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Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams have made key contributions to our understanding of media and its relationship to society and culture. McLuhan, in particular, has been an influential thinker on the subject and his ideas continue to be debated to this day. McLuhan’s work laid emphasis on how media is not an exclusive domain, but a space for the intermingling of politics, commerce and culture.
One of the founding fathers of the field of media ecology, McLuhan introduced his core ideas in the 1950s and 60s. This was a period of rapid growth in telecommunication technology. The project McLuhan undertook is no less than to explain how “the nuances and great sweeps of human history are made possible by media of communication–how media determine the thoughts and actions of people and society.
” (Strate, 2004) Raymond Williams’ career as a media analyst succeeded that of McLuhan. Consequently, he was able to see the flaws in several of McLuhan’s theories and rectify them to a large extent. Where Williams differed from his predecessor was on his ability to place media in the larger socio-cultural and economic dimensions rather than merely the technological dimension. This essay will argue that while McLuhan laid out many fundamental concepts governing media studies, it is Williams who offers a more robust and veritable framework of understanding for studying media.
Their arguments are weighed in the cases of digital media such as the television and the Internet. And finally, where either scholar’s concepts fall short, the Propaganda Model proposed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman is referred to present a more comprehensive understanding of media and its functionality.
One of McLuhan’s interesting ideas is that media is much more than the communications technology. It includes all “human inventions and innovations”. In this view, the constituent components of mass media includes “the spoken word, roads, numbers, clothing, housing, money, clocks, the automobile, games, and weapons, in addition to the major mass media and communication technologies.” (Driedger & Redekop, 1998) Hence, media is effectively an extension of human beings and their perceptory faculties and capabilities. While there is efficiency and expedition in the dissemination of information in this setup, the concerns are the attendant negative consequences. For example, an outcome of this pervasive media space is the numbing of our critical faculties under the overload of information processing. In this cultural order where ‘the medium is the message’, there is danger in media technology’s role in “how and what we communicate, how we think, feel, and use our senses, and in our social organization, way of life, and world view.” (Driedger & Redekop, 1998) I concur with McLuhan’s apprehensive about the power of media technology in determining and dictating culture. McLuhan further argued that
“the sensory organization, and the relationship between sensory organization and the nature of thought were shaped by a person’s direct experience with a medium. He saw television as a high-involvement medium, which leads viewers to crave the same level of involvement in all of their experiences. This was based on his designation of television as a “cool” medium, drawing on the distinction between “hot” jazz which was highly structured, and “cool” jazz, which was more unstructured, generating more listener involvement.” (Driedger & Redekop, 1998)
It is fair to claim that this theory is now proven to be inaccurate, for television actually only requires passive consumption as opposed to active engagement. Indeed, television has thus acquired the derogatory terms ‘idiot box’ and ‘the tube’. This is one of several instances where McLuhan’s grasp of the nature of a medium was off the mark. But some of his other theories pertaining to media’s influence on culture generally hold true. He first articulated his theories on media in his debut work The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. First published in 1951, this book focussed on media content as opposed to his later ruminations on the nature of media and the enabling technology. McLuhan identifies ways in which “popular culture reflects and promotes the attitudes, beliefs, and values of technological society”. (Strate, 2004) In this milieu, human beings are conditioned in certain ways that promote the technocratic social order. McLuhan refers to the ‘technological man’, who is a super specialist in his professional field, but is limited in his ability to critically engaging with the system he is a part of. While McLuhan doesn’t fully articulate the repercussions of this limitation, Raymond Williams’ fulfils this scholarly void. He elaborates that the ‘technological woman’ is mass produced as in an assembly line. She is a product of consumption of commodities such as soaps, cosmetics, household appliances, etc. With greater mechanization, some of her traditional roles are shifted to an automatic machine like, say, a washing machine. The vast sweep and penetration of mass media is such that children are especially hostage to its effects. Whereby, technological children grow up feeding on baby formula instead of mother’s breast milk. The resultant unfulfilled neo-natal urge leads them to carry an oral fixation in later life. This manifests in the form of addictions to cigarettes and alcohol – even Coca-Cola is a source of satiating this fixation. But beyond these physical entrapments that keep them entrenched in the consumerist cycle, the more significant effects are on the faculties of mind.
