Marshall McLuhan is a famous media determinist who believed in the power of media and technology to impact society. He spoke against neutralists that do not assign positive or negative characteristics to technology and media and instead focus on the nature of the user and the purpose of using technology. In his article “Media is the message”, McLuhan argues the approach of David Sarnoff who made the following statement: “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.” Marshall McLuhan calls this approach somnambulism, a view that completely ignores the fact that medium is the message. Per McLuhan, it is quite a narcissistic interpretation of someone “hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form”.
What does McLuhan mean by terms “amputation” and “extension”? An extension occurs when an individual or society makes or uses something in a way that extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new. For example, the shovel is an “extension” of our arms, a microscope is an “extension” of our eyes, a car is an extension of our feet etc. Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions have the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension. The extension of a technology like the automobile “amputates” the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways.
McLuhan believed that mankind has always been fascinated and obsessed with these extensions, but too frequently we choose to ignore or minimize the amputations.
According to techno and media determinists, technological and media processes cause social movements. There are many critics of techno determinism, however it is worth listening to the concerns of the great scholar McLuhan who warned us about dangers of overextended technology. In the case of cars, for example, the resulting amputations such as muscle atrophy, smog, and high-speed fatalities increase at a rate that challenges the benefits initially gained.
On McLuhan’s gravestone are the words “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” We do not have to like or even agree with everything that McLuhan said, but we should nevertheless remember that his life was dedicated to showing men the truth about the world they live in, and the hidden consequences of the technologies he develops. Per McLuhan, American society is too often preoccupied with external enemies like Stalin and Hitler for example in the World War II era. At the same time, people failed to notice the threat of electric technology as “uniformity was applied to every level of education, government, industry and social life”.
McLuhan claims that the real enemy is sometimes invisible and unrecognizable by the people. Our conventional response to all media (“it depends how it is used”) puts people in a dangerous place according to the author. Often another medium serving as a “content” makes the impact of the media very strong without consumers of that content even noticing the influence. “Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for human users”, said McLuhan. That statement echoes the remark of Liebling in the book “Press”: “A man is not free if he cannot see where he is going even if he has a gun to help him get there”. McLuhan finishes his article with a notion about slaves quoting C.G. Jung: “Every Roman was surrounded by slaves… Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology.”
In the article Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society, published in 2007 in the International Journal of Communication, Manuel Castels wrote: “Throughout history communication and information have been fundamental sources of power and counter-power, of domination and social change. This is because the fundamental battle being fought in society is the battle over the minds of the people. The way people think determines the fate of norms and values on which societies are constructed. While coercion and fear are critical sources for imposing the will of the dominants over the dominated, few institutional systems can last long if they are predominantly based on sheer repression. Torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds.” Was McLuhan on to something? With mass and emerging media penetrating every aspect of our lives constantly, we have to keep asking ourselves: “How are we being manipulated, to whose benefit?” We are always to seek the truth to set ourselves free.