of the age of rationalistic individualism and into an era of “tribal” togetherness and oral culture. [..] It was about time somebody took stock of the new social and intellectual situation caused by our advances in the techniques of mass education and mass hoax. McLuhan throws light on this situation by deliberately adopting a new “mosaic approach” which he assumes is called for by the novelty of the futuristic inferno we inhabit. But he seemingly cannot resist going over the deep end with his generalizations on such varied social phenomena as the motor car, baseball and Body Odor. His deep-end plunges, conveniently, happen to suit his over-all theoretical purpose, as in his terming B.O. “The unique signature and declaration of human individuality.” What he reads into the statements he attributes to varied authorities [..] is enough to make one’s old-fashioned “logical” flesh creep while his account of nationalism as, purely and simply, “an unforeseen consequence of typography” is grotesquely inadequate. (C.J. Fox for The Commonweal)

My favourite review comes from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who wrote in Book Week in 1967:

What then is McLuhanism? It is a chaotic combination of bland assertion, astute guesswork, fake analogy, dazzling insight, hopeless nonsense, shockmanship, showmanship, wisecracks, and oracular mystification, all mingling cockinly and indiscriminately in an endless and random dialogue. It also in my judgment, contains a deeply serious argument. After close study one comes away with the feeling that here is an intelligent man who, for reasons of his own, prefers to masquerade as a charlatan.

What would McLuhan say about the Internet/World Wide Web?

Next to getting a better understanding of his work, it is my purpose to think about what McLuhan would have said about the Internet and the World Wide Web. How can we apply McLuhan’s vocabulary (e.g. hot and cool medium, de- and retribalization, reversal, the electric age) to our current predicament? How can his thoughts inform us about the situation we are in? I am very curious to find out.

Reading and discussing in a weekly rhythm

I want to start a virtual reading group. We will read Understanding Media in 10 weeks (from March 18th till May 27th, less than 50 pages a week). Every week will have the same rhythm:

  • We read a specific part of the book for that week
  • Two people will create a summary (a piece of text, slides, a video, whatever works for them) for that part and will ask a set of questions about the text (every Friday)
  • We have a virtual event (using Blackboard Collaborate) to discuss the questions (every Monday)

That is the minimum. Next to that I intend to organize things like a best quote of the week voting competition, screenings of McLuhan inspired films (in Amsterdam most likely), a set of resources (other primary literature on the topic, and secondary literature) and a set of guest lectures (also to be done on Mondays).

The kick off meeting will be on Monday, March 18th. You can always find the latest full planning here.

You can join too!

I would like to have as many people as possible join me on this reading journey. Joining is a simple four step process:

  1. Get the book (this is the edition I will be reading).
  2. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
  3. Book a week in which you will be responsible for delivering a summary of what we have read. You can check the planning to see which topic we will read when and make a choice. Be quick there are only 2 slots per week available.
  4. Follow the blog (fill in your email address at the top right widget on the page) to get all the updates about the reading group in your email inbox. You can also follow the Twitter account.

There will be a central space for this group: and I hope we can generate a big set of resources, thoughts and reflections aggregated through using the #umrg hash tag on places like Twitter, Delicious and Diigo.

Are you interested, but do you think you might be too busy? Register anyway! You are only committing to writing one summary, everything else can be skipped if you want or need to.

P.S. Most people wouldn’t think of starting a group like this without using Facebook. I don’t like Facebook so won’t use it. Others are of course free to do anything with this reading group on Facebook, I just won’t be joining you there.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, book cover

Here Comes Everybody

I am convinced that the web will change our society in many ways that we cannot currently grasp. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is a book which everybody who is interested in these changes should read. Many books on technology take a very shallow approach. Often they focus on the technology itself or only look at one particular aspect of how technology can be used (e.g. books on “How Wikis can change the way you collaborate”). Shirky’s book is the first one I have read which takes a very deep sociological and often philosophical perspective on the ubiquitousness of the net and its wider implications.

He is not the first author to draw an analogy with the invention of movable type. The social effects of this invention lagged decades behind the technological effects:

Real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B. Rather, they go from A through a long period of chaos and only then reach B. In that chaotic period, the old systems get broken long before new ones become stable.

We are just now entering the chaotic period. We cannot accurately predict the changes that will happen to society now that we have the Internet. It will be many years before we can oversee and look back at the consequences. I can instantly see how the above is true for education. Currently the old institutions are still in full reign, but they are more and more broken (e.g. look at the percentage of students who prematurely quit their vocational tertiary education in the Netherlands). These institutions have not harnessed the new possibilities of technology.

So what are these new possibilities? The book is full of wonderful examples, but Shirky’s main point is that the Internet allows groups of people to self organize without the need for organizations, firms or (governmental) institutions. Traditional communications were always one-to-one (like the phone) or one-to-many (broadcasting, like television). The net enables many-to-many communication which we never had before. E-mail was the first example of this, but IM, (micro-)blogs and social networking sites enable this too. These new tools are “eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination”.

Shirky has a great observation on media:

The twentieth century, with the spread of radio and television was the broadcast century. The normal pattern for media was that they were created by a small group of professionals and then delivered to a large group of consumers. But media, in the word’s literal sense as the middle layer between people, have always been a three-part affair. People like to consume media, of course, but they also like to produce it [..] and they like to share it [..]. Because we now have media that support both making and sharing, as well as consuming, those capabilities are reappearing, after a century mainly given over to consumption.

Social tools are coming into existence that support new patterns of group forming and group production. My personal favourite example is open source software. Clay Shirky attributes the success of this method of producing software to the way that it gets failure for free. For this reason, he considers open source software to be a threat to commercial software vendors:

Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts, but because it is outfailing them. Because the open source ecosystem, and by extension open social systems generally, rely on peer production, the work on those systems can be considerably more experimental, at considerably less cost, than any firm can afford. Why? The most important reasons are that open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.
The overall effect of failure is its likelihood times its cost. Most organizations attempt to reduce the effect of failure by reducing its likelihood. [..] The obvious problem is that no one knows for certain what will succeed and what will fail. [..] You will inevitably green-light failures and pass on potential successes. Worse still, more people will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea. Given this asymmetry, you will be pushed to make safe choices, thus systematically undermining the rationale for trying to be more innovative in the first place.
The open source movement makes neither kind of mistake, because it doesn’t have employees, it doesn’t make investments, it doesn’t even make decisions. It is not an organization, it is an ecosystem, and one that is remarkably tolerant of failure. Open source doesn’t reduce the likelihood of failure, it reduces the cost of failure; it essentially gets failure for free.

Do yourself a favour: If you haven’t read this profound book, please read it as soon as you can.