Marshall McLuhan Predicted World War III
The late philosopher Marshall McLuhan was famous for saying “The medium is the message,” meaning that the technology used to convey ideas is more important, from a cultural standpoint, than the ideas themselves.
McLuhan used a lightbulb as an example of how the medium of technology could message a whole culture or even a whole species. A lightbulb doesn’t have content like a newspaper does. But the fact that it can illuminate dwellings and factories at night shifted the work and social habits of untold millions of people. It caused a massive shift in the way we conducted ourselves as human beings.
In his groundbreaking book Understanding Media, McLuhan separated media into either “hot” or “cold.” He saw film shown in theatres, for instance, as a hot medium, calling for little audience participation, since the experience is so enveloping—with high intensity images, a captivating soundtrack, little light and few distractions.
Television, he argued, was a disruptive “cold” medium that required human beings to unconsciously assemble the myriad pixels that comprise a television image, thus compelling them to join themselves to the technology. Moreover, lots might be happening while a television was broadcasting programs into a home, requiring the viewer to work to focus on the relatively small screen.
Cold media, McLuhan explained, were the ones that risked human beings becoming addicted to them and feeling absorbed and homogenized by them. He theorized that the species would fight back against this absorption and homogenization by becoming more tribal — asserting their national and geopolitical identities through conflict with one another. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States may, in fact, have been partly fueled by the threat that television would dissolve everyone, and all identities, into it.
McLuhan, who died in 1980, had no idea that new technologies, like the internet and its children, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google, would represent an exponential, existential threat of the same kind. Writers for the Washington Post, the New York Times and other publications are only now addressing the problem I identified several years ago: that these new technologies don’t really reinforce individuality and self-expression and identity; they threaten to obliterate it instead.
How? Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google and others seek to monopolize information dissemination and product marketing. They do so by absorbing consumers’ likes, dislikes and patterns of behavior into their sites and hardware, forcing interactions with them by spitting back marketing and social networking prompts and algorithms that trigger more searches, more buying, more socializing and more fingerprinting of the consumers’ inclinations and intentions. Once the consumers are known sufficiently, it could be argued that their psychological DNA “exists” inside the technologies behind such sites and products. The consumers are owned and operated, to an extent, by the media and technology they are using to learn, shop and socialize.
They are “connecting” to the amoeba of a technological society and disconnecting from themselves.
Just as lots of people consciously enjoy using heroin, people may consciously enjoy being depersonalized by technology. But human beings have a safety valve inside their psyches to prevent complete destruction of their free will. This unconscious reflex reasserts their identities, often — as McLuhan observed and predicted — through heightened tribal conflict.
McLuhan no doubt would have assigned the rancor between right-wing Americans and left-wing Americans, the divide between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, the rise of ISIS and of MeToo (equally dangerous, by the way), the feverish tension between the U.S. and North Korea and, yes, the rising tensions between Nato and Russia to the impact of the internet and its offspring. And it isn’t too much to think that he might well have been correct.
Our species, save for some pockets of resistance like the Amish, has rushed headfirst into our new technologies. But our souls won’t rush into that dark night without a fight. Lots of fights. Maybe even nuclear war. Literally.