The sixties seer who warned of wokeness

May 18, 2019 by

by Jenny McCartney, unherd.

[Marshall…] McLuhan, a game and dapper participant in the media that he dissected, died in his sleep in December 1980, aged 69. His most famous sound-bite was “the medium is the message”, and he was also known for his prediction that electric technology would have the power to contract the world into “a global village”.

Now, McLuhan appears before us as a kind of seer of the digital age. He instinctively understood that a new medium is not simply a tool of man, but has the ability to reshape human thought, society and culture according to its own inherent properties.

The book’s main point is that any new medium becomes part of humanity – an extension of our consciousness. “With the arrival of electric technology,” McLuhan writes, “man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself”.

This, for McLuhan, is ground on which to attack the argument that technology is simply a form of neutral tool, which individuals can choose to use for good or ill.

He quotes, for example, General David Sarnoff of the University of Notre Dame saying:

“We are too prone to make technological instruments the scape goats 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.”

To modern ears, that remains an oft-heard viewpoint – and one with the veneer of reasonableness. But McLuhan roundly condemns it as “the voice of the current somnambulism”. He was writing in 1964, but the voice is still current today.

The Sarnoff statement, he says, “ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form”.

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