Tag: Marshall McLuhan

How to Think about the Cell Phone

Weapon of Self-Destruction or Tool of Self-Improvement:

The cell phone. Is it a great thing? A useful thing? An annoying thing? An addicting thing?

A ton of writers have condemned the cell phone on all sorts of grounds. They’re tired of rude talkers who use it in restaurants, parks, and churches, and they’re disgusted by the way cell phones seem to give people a sense of being: “I cell, therefore I am.”

At least one writer, though, decries all this decrying. Jeffrey Tucker, writing at the Ludwig von Mises Institute (http://www.mises.org/story/1849), cogently argued that it’s just more criticism of capitalism, of the Marxist sort. It’s an approach that’s been used repeatedly: Criticize a new technology as an extension of man’s alienation, pepper the essay with quotes from Nietzsche and Freud, and raise the specter of addiction. A few more such jeremiads and the psychiatric profession has a new mental illness to profit from, then maybe the government will get involved with funding.

Tucker also thinks it’s just fear of something new:

“Because our eyes see something new, something we haven’t been socialized to expect, and because the market is expanding and democratizing so rapidly, it creates the illusion of something having gone oddly wrong. Instead of seeking to understand it, the temptation is to reach into pop culture’s bag of ideological bromides and decry it as some sort of pathology.”

These are excellent points.

But he doesn’t address questions that any good disciple of Marshall McLuhan would ask: How does this technology affect the user? What is this need to be in constant touch with everyone, everywhere?… Read the rest

McLuhan Sighting

“Philosophize This” dedicates its current episode to Marshall McLuhan. It’s very good.

The podcast is here.

The transcript to the podcast is here.

You ask people that question what would you rather be? Blind or deaf? And 99% of people say they’d rather be deaf…because our culture is so visual in terms of how it communicates. But how might that sample size change if a new media or technology was introduced that communicated primarily through audio? You know, McLuhan once said:

“We don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t a fish. A pervasive environment, a pervasive medium is always beyond perception.”

The big point to McLuhan is this: the messages that these media of written language are sending to us…go far beyond the actual content or subject matter of the thing that’s being written about. There are latent messages being sent that as fish in the water we just don’t perceive.

Read the rest

Cell Phones, Radio, and the Philosophy of Marshall McLuhan

Breaking down a 21st-century matter by bringing back a 1960s icon.

My first cell phone was the Motorola RAZR V3. That was in 2005.

I didn’t use it a lot at first, but it made me more accessible to my clients. I would often use it to return calls while walking, so I could exercise and earn money at the same time.

I did this the third day I had the phone, walking back to the office after lunch. I called the client at Point A and ended the call a half mile later, at Point B.

After I hung up, I felt like I was waking from a deep daydream. For a moment, I couldn’t even remember what route I had taken from Point A to B, though I had walked the route over a hundred times.

Since then, I’ve grown more use to walking and phoning, but I found that first experience a little unnerving.

How do you like to multitask?

I like multitasking if it’s the right kind. Reading a book while waiting for laundry to dry: smart multitasking. Reading a book while interviewing for a job: dumb multitasking. Ordering a Pabst while the head on your Guinness settles: fun multitasking.

What about multitasking with the cell phone?

Everyone has heard the debate about driving and cell phones. One study says that cell phone driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. The National Safety Council’s website declares there’s “No Safe Way to Use a Cell Phone and Drive,” then links to a white paper about the “cognitive distraction” of cell phone use and noting that “hands-free” doesn’t make much difference.

Yet hands-free cell phone use is still legal in all 50 states and most states even allow hand-held cell phone use while driving. Tons of people still … Read the rest

Is the Netflix Documentary a Paean to Catholic Convert and Daily Communicant Marshall McLuhan?

The Social Dilemma uses the intellectual framework built by McLuhan, but the similarities stop there

The Social Dilemma documentary has broken records. According to its main star, Tristan Harris, 38 million households in the first 28 days saw it on Netflix.

That’s incredible.

What’s even more incredible?

The whole documentary is a salute to Marshall McLuhan.

Well, it’s a tribute to Neil Postman, who was a loyal McLuhan disciple.

Harris, who is largely responsible for sounding the alarm bell about what the social media industry is up to, appeared on “The Joe Rogan Experience” last week. He concluded the interview with these glowing words about Postman’s classic work, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

It literally predicts everything that is going on now. I frankly think that I’m adding nothing . . . Neil Postman called it all in 1982.

I appreciate it when contemporaries admit that they are standing on the shoulders of giants—and McLuhan/Postman were giants—but I think Harris’ comment is a little too generous.

The theme of the documentary

The Social Dilemma addresses the attention economy. The social media companies’ entire business model is to capture attention. They do this through algorithms that engage us by giving us what we want . . . without us asking for it.

And even without us knowing we want it.

The social media companies gather our information—what we’ve viewed, what we’ve purchased—and feed it into an algorithm with billions of other pieces of information to determine what we want to see, then feed it to us so we don’t leave their network.

At one point in the interview, Harris says you can practically feel the algorithms pulling on you.

It’s compelling stuff.

The Social Dilemma and McLuhan/Postman

But it’s dealing with issues and a media force that I’m pretty sure neither … Read the rest

Ben Franklin and the Mouse

How I finally accepted multi-tasking

It had been there for years, but I had never noticed it.

Until one morning when I found myself with a telephone receiver tucked under my neck while I talked with an acquaintance, a computer mouse in my hand while I surfed the Internet, and a pile of snail mail in front of me that I scanned between web page downloads.

