McLuhan and Postman on New Media Criticism

McLuhan, Marshall. 2003 (orig. 1962 & 1964). “Two Selections by Marshall McLuhan.” In The New Media Reader.
Cambridge: MIT Press.

Postman, Neil. 1992. “Invisible Technologies.” Technopoly. New York: Vintage Books.

After reading these noted articles, I had the following two questions posed:

1. McLuhan asserts that a “market economy ‘can exist only in a market society.’ But to exist, as market society requires centuries of transformation by Gutenberg technology; hence the absurdity in the present time of trying to institute market economies in countries like Russia or Hungary, where feudal conditions obtained until the twentieth century….” (198). If McLuhan had a valid point here, that certain elements of psychic, as well as mechanical, infrastructure needed to be put in place before an economy could evolve, how might this point play out 40 years later, as many nations attempt to build a hybrid of market economy with information economy? What role have/are/will electronic rhetorical spaces play in this evolution?

McLuhan did indeed have a valid point, which, 40 years later remains solid, although the figures might be a bit inaccurate. A market society may have required centuries of transformation by Gutenberg technology to mature and become part of the market economy. However, with market economies now so affected by information economies (creating a hybrid of the two), the process to maturation, even in a culture under feudal conditions. Craig McKenney mentioned China. Even in a society enforcing great control over its citizens, the information/market economy advances far more quickly that it did 40+ years ago due to the advent and existence of electronic rhetorical spaces.

The maturation that I noted is still dependent on “… a period of altering perception and sense ratios.” (189). However, with the ability to rapidly obtain information, communicate, and conduct business electronically (albeit heavily controlled, at times), that shift occurs far more rapidly than it did fifty or more years ago. In this way, it s largely the technological advancements bringing the increased globalization of communication and business that has reduced this maturation time and helped to more quickly stabilize an expanding market economy.

2. Postman’s discussion of statistics and their use, particularly in his consideration of polling and politicians, brings to mind both the expert-novice binary discussed in User-Centered Design, as well as matters of power and control considered by many of our other authors. It’s clear that, increasingly, we are asked to “participate” at some levels in polling or comparable activities and that these activities directly or indirectly influence other actions. As scholars and practitioners of communication, how or can we analyze and reconstruct the use of such polls, surveys, and other instruments to provide more contextually informed information to those requesting it? Speak specifically and refer to particular examples in this discussion.

One concept that comes immediately to mind as to how to analyze and make use of the statistical information and polls is to analyze the rhetoric of the questions asked to determine their level of objectivity vs. those that seems to be leading the polled individual in a certain direction of opinion. For example, an environmental poll might inquire, “Do you find the deforestation in South America and other such molestation of our environment a horrific and unacceptable condition?” This is radically different than a more objective statement that might be out to find similar information without swaying the polled individual, such as “Do you see any positive or negative aspects of deforestation occurring in South America?” Even in this example, the media has already conditioned us to perceive “deforestation” as a negative concept.

The way in which these questions are posed can shape, albeit falsely at times, the readers perspective of the issue at hand, their (novice) position in ratio to the expert (either the pollster or the entity behind it), and of the power/control levels underlying the presented issue.

Additionally, beyond the discussion of potentially leading questions, the way that information is presented in the form of statistics, charts, and graphs can affect how the novice user perceives the presented information and the extent to which that information is understood. Very detailed and complex information can be more easily comprehended when presented in a statistical and visual format. Such conversion of information can also lead to the reification of ideas into a seemingly more tangible form. For example, the “war of terror” is a pretty odd concept when posed against previous wars this country had in which the enemy was a given country or countries. Even “the war on drugs” seemed to make some sense even as a pseudo-metaphor for actually going to war to battle a tangible object endangering our citizens. However, for country (many countries, actually) to be at war with an intangible emotion is a difficult idea to grasp, yet we, as the novice, are presented with statistics to update us on how well we are doing in the venture.

One Response to “McLuhan and Postman on New Media Criticism”

  1. Comment From Persuasion in the digital age « Maggie’s Walk on September 11th, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    […] them to share your view (because it’s different from theirs). Now, some scholars, including Neil Postman and Matt Miller and have started to murmur that the 24/7 digital media maelstrom is irrevocably […]

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