Understanding Media

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In the introduction to McLuhan's Understanding Media he writes: ‘Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned’ (1964: p.3). Like much of McLuhan's writing this statement is vast and poetic, with its strength of conviction making it quite persuasive. But if we are to be believers in this rhetoric we must have an understanding of what he means. The underlying concept of McLuhan's view of electronic technology is that it has become an extension of our senses, particularly those of sight and sound. The telephone and the radio become a long distance ear as the television and computer extend the eye by projecting further than our biological range of vision and hearing. The basic precepts of his view are that the rapidity of communication through electric media echoes the speed of the senses. Through media such as the telephone, television and more recently the personal computer and the 'Internet', we are increasingly linked together across the globe and this has enabled us to connect with people at the other side of the world as quickly as it takes us to contact and converse with those who inhabit the same physical space (i.e. the people that live in the same village). We can now hear and see events that take place thousands of miles away in a matter of seconds, often quicker than we hear of events in our own villages or even families, and McLuhan argues that it is the speed of these electronic media that allow us to act and react to global issues at the same speed as normal face to face verbal communication. Before I consider whether any justification lies in McLuhan's view I need to distinguish between two different meanings in the metaphor of the 'village'. In one sense the village represents simply the notion of a small space in which people can communicate quickly and know of every event that takes place. As he writes: ‘“Time” has ceased, 'space' has vanished. We now live in a global village... a simultaneous happening’ (1967: p.63). McLuhan is suggesting that through our 'extended senses' we experience events, as far away as the other side of the world, as if we were there in the same physical space. Watching the television premiere of the Gulf War and seeing the pilot's eye view of missiles reaching their targets, it would seem that McLuhan is right, but we do not experience the events around us solely through our ears and eyes. There is a large space between watching a war on the living room TV and watching a war on the living room floor. Our biological senses involve us in our situation whereas there is a sense of detachment in our 'extended senses' echoing the detachment of the afore-mentioned pilot. Through technology we bring the action closer to us, so the pilot can get a better shot, but it also enables us to stay at a safe physical distance, so our plane does not get shot down. Is there not a sense then that we are communicating through technologies that allow us to remain physically isolated? In a broader and more ideal sense the village represents community and the idea that we can all have a role in shaping our global society. Mcluhan writes: We live mythically and integrally... In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate... in the consequences of our every action. (1964: p.4) The image is of 'one being' connected by an electric nervous system within which the actions of one part will affect the whole. This idea seems apparent in both the workings of the global economy and our increasing awareness of the fragile eco-system. With the moon- landing came the first definite image of the globe and captured its fertility and beauty against the dark void, suggesting perhaps that the whole was alive. James Lovelock, the author of...
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