I first heard the name Marshall McLuhan from the lectures of Francis Schaeffer in the fall of 1967 at Wheaton College. The late Francis Schaeffer was the greatest popular philosopher/apologist in the Evangelical world of that time. I wonder how many today have even heard of him. He taught with great power and authority. Schaeffer quoted the famous Mcluhan phrase, “The media is the message.” In his summary, the media has the power to create what people see as reality, though it is not really reality. Schaeffer gave many examples of films and pictures that were total distortions, but by selective editing, were able to create a false narrative. For Schaeffer, this could lead to terrible totalitarian control by the government. I think of the picture from a few years ago of a Palestinian who was holding his child that had just been shot in the terrible conflict of the Palestinians and Israelis. The narrative was that though he was protecting his son, an Israeli soldier just shot him in cold blood. It became a media sensation, especially in France, and produced an intense anti-Israel reaction. It never happened and was proven to be a death from Palestinian fire. Over the years, I would read many paragraphs from others of what McLuhan said and how it could be applied, but I did not read McLuhan. Sometimes I quoted the quotes.
With the internet today creating narratives so easily, gaining traction for these narratives and gullible ascent from so many, I wondered if McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, could have anything to say to our age. Finally, I decided to read him directly and downloaded his book, Understanding Media, the Extension of Man. I also read some reviews.
McLuhan’s writings are complex and not a simple warning about the dangers of media when not responsibly handled. Actually, it seems after reading McLuhan, there is little chance of responsibly handling media. Media takes over man, is an extension of man, and recreates human beings. How that recreation takes place and what it means is the unspoken message of the media. Some have said that McLuhan was a media determinist. His teaching was that media will just remake us for good or evil, and there is nothing we can do about it. Humans never seem to be able to adequately anticipate or to control the reforming of human beings and society. McLuhan does not just speak of modern electronic media but traces the effect of the alphabet and literacy in the ancient world, how roads in Rome followed literacy and made empire possible, how movable type and the printing press completely reformed Europe and led to more homogenous arrangements of human life, how the telegraph, telephone, radio and T.V. and the computer (still in an early stage in his day) re-make human existence in very total ways. McLuhan’s book is mostly descriptive and not prescriptive. I found it to be brilliant in intuitive insight, ranging over many areas of art and culture. However, it was at times tedious, redundant, and without the kind of scholarly support that would establish his assertions. Sometimes I did not agree and found myself saying that we can transcend media. We are in the image of God. However, the assertions often seemed correct according to my intuitive sense.
Coming back to Schaeffer, if film and pictures can so distort and do not produce the questioning response of print, what can we say of the internet age (where are the footnotes for assertions?)? Surely the concerns of Schaeffer and the media shaping us are not unjustified. McLuhan was prophetic in his descriptions of electronic media being an extension of the human nervous system and being more pervasive and dominant than any media to date. McLuhan would sometimes revel in the media changes and was not a defender of print or older ways as the better way to truth. I don’t know that McLuhan concerned himself with the best way to find the truth. The theory of knowledge issues (Epistemology) are absent.
Speaking on the dangers of radio and its monopolistic control of information if taken over, he quotes Hitler, “I go my way with the assurance of a somnambulist (sleep walker).” Then he says, His victims and his critics have been equally somnambulistic McLuhan says, “They danced entranced to the tribal drum of radio that extended their central nervous system to create depth involvement for everybody. “I live right inside radio when I listen.” The power of radio to involve people in depth is manifested in its use during homework by youngsters and many other people who carry transistor sets in order to provide a private world for themselves amidst crowds.” (Kindle, Loc. 4236-4260)
How much more would this fit the computer phone devices? I go to the gym and people are always hooked up. Music, telephoning, and pop up news from the internet and media form opinions. Narratives gain traction and acceptance even when they are not rooted at all. This media is shaping people. The effect on the brain has been studied. The withdrawal of some of our youth from normal person to person interaction is stunning. What kind of people will this produce?
In speaking about how media dominates us and takes us over, he says, “Not even the most lucid understanding of the particular form of a medium can head off ordinary closure of the senses that causes us to conform to the pattern to the experience presented. Purity of mind is no defense against bacteria!” (Loc. 4280)
Well, this does not seem too hopeful. Is there any way to transcend the media flood? In a time of protest fueled by social media, how can we find a way to truth and to transcend being totally conditioned? The only answer I have is by immersion in the Word of God and praying in the Spirit. Then it is to have a level of discernment in the Spirit that was never before so required of God’s people. We need to disconnect from media for large chunks of time and ask the Holy Spirit to lead us to the source of information and truth. Time in nature with beauty, time spent with great music, and great biographical stories can help. Then we need to create communities of the people who do the same. Perhaps the Chinese Church whose society is so controlled by State-controlled media can help lead the way for us.