- Marshall McLuhan and the End of the World as We Know It
Anyone who discusses modern culture has to do a great deal of contemplating of the invisible in the obvious.O. B. Hardison, Jr. Disappearing Through the Skylight
Any digital immigrant caught in the social media whirlpool needs no reminder that things seem to be changing: “Security experts today admit that they are involved in a ‘cat and mouse game’ with hackers—and it’s not always clear who is the cat and who is the mouse” (Marron). Indeed, who is cat and who is mouse is increasingly unclear amidst the mass exhibitionism of Facebook oversharing, the irreverence of YouTube Poop, or the spectre of Wikileaks upending global diplomacy. Truth be told, social media has effectively erased the distinction between hacker and hackee, between the producer and consumer of media, creating the world of the produser (Bruns), wherein a mashup-remix ecosystem of metadata and free-floating signifiers prevails as an emerging new cultural order.
Marshall McLuhan saw in his time the antecedents of this new information order, writing in the introduction to Understanding Media in 1964 that “[t]he Western world is imploding.… Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, [End Page 19] when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.” Although the technological simulation of consciousness might be a bit further down the road, McLuhan’s use of the term “implosion” could be taken to describe what we today call technological convergence. Convergence is both a technical and cultural phenomenon. It is technical inasmuch as it is a manifestation of advances made possible by digital computers and networking and cultural inasmuch as convergence is both a response to and impetus for an emerging set of social practices that represent a widespread shift toward what Manuel Castell’s has labeled informationalism. In brief, informationalism has been described as a technological paradigm that draws on the capabilities of digital technologies to recombine elements from different sources (for example, the “mashup”) with the distributional flexibility of global internetworking. Added to those capabilities is the ability of humans to use computing technology itself to create better technology and, hence, establish a direct feedback loop that accelerates innovation (Moore’s Law is a widely cited example of this phenomenon). Comparing the concept of informationalism to McLuhan’s work, Felix Stalder has suggested that “the medium is the message” could today be translated to “the network is the message” (29). In other words, the network as “a material configuration of processes” enabled through digital technology can be taken to be a medium of communication. Older distinctions between different types of media remain relevant, but increasingly it is the networked arrangement of discrete digital elements and artifacts (that is, nodes) working together in concert (that is, linked to one another) that represent the medium under conditions of convergence—or implosion as it were. The configuration and interaction of those elements is therefore one of the key structural considerations in understanding the message of today’s social technologies (see, for example, Barabasi).
Structural considerations were central to McLuhan’s intellectual engagement with communications history and became the foundation for his contribution to “Transformation Theory” and “Media Ecology” approaches that are generally associated with the Toronto School of Communication. While flirting with technological determinism, Transformation Theory offers a perspective on our time to remind us “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (McLuhan 18). In other words, it encourages communication scholars to seek out the deep structure that underlies the design and success of today’s social media platforms rather than preoccupy [End Page 20] themselves with the unceasing stream of tweets emitted from Twitter or its inevitable successor.
Transformation Theory emerged as a hybrid approach stemming from economics through Harold Innis’s Empire and Communication and The Bias of Communication, as well as from a range of humanist and social-scientific scholars brought together in the Explorations publications of the mid-1950s. In the face of the...