Even McLuhan concurs with Williams on the above point, as he notes: what passes for education is usually technical training that “will allow them to fit into the machine-like organizations of corporate America. Even in death, we are ruled by technology through the sale of coffins that are weather-resistant.” (Strate, 2004) Through these insights McLuhan introduced the concept of ‘technique’ or ‘technopoly’ that is the dominant method of indoctrination of human beings in modern technological societies. McLuhan and Williams were thus able to foresee the unsavoury and detrimental effects – so far as general human progress is concerned – of the confluence of media technology and consumerism on culture. Of the two, it is Williams who disapproved of these tendencies more vehemently and lamented the abuse of media. He expressed disappointment over the fact that the enabling and emancipating potential of technological media is usurped by business and political interests for perpetuating their own narrow goals. Through the mere fact of exposing this reality, Williams is pitching for critical thinking and corrective remedial action on part of civil society.
One of Raymond Williams’ key ideas is how culture “is a whole way of life, and everyone adopts a certain way of life or wants to have a changed way of life”. (Murray, Roscoe, Morris, Lumby, & al-, 2002) This aspiration takes a whole set of connotations in the era of globalization. Under this global economic paradigm, the primary concern is how local or indigenous culture would be impacted by “the global flows of capital, information, ideology, values, and technology.” (Fengzhen & Xie, 2003) Consequently, Williams identifies a general anxiety permeating all cultural discourse. There are fears that globalization might challenge and eventually quell several historically developed local linguistic, ethnic or national cultures. Several social critics, including Williams, have pondered if globalization is synonymous with “unification or Americanization of the world culture”. (Fengzhen & Xie, 2003) Others insist that “globalization is not necessarily the story of cultural homogenization or Americanization; instead it encourages and creates cultural diversity and protean difference.” (Fengzhen & Xie, 2003) It is important to remember that the process of globalization happened on the back of an equally rapid growth in telecommunication technology. Hence, Williams’ observations on globalization are fully applicable to its iconic technological symbol – the Internet. In the debate surrounding Internet’s effect on indigenous cultures, a third position has emerged “that attempts to reconcile the global and the local–it argues that globalization is a two-fold process which brings the universalization of particularism and the particularization of universalism at the same time.” (Fengzhen & Xie, 2003) Bringing in the viewpoint of Chomsky-Herman to this debate, it is fairly clear that their view of globalization and attendant media consolidation is negative. Chomsky, for example, has cited the failure of NAFTA to create prosperity for a majority of Mexicans, thereby exposing its rhetoric as propaganda of half-truths.
Coming back to McLuhan, in his later work, ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man’, he performs media analysis at the level of ‘system’ or ‘ecology’. Of the various observations and insights offered in the book, many pertain to the role of media (mainly the television) to the formation of culture. He identifies oral communication at the level of tribes as the earliest media developed by human civilization. The invention of the printing press at the beginning of the modern age thus brought a radical shift to the manufacture and assimilation of culture. There is even the contention that it was print technology which precipitated the beginning of the modern age, breaking away from the feudalistic and culturally stagnant medieval times. In this view, the invention of the alphabet is a watershed event in the evolution of human culture. According to McLuhan, the electronic culture (standing for both television and the Internet) is the ‘fourth culture’ which is ‘paradise regained’. Developing from
“the invention of telegraphy to television and the computer, this culture promises to short-circuit that of mechanical print and we regain the conditions of an oral culture in acoustic space. We return to a state of sensory grace; to a culture marked by qualities of simultaneity, indivisibility and sensory plenitude. The haptic or tactile senses again come into play, and McLuhan strives hard to show how television is a tactile medium.” (New Media, p.81)
Undertaking the study of the evolution of media in the last five centuries, McLuhan considers the dominant contemporary media forms in great detail and depth. It is in the context of modern electronic media and the conditions of globalization that the term ‘global village’ is introduced. One of McLuhan’s most enduring quotations in this regard is how “the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village”. (Murray, Roscoe, Morris, Lumby, & al-, 2002) There is truth to this view as the stupendous success of Hollywood and other American cultural products across the world prove. But McLuhan’s articulation is incomplete as it does not mention the commercial backbone of the electronic/digital culture. For example, in studying the film industry one can see how there is an “intersection of political economy and cultural studies”. (Druick, 2004) In the current set up where local cultural sensibilities are challenged by Hollywood, Raymond Williams’ argument rings true. He noted that