Mike Khalili's Essay: The Need for Social Context

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In my opinion McLuhan's theories are fundamentally flawed.

The main problem with McLuhan's theories are that he largely ignores the societal context in which new technologies emerge. His famous saying that "The Medium is the Message" ignores the fact that the medium normally arises only in the context of the need to communicate new messages.

Let's take a simple example: the film. In the last session we looked at a clip from the film "Battleship Potemkin". It was argued that this is what the film as a form of media allowed. The film allowed for the telling an emotional story in a visually engaging fashion. This is a true but vacuous statement, for it misses the societal context which drove the media in this direction. Film as a technology emerged around the turn of the century. This corresponds roughly to the rise of the labour union, the emergence of the 40 hour work week and other such reforms to a labour market. Suddenly people had free time to enjoy the film. Given that people still tended to work grueling jobs, passive entertainment was desired. Film filled this need and thus was successful. It is hardly surprising that this film emerged from the Soviet Union only years after the bolshevik revolution, the most extreme move towards the working class attempting self-emancipation.

McCluhan pokes fun at this contextual view of technology by joking "'Firearms are neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.' That is if the slugs reach the right people firearms are good." However, this shows how McLuhan overly narrowly contrues what constitutes a technology. Firearms are not really a basic technology, gunpowder is. Gunpowder was developed first in China. However, given that China was at this time a large empire with no serious challenger, the application chosen, the "message" was celebratory. People developed fireworks for use on various holidays. However, Europe later developed the technology at a time when various European kingdoms were engaged in protruded conflicts. They thus applied the technology to weapons. The "medium" was the same but given the different societal context the "message" was very different--in China "Happy New Year" and in Europe "Die. Die. Die!"

McLuhan's inability to grasp contextual influences on media can at times be stunning. He wrote: “TV will not work as background. It engages you. You have to be with it” (McLuhan, 1964, p.312). Needless to say, most people today would laugh at such a statement. People watch TV passively all the time. Why did McLuhan get this so wrong? It is not difficult to determine this. He wrote this statement in 1964. In 1964 most women did not work outside the home in Western society. Automation at the same time had greatly simplified housework. Thus, daytime soap operas offered women who had more free time engaging storylines lasting over years. A woman could then cook dinner in time for her husband and children to arrive home, and allow for dedicated evening TV time. Just as the movie offered relaxation for those who were exhausted, TV offered engaging entertainment for those who were bored.

Needless to say, we don't live this way anymore. Just years after McLuhan wrote this, the women's lib movement changed society. Women worked outside the home. People were not bored anymore. In fact not only did they not have huge amounts of extra time, they had time constrainsts. The pace of life picked up steam. People cooked, cleaned, ate and watched TV at the same time. The nature of TV radically changed with society. Thus McLuhan's view quickly seemed dated and obsolete.

So what does this say of the future of the internet? It indicates that in the future, technology in and of itself will mean nothing. What is important is the societal context. How our society changes will define how the medium will evolve. If society continues to get faster pace, globalization continues, and work hours increase, speed and efficiency will remain key to the internet. If society slows down, there is a major rebellion against current values or other such changes the results will be different. McLuhan shows how difficult this is to predict. He obviously did not see the women's liberation movement coming in 1964. While we may be able to predict evolutionary changes, the real revolutionary changes to society emerge quickly and are missed by nearly everyone. They are very difficult events about which to have foresight.


DE- nice essay. Interesting positions. The emphasis on social context is key.  However a more careful reading of McLuhan will reveal that McLuhan agrees with much that you are saying - I am afraid.  Or the other way arround which for you would be worse;-)  
Two key differences 
- McLuhan uses "background in a specific way, participation to him is UNCONCIOUS therefore the daytime soap proves his point! (do you get it?)
- on what critical basis do you claim that the statement about the Battleship Potemkin is vacuous?


MK - response

No, I do not get it. The daytime soap opera was the form that McLuhan saw. He thus made conclusions about the TV as a medium ex-post-facto based upon this observation. However, it turned out he was wrong. The soap opera and other participatory forms of TV did not dominate as the 70s, 80s, and 90s heralded changes to society. Today people do not participate in television. Television is exactly what he said was impossible. It is background. People "watch" TV while doing a number of other tasks (eating, cleaning, cooking, etc.). In fact TV is often desribed by people as "background noise". In fact most TVs today have sleep timers. Television is so non-participatory that people can use it as background noise while they try to fall asleep. It has become perhaps the least participatory medium ever, despite McLuhan's predictions.

the way McLuhan uses participation is different from the way you use it. 

