Marshall McLuhan, Her, and the Operating System

I have had difficulty putting together a review I wish to write for the 50th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.   The book is already a classic for many reasons, one of which is the proposition that “the medium is the message,” another being the idea of a global village, of a planet of individuals brought close together electronically.    There is so much going on in the book — How often does one find MAD magazine referenced in the same book as E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India and T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock? —  that I will leave a longer treatment for later.

Wake Up (2008) 20x24"

Wake Up (2008) 20×24″

This morning the light bulb that is normally switched off above my head lit up and prompted this current, preliminary review.   For some reason I was thinking of Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her.  When I watched it a week or so ago I thought it was rather ingenious for the fictional way it depicted the real dependence many of us have on our laptops, smartphones, or whatever our preferred telecommunications gadget might be, but ultimately on our “operating systems.”  Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian, “In Spike Jonze’s postmodern pastoral about a man who dates his operating system, digital affairs are as sensual – and heartbreaking – as the real thing”.   If I may be so bold, I believe McLuhan would have recognized that “digital affairs” are the “real thing,” real life examples of precisely what McLuhan meant by “the medium is the message.”  And they are not “affairs.”  They are weddings of the most sacred order.  The suggestion in Her that many of us have become so dependent upon our “operating systems” that we cannot live without them is not a metaphor.  It is a fact of life.  A breakdown of our operating systems — just one or two hours without access to the Net — will  enrage some individuals, a possibility that is more intense and just as real as the sad discovery for others (such as Her’s  Theodore Twombly) that their girlfriend, boyfriend, or significant other, is calling it quits.   Thus the genius of Jonze’s film, and the brilliance of McLuhan’s Understanding Media.

But before leaving this preliminary review there is a more local (Vancouver) event that I would like to relate to Understanding Media.  It is the forthcoming “Car Free Day” on June 15, a.k.a. Father’s Day.  McLuhan had wonderfully insightful things to say about the impact of the mass-produced automobile on society by 1964.  In his view, the most overlooked aspect of the gas-powered car was the fact that it made humans ‘supermen,’ in the sense that it allowed them to travel at inhuman speeds for great distances.  Although it might have been a status symbol for a while, it was a social equalizer of sorts insofar as most engines could take most cars as fast and as far any other (assuming everyone could afford to keep the tanks filled up with gas).   So whether one had a Lincoln or a beater, everyone got to travel fast and far.  The “lower class” became the pedestrians and the bicyclists.  Writing of the 1930s McLuhan wrote, “All the rhinos and hippos and elephants in the world, if gathered in one city, could not begin to create the menace and explosive intensity of the hourly and daily experience of the internal-combustion engine.”

Like our contemporary “operating systems,” many in our society have developed real relationships with their automobiles.  Bike lanes are beginning to entice a few drivers into an alternative lifestyle, if only seasonally, which is great.  But on Sunday, June 15, let’s get on our feet or pedals and take in the fun along Main Street and Commercial Drive.  I’ll be somewhere on 21st Avenue and Main, flogging that same book I’ve been flogging for a while now.  (Whew, my arms are so tired…).  I hope to see you there.


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