understanding media

Digital McLuhan

Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium. London: Routledge.

In each chapter of Digital McLuhan Paul Levinson provides a clear introduction to one of McLuhan’s key ideas. He then goes on to demonstrate how McLuhan’s writing provides tools to help us think through changes to society and individuals that have been brought about by the internet. Levinson shows how McLuhan’s ideas, so strange and provocative in the 1960s, have become especially relevant in the new millenium.

1. Introduction: Coinciding Realms, pp. 1-23
Levinson first introduces the chapters of his book and the key concepts with which each deals: Chapter 2 looks at McLuhan's method ("I don't explain - I explore"); Chapter 3 examines what is meant by his claim that "the medium is the message"; Chapter 4 addresses "acoustic space"; Chapter 5 discusses "discarnate man"; Chapter 6 outlines the "global village"; Chapter 7 looks at increasing decentralization ("centers are everywhere, and margins are nowhere"); Chapter 8 looks at "light-through"; Chapter 9 considers "hot and cool" media; Chapter 10 considers the idea that "everyone [becomes] a publisher"; Chapter 11 looks at the blending of work and play when we "surf-board along the electronic waves"; Chapter 12 asks how "the machine turned Nature into an art form"; Chapter 13 considers whether we can "do everything well" online; Chapter 14 discusses the "rear-view mirror"; and Chapter 15 elaborates McLuhan's four laws of media. Levinson closes the chapter by considering the principal texts on which Digital McLuhan draws.

2. The Reluctant Explicator, pp. 24-34
In this chapter Levinson discusses McLuhan's method. McLuhan was principally interested in exploring rather than explaining new ideas, and to this end was fond of suggestive metaphors and aphorisms. His books are composed of short, interlinking sections rather than sequential chapters, and are similar to the 'acoustic' environment of an online discussion. He considered spoken conversation the basis of human communication, and the form of his discourse thus exemplifies what he wanted to convey.

3. Net Content, pp. 35-43
In this chapter Levinson explores McLuhan's infamous aphorism "the medium is the message": he explains that our very use of a communications medium has a greater impact than the content that the medium conveys. The message tends to distract us from the significance of the medium itself. When they use instantaneous electronic communications, e.g. speaking on the telephone or writing online, users themselves become disembodied content. Speech is the oldest communication medium of all, and in fact the 'content' of a medium is always a prior medium, just as the content of a movie is a novel.

4. The Song of the Alphabet in Cyberspace, pp. 44-54
In this chapter Levinson explores McLuhan's notion of acoustic space. This mode of perception, or environment, preceded the advent of visual space which was prompted by the media of the phonetic alphabet and especially printing. The qualities of acoustic space derive from hearing which, McLuhan argues, is immediate and immersive. The alphabet had a segregating tendency, but electronic media such as television, radio and the internet restore the simultaneity of acoustic space. Cyberspace, which places the alphabet online, actually increases acoustic interactivity. Levinson concludes by suggesting that a key human faculty is abstraction, and that since the alphabet does this especially well its future is secure.

5. Online Angels, pp. 55-64
In this chapter Levinson briefly discusses the implications of 'sending ourselves' by means of virtual, discarnate surrogates. Online our awareness of private identity is weakened and we seem, according to McLuhan, to be relieved of commitments to law and morals: Levinson discusses the dissimulation, as well as the safety, involved in online sex. He closes with short sections that consider the disembodied, god-like perspective brought by technology, and the fact that DNA, like thought, is discarnate but depends on and results in changes in material bodies.

6. From Voyeur to Participant, pp. 65-79
In this chapter Levinson discusses McLuhan's well-known notion of the global village. The village existence, in which all participants had more or less equal access to public information, was swept away when printed texts deposed the simultaneity of communication. This simultaneity was restored by electronic media such as radio and television broadcasts, creating a new 'global village'. The new villagers, Levinson argues, were only eavesdroppers and voyeurs however: it was not until the internet allowed people to participate and interact online that McLuhan's metaphor was fully realised. Levinson goes on to discuss the possibilitiy of, and impediments to, direct democracy, and the impetus toward autonomous online commerce.

9. Way Cool Text, pp. 105-118
In this chapter Levinson discusses McLuhan's account of the temperature of media: hot media are those that are dazzling, didactic, definitive and overpowering, e.g. technicolour movies, whilst understated, ephemeral, sketchy, cool media invite participation and interaction by the very paucity of the information they offer, e.g. a black-and-white television. Media are hot or cool relative to one another, but their temperature can change over time. Levinson suggests that McLuhan's temperature probe might be extended to politics, music, movies and clothing - he briefly discusses Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Bedazzled (1967) - though not to science. Online interaction, the marriage of hot prose and cool telephone, is particularly cool: it demands participation and is especially well suited to education and active learning. Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) are, Levinson suggests, effectively hyptertext narratives, products of our cool, computer-mediated environment.

10. The Rusted Gatekeeper, pp.119-131
In this chapter Levinson investigates McLuhan's suggestion that “the Xerox makes everyone a publisher”, a claim that becomes all the truer with the advent of the internet. Levinson considers different historic forms of gatekeeping - the Church, nation states, publishing houses - and the additional restrictions imposed by the costs of traditional publication, as well as the 'gatekeeping mentality' that all these limitations engender. He briefly mentions the philosopher Karl Popper and Beatles, both of whom nearly fell foul of over-zealous gatekeeping. Levinson concludes that the internet allows us to do away with gatekeeping whilst retaining the benefits of appraisal, citing Amazon's customer reviews as a prime example.

14. Through a Glass, Brightly, pp. 173-186
In this chapter Levinson explores the implications of McLuhan's notion of the rear-view mirror, the claim that we tend always to consider new technologies in terms of the familiar. As a result we miss what is most revolutionary about a new medium, and fail to appreciate its potential consequences. McLuhan himself believed that humans were the products or effects of media, thereby exhibiting a kind of technological determinism. Levinson, on the other hand, believes that we can look away from the rear-view mirror and maintain control over the media we create.

15. Spirals of Media Evolution, pp. 187-203
In this concluding chapter Levinson discusses McLuhan's four Laws of the Media, also known as the tetrad: any given medium will amplify, obsolesce, retrieve and reverse some other medium or human faculty. He discusses the examples of radio and television and demonstrates that a medium can modify more than one thing, and that several media will often converge into a single new medium in progressive spirals of amplification, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal. Levinson then compares McLuhan’s tetrad with Hegel’s dialectic. He goes on to argue that the tetrad is a cool insight and needs fleshing out. The web encourages the same engagement and self-motivation, and Levinson briefly discusses the implications for formal education. He mentions the film Starship Troopers (1997) and the dangers of the curtailment of choice online by centralization. He concludes that we can reverse McLuhan’s media determinism by using his own insights to enhance human control.