McLuhan's Insight Into The Media

"Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the 'content' of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind...The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception."

-- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Someone recently said that the hijackers who obliterated the World Trade Center were death artists with a very savvy understanding of modern media. They gauged rather well the toll on the collective psyche of seeing identical-twin behemoths -- symbols of American ascendancy and economic hegemony -- come crashing to the ground. They had perhaps a keen sense of the phallic worth of the towers and knew well the fears and anxieties that accompany thoughts of castration and emasculation. Someone in their number was likely a master student of the effects of electronic sight and sound and imagery on the average mind.

Would the horrendous deed have even been feasible to the killers were television not what it is today? Destroying a beloved edifice and killing more than three thousand people in a single hour are surely no mean feats, but consummation can only come from having the carnage paraded before the mind every hour of the day, every day of the week, every week of the month. The emotional impact on a nation must correspond to the gruesome fate of the buildings and people and surrounding property, or else a single terrorist act cannot ascend to the level of a grave catastrophe, a dire warning from the enemy, a jihad against the American way of life; it cannot redound to the mindset that "everything has changed since September 11." The 9/11 masterminds understood too well that the only experience that seems to count today is the experience that can be seen and heard and dramatized and remembered.

Anyone doubting television's role as an accessory should ask how the national mood and sentimentality would be different if all we had were words to depict the 9/11 attacks -- if, indeed, the only way to learn of what happened was through a newspaper or magazine. The fact of death and destruction would be no less paramount; citizens near and far would be deeply outraged and saddened; the nation's political leaders would feel impelled to action; families and friends would no doubt shed tears and grieve; the city of New York would still be encumbered with a huge cleanup bill. But so much of the existing equation would be missing. We wouldn't actually see the buildings plummeting to the ground; we wouldn't see the colossal plumes obscuring Manhattan Island and chasing bystanders anxiously away; we wouldn't see people hurling themselves out of a window or hear witnesses screaming and wailing; we wouldn't see anchorpeople carrying on mournfully, solemnly (we wouldn't see the tear in their eye or hear the crackle in their voice when they recounted everything that happened); our ears would be saved both the melancholy music that accompanies flashbacks of 9/11 and the bold drum-laden music of live coverage of "America Under Attack"; we would be spared the daily cacophony known as punditry; we would miss out on all the funeral orations, benefit concerts, candlelight vigils; we would miss documentaries, special reports, breaking news, press conferences and Presidential addresses.

The verbal facility of a Shakespeare, in short, could not possibly rival the television camera in dramatizing a calamity such as the one on September 11 and whipping up the emotions of a whole nation. The architects of the tragedy, in other words, could not have realized a greater emotional yield on their action if they had Shakespeare reading to the world his most poignant and forceful lines.

Consider now the second sentence of the McLuhan passage above. At first glance the attentive reader might ask, "From what would the mind of the watchdog be distracted?" The answer, according to McLuhan, is the brute reality of technological transformation, and the effect such transformation has on the eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and mind of human beings.

For the phrase "content of a medium," substitute "live coverage of September 11," and McLuhan's idea suddenly becomes a bit more destabilizing. How can up-to-the-second coverage of the terrorist act be "the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind"? The event was, after all, quite real, and there probably aren't ten people in the land who consider themselves unlucky for having television capture the tragedy in all its sorrow and gore. The answer, again, is that what is captured by the camera isn't the same thing that is captured by the mind in ordinary experience; the camera -- television -- presents reality in a different dimension, and that dimension, that epistemological filter, according to McLuhan, is the fact, primus inter pares, of all facts. We first behold the technologies we create, McLuhan taught, but in time, inexorably, those technologies behold us, and patterns of thought are universally shaped and influenced by these regnant technologies.

The McLuhan insight came to mind recently when I watched a replay of the Trade Center destruction. Ever since that fateful day, I've harbored a deep scepticism about any retaliatory action the government might take. I've read too much about U.S. foreign policy over the years and know too much about the despots and regimes the government has backed and its record for killing and maiming civilians in other lands not to be leery of any action undertaken by the National Security Council and Pentagon. Nevertheless, every time I see the planes dart into the twin towers and see the ensuing smoke and wreckage, I invariably think, "we have to bomb them; we just have to."

A perfectly hasty (and likely unjustified) reaction, but one that follows along the paths of McLuhanian interpretation quite well. I glance at the tube, watch and listen to what is presented, react emotionally (i.e., rationally in light of what is being presented to my senses), and hurry to a conclusion. My eyes and ears are affected by instantaneous flashes, now of imploding buildings, now of weeping mothers and children; my mind travels from the sight of death, to the visage of suspected madmen, to the urgent pleas of politicians and pundits calling for "swift retaliation," to sudden breaks to commercials (of automobiles, brokerage services, insurance policies). The ordering of my attention span, the sequence of things that are seen and thought about, are considerably more important, McLuhan tells me, than the mere content of the programming.

I'm left not knowing which is the more disconsoling fact: whether I can be so easily affected and controlled like that (not by a given program, mind you, but by the behavior of the medium), or whether the masses of people can be so controlled without so much as a momentary insight into the nature of the beast. A McLuhan line, however, does flash off the page, and I'm reminded at once that the observation was made some forty years ago:

"In our own world as we become more aware of the effects of technology on psychic formation and manifestation, we are losing all confidence in our right to assign guilt."

Further Reading:

McLuhan's Philosophy

TV Epistemology