McLuhan's Phases of Media History

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From the Wikipedia:

"McLuhan's media history:

Marshall McLuhan defined media as anything requiring use of the human body. Under this definition, both computers and clothing can be identified as media. When a media is introduced it is adapted to human senses so that it becomes an extension of the individual, and its capabilities influence the whole of society, leading to change.[25] McLuhan states that there are three inventions[clarification needed] that transformed the world: the phonetic alphabet, by virtue of its ability to make speech visible, which McLuhan argues gave rise to the discipline of rhetoric in ancient time and to the study of language and poetics, which was also known as grammar. The printing press in the nineteenth century and the telegraph led to both the modern newspaper and also to journalism as an academic pursuit.[26] The introduction of broadcasting in the form of radio, following on the heels of mass circulation newspapers, magazines, as well as the movies, resulted in the study of mass communication.[26] Due to these technologies, the world was taken from one era into the next. In order to understand the effects of symbolic environment, McLuhan splits history into four periods:[27] the Tribal Age, the Literacy Age, the Print Age, and the Electronic Age.

McLuhan states that, in order to study media effectively, one must study not only content but also the whole cultural environment in which media thrives.[28] He argues that using a detached view allows the individual to observe the phenomenon of the whole as it operates within the environment. The effects of media - speech, writing, printing, photograph, radio or television – should be studied within the social and cultural spheres impacted by this technology. McLuhan argues that all media, regardless of content, acts on the senses and reshapes sensory balance, further reshaping the society that created it. This differs from the viewpoints of scholars such as Neil Postman, who argue that society should take a moral view of new media whether good or bad.[29] McLuhan further notes that media introduced in the past brought gradual changes, which allowed people and society some time to adjust.

Tribal age

The first period in history that McLuhan describes is the Tribal Age. To McLuhan, this was a time of community, with the ear being the dominant sense organ. With everyone able to hear at the same time, listening to someone in a group a unifying act, deepening the feeling of community. In this set up, McLuhan argues, everything was more immediate, more present, and fostered more passion and spontaneity.

Literacy age

The second age McLuhan outlines is the Literacy Age, beginning with the invention of writing. To McLuhan, this was a time of private detachment, with the eye being the dominant sense organ. Turning sounds into visible objects radically altered the symbolic environment. Words were no longer alive and immediate, they were able to be read over and over again. Even though people would read the same words, the act of reading made communication an individual act, leading to more independent thought. Tribes didn't need to come together to get information anymore.

Print age

The third stage McLuhan describes is the Print Age, when individual media products were mass-produced due to the invention of the printing press. It gave the ability to reproduce the same text over and over again. With printing came a new visual stress: the portable book, which allowed people to carry media so they could read in privacy isolated from others. Libraries were created to hold these books and also gave freedom to be alienated from others and from their immediate surroundings.

Electronic age

Lastly, McLuhan describes the Electronic Age, otherwise included under the information age, as an era of instant communication and a return to an environment with simultaneous sounds and touch. It started with a device created by Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph and led to the telephone, the cell phone, television, internet, DVD, video games, etc. This ability to communicate instantly returns people to the tradition of sound and touch rather than sight. McLuhan argues that being able to be in constant contact with the world becomes a nosy generation where everyone knows everyone's business and everyone's business is everyone else's. This phenomenon is called the global village.[2]

Later scholars have described the growth of open access and open science, with their potential for highly distributed and low cost publishing reaching much larger audiences, as a potential "de-professionalizing force"."


Update by Robert Logan

From the Wikipedia:

"Updating the ages

Robert K. Logan is professor emeritus of physics at the University of Toronto and Chief Scientist of the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He worked collaboratively with Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto, co-publishing various works and producing his own works, heavily inspired by McLuhan. Logan updates the era of communications, adding two new eras:

  • Age of nonverbal mimetic communication (characteristic of archaic Homo sapiens)
  • Age of orality
  • Age of literacy
  • Age of electric mass media
  • Age of digital interactive media, or 'new media' "


Interpretation by William Irwin Thompson

From the book, Coming Into Being:

William Irwin Thompson:

"McLuhan's quips and aphorisms were not simply wisecracks about the media, they were expressions of a theory of the evolution of conscious ness. At each stage in the cultural evolution of humanity, a new medium of communication comes forth, and that medium then effects a shift to a new form of polity. We begin with the origins of language in the African savanna, and we end up with the disintegration of literature on the Internet. For McLuhan, there were five evolutionary stages or quantum jumps:

