Expired · 17th August 2009
Marshall McLuhan was "the media guru" of the 1970s and '80s, a Canadian scholar who titillated the imagination of many with his enigmatic and illuminating pronouncements - "We invent things and thereafter they invent us." But he may have had more to say about environmental issues than he intended. As is often the case with visionaries, their insights apply more broadly than the specific subjects they are addressing. So, nearly 30 years after his death on December 31, 1980, the environmental implications of his insights are now becoming evident.
According to McLuhan, media is anything we invent. And each invention is an extension of some part of ourselves. Clothes are an extension of skin, written words of memory, telephone of voice, cars of legs, electronics of our nervous system. During the latter part of his life, he attempted to summarize his diverse and exploratory ideas into a book called The Laws of Media.
Everything we invent, he concluded, has four essential effects.
• First, each invention enhances or exaggerates the body part or faculty of which it is an extension. Thus, the car allows us to "run" faster and farther, thereby shrinking our experience of physical distance. Cars created suburbs and ‹ because we climb into them and wear them like skin ‹ they also create private space in public places.
• Second, each invention obsolesces an old technology by replacing it with a new one. Thus, just as the telegraph displaced hand-carried messages, telephones displaced the telegraph, thereby shortening time and contributing to the immediacy McLuhan called the "global village".
• Third, each new invention retrieves something old by using it in a new way. Thus, the first content of television became old movies, thereby inviting a nostalgia by rekindling our reflection of the past. TV has also rekindled our interest in nature by bringing it ever more vividly into our living rooms. Cities have inspired a romance with nature.
• Fourth, when pushed to the limit, each new invention reverses the effect for which it was intended. Thus, the car, which was supposed to eliminate the horse manure that polluted 19th century cities, has now rendered some cities nearly uninhabitable because of toxic air emissions. And suburbia has created the traffic gridlock that increasingly renders car travel impossible.
Each of our inventions "massages" us into a new shape, changing how we think and behave. We become what we make. "You shape your tools and they shape you," McLuhan said. "It's a loop - you start out a consumer and you wind up being consumed." So the complex networks of manufacture, distribution and marketing that accompany consumer goods get us on a treadmill we can't afford to get off. Economic necessity demands an escalating use of natural resources, an incessant intrusion into wild spaces, and a perpetual wreckage of natural ecologies to sustain the economic machinery we have invented. Thus - to choose Plutonic Power's run-of-river "development" of Bute Inlet as just one of many examples - we ruin nature to rescue it. To save traffic from gridlock, we cover more farmland with freeways. To grow farmed salmon, we destroy wild salmon. The economic system we have created to serve our needs completes its "loop" by turning everything into economics - "You start out a consumer and you wind up being consumed."
"Too much of anything," McLuhan said, "will always bring the opposite of what you thought you were getting." Coal, the new fuel of the 18th century that was supposed to save England's forests by replacing wood as the Industrial Revolution's source of power, is now threatening forests with toxic air and global warming. The airplane travel that was supposed to make faraway and exotic places reachable, has turned the world into crowded tourist traps of homogenized sameness ‹ "No one goes there anymore," said Yogi Berra, "it's too crowded." The bulldozers, excavators, chainsaws and factories that were supposed to make our human lives so much easier, are now causing the environmental degradation that might make our lives ‹ and the lives of many other creatures ‹ extremely difficult. In compliance with the Fourth Law of Media, McLuhan predicted ominously, "Even the global village is coded, in the end, to reverse."
If McLuhan is correct, this means that the global village will begin to fracture and the parts will begin to isolate. "Pushed too far," he predicted, "many become one, one become many." We are beginning to get some sense of how this fracturing could occur. Violence is one possibility. As McLuhan said, the quest for identity is a central aspect of the electric age, and violence is the only way we have been able to achieve identity – note terrorism. But peak oil could have a devastating effect on the international movement of goods and the interconnection of people. Exhausted natural resources could isolate countries by inducing them to give priority to their domestic interests. And the social and political unrest that could be triggered by extreme climate change would likely fragment the global village.
McLuhan wasn't attempting to describe an ideal world; he was attempting to describe a real one. He personally did not like change. But he believed we could avoid the worst effects of our inventions if we understood their impacts and anticipated consequences ‹ "Nothing is inevitable, provided you are aware." So, he said of his Laws of Media, "They come in hope but they only work as questions." What do our inventions enhance, obsolesce, retrieve or reverse? The trick is to recognize the patterns before we are victimized by results we do not want.
The dilemma, as McLuhan was fond of saying, is that we drive into the future looking through the rear-view mirror. We only see where we have been, not where we are. But, if we angle ourselves just so, we can almost see the present. And if we carefully consider our inventions and the state of our surroundings, we can guess where we are going. The most current guessing should be enough to inspire change in our thought and behaviour – before the loop completes itself and.the consumers are consumed.