I began researching Marshall McLuhan on the internet to explore Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about how the internet effects research. The symmetry was pleasing.
One thing the internet tells you pretty quickly is that McLuhan did not say or think anything about the internet because he died in 1980. But Amazon customer Mark B. Cohen assured me we could still learn something.
You can be a scholar on the internet, but why be a scholar when customers get better treatment? Sometimes it’s easier to treat the object of your research as a commodity.
McLuhan certainly looks and feels like a commodity. But you can get bits of him for free all over the place.
I began copying free bits of McLuhan at an alarming rate. I collected trivialities. You can tweet @marshallmcluhan. You can call things McLuhanesque. You can listen to The Ballad of Marshall McLuhan (but don’t).
McLuhan is a kind of hyperobject – “an entity of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” It is impossible to grasp the totality of McLuhan, because the internet has done what it does to most people and things: obliterated his spatio-temporal specificity. Lost strands of his being are now buzzing around my hard drive.
I can speak to him anywhere with a wifi connection, a prayer by proxy. But encounters with recordings of the once-local-and-fixed McLuhan are unnerving. I find him speaking mystically in greys and browns about Television in 1977 – before I pause him and close his tab.
Then I download his books. The Medium is the Massage [sic] becomes rather tragic: the window on my screen keeps telling me it is a book, but it is manifestly not a book. It sincerely thinks I’m turning its paper pages with my finger and thumb. It seems blissfully unaware of its current status as a .pdf file and rehearses the same joke about a medium it transcended long before. Mediums mutate and betray their messages.
So what about McLuhan and The Digital Age (not the band)? Google lends me the pixels of Paul Levinson.
After a few scrolls I find out that Levinson knew and worked with McLuhan. Here he is describing his experience of learning from him in person:
Park walks. Dinner talks. Hall whispers. These words bring me to a halt. The title promised me “Digital McLuhan” but this McLuhan feels most un-digital. My screenshotting superpower is horribly diminished. Instead of marvelling at the infinities I can access I am reminded of the other infinities I can’t. There are hours of recordings of the man online, but now I’m wondering about the unrecorded halls backstage. I don’t want him to be a dead prophet, but a living contact on whatsapp. Think of the emojis.
This is another thing the internet does: it manufactures nostalgia for non-hyper, everyday objects. This is close to what McLuhan said about the relationship between new and old technologies, media, or ways of being: we can only begin to see old media properly as media once they have been superseded, when form becomes content. Walks, one-to-one conversations, and books take on new meanings as they are re-experienced and re-presented through new technologies. McLuhan thought old technologies became art forms, ‘just as handwriting became the art of calligraphy in the age of print’.
And outmoded technologies become subjects of research. It is no coincidence that the “history of the book” emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century (stimulated by McLuhan) when electronic media allowed us to truly see the contours of print technology for the first time.
This is what I do with my own research. Digital tools allow me to study and manipulate old books in ways no book could ever manage. I cast my eye along thousands of shelves and flick through millions of pages in an instant. I see their shared yearnings and failures. The form of books has been rendered pure content to me. Just like McLuhan.
James Fisher is a PhD student at King’s College London researching the historical relationship between agricultural books, knowledge and labour in early modern England. Follow @JamDanFish.