McLuhantic, part deux

Marshall McLuhan is the theorist de jour.  Across the mainstream press his maxim “the media is the message/massage” appears frequently, From Ebert to the Guardian, McLuhan pops up in any pundits diatribe of a media saturated society.

For someone who tried to distinguish between hot and cold media, this cool guy is a hot topic.  It is easy to see why McLuhan is having a theoretical renaissance.  From the iPhone through to an iPad, droid, Kindle, and Wii, media begs to be touched, stroked, Digg-ed, pinched, rubbed, thrown, shaken and in every physical sense – pampered and massaged.

Just as McLuhan proselytized, technology is increasingly becoming a prosthetic appendage – an extension of the human body.  We log in into Facebook; seek information like nourishment as we scroll though a news feed; we offer approval by clicking a “like” button which represented by a 2-D icon of a virtual thumbs up.  During Social Media Week, one speaker at JWT remarked social media is an extension of the human brain.  At a talk at Google, an MIT nueroscientist applied how the human brain is networked to interactions on social media sites.

Paradoxically, while we physically interact with media, communication has arguably become disembodied. We shout our thoughts into a void, not knowing who is listening, who will respond, or what will come back.  We share a like, but never know if it’s reciprocated. We can communicate without really communicating. We stay “in touch” with our friends by not necessarily touching back.  For example, through your updates, I know you’ve recently gone on holiday, were nervous about a job interview, had flu or worse, a baby …but I haven’t responded to any of it.

Does that make me a bad friend?

According to MIT professor Sherry Turkle, whose book Alone Together just came out, we’re becoming “less human” (see the recent Guardian review here). But is this McLuhan’s point? Technology is seemingly seamlessly substituting society and social interaction.  But in his vision of a global village (let’s temporarily put aside issues of the digital divide), does being “along together” result in deeper alienation or emphasized socialization?  According to McLuhan, participation distinguishes what makes a medium either a “hot” (low participation) or “cold” (high participation) category.  Conceivably then our digital technologies are presenting a new option: you decide what level you want to engage with it in.  We’re not really alone, but we’re not really together…

As our handheld smart phone mobile devices are a telephone, radio, TV, book, newspaper, music player all in one –categories can be collapsed even further.  We go in between hot and cold media all the time.  Is the hottest new phone or coolest new technology really just lukewarm, a tepid experience of emotions that blend passivity to engagement, empathy to disregard in just one click?

But before I sound like a complete advocate for technological determinism here – as I momentarily take a break to check my four (yes four) Twitter accounts, I do feel connected. The online world – as we fully enter an era of transparency rather than anonymity – is now a place where everyone knows your name.  FourSquare, hashtags, 2-D Twitter Avatars, are connecting people offline.  EXAMPLE: I was at a Social Media Week event and I decided to approach the amazing Danielle Friedland (whose claim to fame I later learned was selling her Celebrity Babies Blog to People) – cause I recognized her user pic from her highly entertaining tweets broadcast across the hashtag #smwcommerce throughout a rather annoyingly pompous event.

So just what are the theoretical explanations as to why I have never commented on your decadent vacation, congratulated your job placement, sent you get well wishes, or cooed at your wrinkly infant?  Well, I don’t think McLuhan can help me on that one.

And YO, check out McLuhan Centenial Worldwide Tour: Coming to a city near you!!!

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One thought on “McLuhantic, part deux

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