McLuhan's Ideology

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


July 20, 2011

McLuhan's Ideology

Nicholas Carr uncovers some of Marshall McLuhan’s disturbing views, from a 1969 interview in Playboy:

The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness. Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways… The computer could program the media to determine the given messages a people should hear in terms of their over-all needs, creating a total media experience absorbed and patterned by all the senses. We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. By such orchestrated interplay of all media, whole cultures could now be programmed in order to improve and stabilize their emotional climate, just as we are beginning to learn how to maintain equilibrium among the world’s competing economies.

Plenty of LOLs to be had on that last point, of course. Carr says there’s brilliance along with his craziness, but I have to say that to me, McLuhan comes across as incredibly vapid. The interviewer raises a political question: what about the “Pavlovian brainwashing” potential of a policy of programming society according to what a few cybernetic technocrats decide we need to think or do. McLuhan replies with something we hear quite a lot of still today: “Your question reflects the usual panic of people confronted with unexplored technologies.”

But it’s not the technology that’s the problem here, it’s the politics of what McLuhan is trying to achieve with it.

The type of panic that McLuhan refers to is the desire to avoid developing technology for fear of some unknown harm that could arise. But here, McLuhan proposes a technology application that’s terrifying and harmful on it’s face, and blithely waves away any objections with a ridiculous analogy that compares programming social beliefs and attitudes with the municipal provision of electricity.

But it gets worse. McLuhan says “I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends.” Absolute bullshit. In a Borg-like moment, he claims his future is inevitable, resistance is futile and we should accept it with pseudo-Zen equanimity: “I accept the Universe.” It’s easy to see the application of Žižek’s sometimes-contentious views of Western Buddhism.

He makes two points – first, political questions about the use of technology by those with power are reframed as panicked technophobia; second, the progress of technology is naturalized as a movement of the Universe that has been going on since the prehistoric era – both ways of dissipating critical questions about whose goals are being served when technology used that put the lie to his pretensions of neutrality.

McLuhan popularized the idea that “We change our tools and then our tools change us,” and this is implicit in the interview when he describes the relationship between humans and technology as symbiotic. Agency is attributed to technology in a way that deflects attention from the ideological purposes it is built for. As builders of tools, we are not serving our own interests, the interests of the state or of private capital – instead, we are mere servomechanisms. To use them, says McLuhan, “we must serve them as we do gods.” An immense, omnipotent, prehistoric god who was born millions of years, yet is simultaneously in intimate symbiosis with all of us.

Like all religions, techno-mystification props up the social order, making the choices of those with power seem inevitable and natural.