I’ve been reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. Having read Trippi, Rheingold, Shirky and others, I thought I’d go back to the source of many insights regarding media and social transformation.

McLuhan is a very odd experience. He often writes in an oracular style, allowing the reader several ways to interpret what he says. As a specialist in the process rather than in the content forms of human mass communication, he nonetheless relies upon a deep reservoir of literary references to offer texture to what he writes. The result is truly Delphic. It feels like much that is communicated can be taken in opposite ways. From my perspective, it feels like he misses much by committing so deeply to an ethnocentricity that places the works of modern culture above ancient societies along with a deep reverence for Progress.

He evidences a methodology and spirituality that revere process yet neglects to embrace all process as part of a larger whole. But, then again, maybe not.

McLuhan writes, “If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?”

McLuhan’s description of a hierarchy of nested media with new media using former media to structure content (the printing press incorporates language, radio the printing press and TV radio) is in interesting ways like Ken Wilber’s descriptions of evolving society as a series of nested consciousnesses with specific attributes. The idea that deep, systemic change is characterized by nested assimilations appears in Hegel, Marx, Freud, Wilber, McLuhan and many others. I feel my contribution to the paradigm is that by applying the heterochronic principles developed by Mivart, Cope, Haeckel and the Neo-Lamarckians of the 19th and early 20th century to an understanding of social transformation, you end up with a specific structure that describes how these nesting hierarchies develop.

We’re drifting back to the four-fold parallelism or the belief that evolution unfolds on four scales: biology, society, ontogeny and individual human experience. Societal transformation is informed by biological evolution, often interpreted by personal experience or metaphors describing how human beings mature. McLuhan was not an anthropologist, developmental psychologist or evolutionary biologist. He was a literature professor. He refers to or quotes authors that draw inspiration from all four scales. For me, it makes for a frustrating read because McLuhan prefers to suggest rather than explain. I guess sometimes I like my art separated from science, the beautiful segregated from the useful, particularly if I’m seeking to understand how things work.

Nevertheless, McLuhan emphasizes that how we communicate influences what we can communicate and that there is an integral relationship between communication and spirituality. This insight forms a foundation for understanding the web, social media and the transformation we are presently engaged in.


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This entry was posted on Monday, August 3rd, 2009 at 7:22 am and is filed under Society, Web. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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  1. Heresiarch on August 8, 2009 9:14 am

    Andrew, nice to have an excuse to check in again.

    I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it’s an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

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