The soap opera does not "prove" what McLuhan said. The soap opera was part of the observation that led McLuhan to reach certain conclusions. The soap opera was consistent with his view of the ultimate and inevitable end form of the television. The medium was this message. However, it turned out given a changing societal context that the message changed radically despite the medium remaining generally constant. His theory thus appears not to hold water.

Now, I am certain McLuhan devotees will argue that this is not the case. They will argue that McLuhan was speaking about some unconcious level which we cannot observe. That which we can not observe cannot be fully disproven. (it is worth noting McLuhan was a highly devout Catholic and I am an aetheist. we have very different perspectives on whether what is not seen is actually there) However, based upon what we can observe, McLuhan seems to have been very far off base.

the point is that you both make the same argument using different words, you actually agree


As for the Battleship Potemkin claim of vaccuousness, allow me to elaborate. The statement that this style was allowed by film is very true. However, removing the societal context makes it ring hollow. If you observe other cultural phenomena of the same era you will see the same forces shaping other forms. For example, spectator sports emerged around the same era. Watching baseball games in a ballpark became popular in the United States at the same time. This offered a similar experience. People sat in a chair, but as anyone who has seen sports fans can attest they were emotionally involved in the plight of a charachter or charachters. Baseball and film are of course very different. However, the way we think of baseball and film were driven by the same forces and the way we interact with them moulded by the same.

The realist style shown in Potemkin also appears in art of the era. It appears in literature. It appears everywhere. The same forces, the same grasp on events were at play throughout every aspect of society. Proletarian emancipation was at the core of all these changes. Film being a new medium was simply somewhat more pliable.

If society was radically different would Un Chien Andalou and surrealism instead of Potemkin and realism have become the style omnipresent in film? In fact Un Chien Andalou is perhaps the purest vision of what film is capable of. Film is imagery at its core. Potempkin plays to this while telling a story. Un Chien Andalou embodies this. The reason film tells a story is because passively observing a story was what was appealing to the people in the formative years of film making. If the medium really was the message, surrealism and not realism and imagery and not storytelling would have risen to the top. However, this is not the case. Societal context and not the medium was key, and hence film making has developed the way it has.

If the television or the printing press was to be developed in this era instead of the film, would these mediums have been shaped in ways similar to the way film was? There is no way to say for sure. We are speaking in hypotheticals. However, I would say yes and McLuhan would say no. My argument would be that if you look at the way some other new forms that were contemporary to the film emerged you will see that societal influence and not the implicit nature of the medium was really the driving force. McLuhan devotees I am certain would strongly disagree.

the issue is that we look at a medium thingking that this reflects the new.  But it does not reflect it.  It represents a translation of the old in new bottles.  The best way to demonstate this is using montage that Eisentein prefected in the Odessa Steps sequence.  If we look towards the future of the Internet, we should not assume stylistically that the web structure is a given.  Now there are many changes in society happening at that and at this time.  McLuhan argues that this is because of the new media.  I would cautiosly argue that it is an interrelationship, but am VERY causious to disagree wiht McLuhan.  A 40 year track record in technology is not an insignificant thing.  Your critique above to me reads a bit "off the cuff", without outside academic references, nor undertanding of the language he uses to make his arguments.  Don't get me wrong, I LIKE your critical stance!  I think it would just be a LOT stronger if you supported your argumentation by understanding the positions better and reading more broadly on other supporting and critical authors.


I think you vaguely illustrate part of my problem philosophically with McLuhan here. McLuhan's language is circular. In places he contradicts himself. In my opinion he does not have a "40 year track record". I believe people constantly redefine what his words mean to prove them right. To me he is the Nostadamous of technology. Everything he says is so vague and open to interpretation that you can't stick anything to him. "Participation" no longer means to participate. It means something which neither you nor he define in concrete terms. You might as well start talking about "the man from the East" and "the New City" at that point.

Personal opinion, based upon what I have read, his writings seem incoherant, inconsistent with logic, and devoid of fact.