The Shock of Recognition: A Look into McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage

Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. Although this idea of McLuhan’s has been circulating since the 1960s, it still holds a connection to the values of Digital Culture. The Medium is the Massage is a look around to see what’s happening and how the media is shaping society, and it is apparent there is a plethora of dramatic behaviors affecting society and its individuals. McLuhan provides a moving quote in the introduction of his book, “The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur” (A.N. Whitehead). In relation to this quote, McLuhan emphasizes many important ideas throughout the book and their distorting presence in today’s society.

According to Michael Soha’s piece, “Technology & Social Change: Four Major Eras”, It was this counter-cultural movement that inspired Marshall McLuhan to focus on analyzing the impact of new electronic media on society. Soha writes, “Many scholars contend that the emergence of the Internet and mobile technology are as significant and paradigmatic a revolution as the invention of the printing press, and will have (or is having) a similarly transformative effect on society” (Soha). It is clear McLuhan’s work has a connection with key ideas of the Postmodern Era and some of these ideas hold true in the Digital Age, while others are less relevant than expected.

Although McLuhan discusses many far-fetched concepts, it is important to understand that many are still visible in society today. For example, McLuhan emphasizes privacy and the lack of it. He poses many personal questions to introduce this idea, such as, “How much do you make? Have you ever contemplated suicide? Are you now or have you ever been…?” (McLuhan). McLuhan points out that electrical information and the dominating presence of the media are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. He later concludes the summarization of this topic, asking, “How shall the new environment be programmed now that we have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting work force for social change?” (McLuhan). I find this idea of a lack of privacy and the community’s need to know to hold true today. Growing up in a small town with less than 3,000 residents in New Hampshire, I have been witness to this type of social stigma and interference of personal information due to a lacking population and increased awareness of your neighbor’s personal life. Word travels fast in these small towns and can be really damaging at times, especially when you’re the one or family being gossiped about.

Another idea that McLuhan provides is regarding the impact of media and technology on “your job”. McLuhan states, “When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?” (McLuhan). Jobs cannot serve for survival or sanity in this new time, as there has been this consistent rise of fragmentation of the stages of work that constitute “mechanization” and “specialism” since as early as the fifteenth century. McLuhan concludes the explanation of this concept with the quote, “Come into my parlor,” said the computer to the specialist (McLuhan). This quote really struck a chord with my beliefs and made me realize that this is still an accurate representation in today’s society. The influx of media technology and its wide range of skills has been replacing people in many industries since the twentieth century, including car manufacturers, customer service, insurance and soon to be many more. The idea that technology is taking people’s jobs is all too common. As a college student, it is evident that technology played an immense role during the initial COVID-19 outbreak and continues to, serving as a platform classes to be held, utilized as office hours with a professor and a makeshift cubicle setting for some. According to Soha in “Technology & Social Change: Four Major Eras”, “While standardized education is still a core experience for most people, many see the traditional model of standardized classroom learning as both failing and inappropriate for today’s society. In the digital era, an unimaginable amount of information is incredibly accessible” (Soha). I am not one to believe that technology and its practices will sweep every one out of a job because society will adapt and there will always be needs to fulfill, but I am aware of its dominating presence and can empathize with this idea that technology is powerful enough to outwork a human and in a more efficient manner.

As for one of McLuhan’s insights that may have trouble resonating with today’s society, it can be argued that his concept of enclosure and guilt is inaccurately represented today. McLuhan mentions, “The whole concept of enclosure as a means of constraint and as a means of classifying doesn’t work as well in our electronic world” (McLuhan). He references this idea of detention in a closed space as a form of human punitive corrective action and continues with, “The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual, but is, rather, something shared by everybody, in some mysterious way” (McLuhan). Although this may hold true to a certain degree, it can be argued that the digital age is not a world of involvement in which everybody is so profoundly involved with everybody else and in which no one can really imagine what private guilt can be anymore. I say this, because most people might share their guilt, problems or hardships on social media for people to see, but it is up for you to resonate with that particular person and what they’re going through. For example, I might be scrolling through Instagram and find that my cousin got arrested at a college party, but this doesn’t mean I feel what they are feeling or identify with their current situation. I might think, “How horrible it must be to feel like that”, as one would in a tribal society, but I am not blaming someone for doing something horrible. I believe that this depends on the individual and possibly the circumstance, but I would like to emphasize that this concept doesn’t resonate in today’s society and Digital Age.

Given Marshall McLuhan’s conceptualization of media and its presence in society, it is evident that his ideas, even though they were expressed in the midst of counter-culture, still associate with today’s society and the Digital Age.

University of New Hampshire