Tag: The Medium is the Message

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

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