My power of attention had suffered a serious blow and I didn’t even see it coming. I suddenly realized: The much-vaunted act of multi-tasking had settled in me. It unnerved me a bit, so I watched myself for a few weeks and discovered that I could hardly do anything without wanting to do something else at the same time.

Sure, there were exceptions. Sex, for instance, could still keep my attention. I’m guessing an armed robber with a psychotic laugh and an AK47 could, too. I could also stay focused when checking my investments.

So sex, fear, and money. Those things could demand single-task attention.

But in nearly all other activities, the urge to be doing another thing at the same time was there.

Why do we multi-task?

I don’t know when it started. I think I’ve had the multi-tasking disposition for years. Even back in college, when leisure was life, I kinda liked doing laundry because I could study at the same time.

I’m guessing multi-tasking was stamped on my upbringing.

It isn’t surprising. I’m an American, and I was raised with conventional American ideas of good living, like a penny saved is a penny earned, God helps them that help themselves, and never leave until tomorrow that which you can do today.

Those, of course, are Franklinisms. Ben also wrote, “Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all … Read the rest

The Architecture of Speed

Thoughts build your everyday existence. Technology affects your thoughts. The implications? Ask Marshall McLuhan.

Sometimes I’m Gothic. Other times, Tudor-ish. In the morning I might be Romanesque, but by the afternoon I’m Bauhaus.

The architecture of my mind changes day-to-day, hour-to-hour, sometimes minute-to-minute. I generally want to live a life of good deeds, uplifting counsel, and noble thoughts. But as a typical human being, the mental architecture of a particular day or hour might be more inclined to make me obsess about money, be loud, or tell ribald jokes.

The most troubling thing: the architecture I wake up with or shift into during the day isn’t a conscious choice. I don’t wake up and say, “Well, yesterday I was Gothic: grand, prayerful, elevated in thought, word, and deed. Today, I want to be Victorian-like: noble, demur, of refine appearance. Tomorrow, I’ll be Romanesque: sleek, elegant, and a temple to the pursuit of money.”

It doesn’t work like that. I wake up or find myself in the middle of the day with a mental architecture I didn’t choose.

Pretty much the only thing I can do is work with it the best I can. The ease or difficulty of working with it depends on what I want to do.

If the architectural style that day is Romanesque and I want to make a lot of money, it’s a great fit. But if I want to be in my study, meditating with the Stoics? That’s tough. It’d be like living a life of chastity at the Playboy mansion.

Control your thoughts

Our mental architecture is crucial to determining whether we’ll be kind or rude, noble or mean, courteous or abrupt. Although we don’t have control over the architectural form like we do our day’s clothes, we can sway it.

We can supply the … Read the rest

Did Video Bring Us BLM, Riots, and COVID Hysteria?

A new essay about the Marshall McLuhan disciple, Neil Postman

black crt tv showing gray screen
Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

You like dead white guys? How about a dead white guy who was the disciple of a dead white guy?

I do. I also like DWG Marshall McLuhan and his disciple, DWG Neil Postman, whose Amusing Ourselves to Death is a classic (his Technolopy is also very good). 

Postman is the subject of a recent essay at the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourses (a publication that has increasingly been catching my attention). If you’re interested in how the media of television, smartphones, and social media, I believe it’s a “must-read.”

Postman called television a propagator of “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.”

That seems an apt description of the first presidential debate, as well as of broader trends we have witnessed this year. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that our digital age, in innumerable ways, aggravates our social and political distemper.

In order to understand Postman, it’s necessary to understand McLuhan’s iconic saying, “The medium is the message,” which means that extensions of ourselves (e.g., a hammer extends our muscles) alter us in fundamental ways, regardless of the message loaded onto the medium.

So, for instance, TV alters us fundamentally, regardless of whether we’re using it to watch Masked Singer or the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. The mere fact that we are viewing TV changes us. The content doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that we are using TV at all.

And it’s TV where Postman parted with McLuhan. McLuhan was excited at the possibilities of electronic media. He saw it returning us to our “whole self,” which was ripped apart with the advent of print. In Postman’s words about McLuhan’s vision:

Electronic communication contains in its structure, that is, its speed, its volume, its multi-directionality, and

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How Have These Ten Extensions Changed Us?

Toward the end of his life, Marshall McLuhan provided a list of the ten things that have changed us the most.

Perhaps the biggest difference between childhood and adulthood is time. The adult frantically looks for more time. The child looks for ways to fill time.

I filled a lot of my childhood time with reading all sorts of stuff: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, baseball statistics, Mad Magazine.

And reference books. I loved reference books: atlases of the world,the statistical abstract of the United States, and encyclopedia entries.

After my mom died last year, I had to clean out my childhood home. In the process, I stumbled upon one of my favorite quirky reference books: The Book of Lists.

This 1970s sensation sold nearly ten million copies. It was, well, a book of lists. That’s it.

A lot of the lists were factual, but some of the lists were mere opinions by celebrities or experts in a particular field.

While reminiscing with it, I came across this opinion list by an expert in his field: Marshall McLuhan’s Ten Most Potent Extensions of Man.


The Catholic convert and weekday communicant Marshall McLuhan was a household name in the 1960s. He was interviewed by numerous outlets, including The Today Show and Playboy. He even made a cameo appearance as himself in a Woody Allen film.

His central theory is that human modes of thinking are altered by media. Media are “extensions” of ourselves, things that add themselves to what we already are. When we start to use a particular extension, it changes us in some way. It changes a person individually; it changes culture as a whole.

Some extensions have minor effects. Some have major effects.

And there are ten, according to that McLuhan list, that have … Read the rest