1. Oral

2. Script

3. Alphabetic

4. Print

5. Electronic.

If we restrict ourselves to the evidence of the endocranial casts that show more highly developed language articulation centers for archaic Homo Sapiens than for Homo erectus, then we can say

  • that oral culture was roughly from 200,000 B.C.E. to 10,000 B.C.E., or basically the glacial epoch.
  • Then the system of signs on the walls of caves such as Lascaux began to become a script. This script developed from the Old Europe of 6000 B.C.E. to the Sumer of 3000 B.C.E. with the increase in the size of settlements, from Qatal Hiiytik in Anatolia to Uruk in Mesopotamia. Priestcraft and writing rein forced one another to give us city-states that sometimes federated and at other times conglomerated to expand into empires.
  • With the rise of middle class capitalism, with its "Gutenberg galaxy" of printed books and printed money, these empires became replaced by industrial nation-states in a new global formation called the world economy.

1. Culture (200,000 to 10,000 B.C.E.)

2. Society (10,000 to 3500 B.C.E.)

3. Civilization (3500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E.)

4. Industrialization (1500 to 1945)

5. Planetization (1945 to present)

Each of these forms generated a unique polity.

1. Band

2. Tribe

3. City-State to empire

4. Nation-State

5. Noetic Polity

And each of these generated its characteristic form of cohesive association.

1. Dominance

2. Authority

3. Justice

4. Representation

5. Participation

The band was based on dominance. In Bonobo chimpanzee bands, we see a system of female dominance; in other primate groupings we see forms of male dominance, often but not always in the form of a single dominant male. In the second level of the tribe, the characteristic form of cohesive association is one of authority in the figure of a matriarch or a patriarch. When tribes begin to cluster within more cosmopolitan cities and this transformation is described in the Old Testament in the social developments from Saul to David to Solomon — literacy becomes critical, and a group of palace high priests works to create a canonical sacred text that can hold the warring tribes together within a literate and urban civilization.

As an expanding trading class grows in numbers through world commerce, and as literacy becomes democratized through printed books so that it is no longer the prerogative of a class of high priests associated with a palace, then pamphleteering, philosophy, argument, and discourse become the political instruments for the shift from medievalism to modernism. The landed aristocratic warrior and the priest lose power to the scientist and artist who become the avatars of the new world of the mind. After the Depression and the Second World War, this nationalistic culture of the grand philosophies of the state went up in the smoke of the battle of the great ideologies: Fascism, Communism, and Democracy. With the rise of the new^ postwar forms of electronic communication, philosophy and reasoned discourse could no longer hold together in the supersaturated solution of the global media. Democracy was replaced by mediocracy; citizen was replaced by media subject. Vast electronic latifundia took control of sports, entertainment, politics, journalism, and education; in fact, all forms of culture simply became variants of the entertainment industry. In the hands of a few giants of industry —Ted Turner, John Malone, Michael Eisner, or Bill Gates —new mergers, such as those of CNN and Time Warner or Disney and the American Broadcasting Company, created new global streams of techno swill in which the believing subject was fed like cattle in feedlots. Neither the scientist, the philosopher, nor the artist can counter this huge social transformation. The scientist is dependent on the funding systems of late capitalism for his or her costly research, and the solitary artist, in order to communicate with this electronic society, must become a celebrity — a personality managed by a publicist, a public figure constrained to turn ideas into sound bites and sell them to the public on talk shows —and this packaging automatically makes him or her an expression of the dominant culture. As McLuhan said, "The medium is the message."


Marshall McLuhan on the Current Predicament with Electronic Media

By William Irwin Thompson, excerpted from Coming Into Being:

"Now the wonderful thing about McLuhan was that he had not only a gift for capturing complex transformations in an aphoristic phrase, but also a general theory of the evolution of consciousness that he enlivened by pointing to fads and fetishes that only he could explain. When I was a young instructor at MIT in the 1960s, McLuhan spoke to a small faculty meeting. His manner of speech incensed the engineers. McLuhan said "The bomb is information." And the engineers went up in smoke. No doubt, because they had probably worked on building the cursed thing. But McLuhan was right. The bomb as information was the whole foundation for the Cold War world. McLuhan not only commented on fads and trends, he also made a prophesy on the future evolution of humanity. Ironically, good Catholic that he was, in his Playboy interview in the 1960s, McLuhan went back to Dante and prophesied a time when the broken fragments of a retribalized humanity would be gathered up into the mystical body of Christ.

What McLuhan recognized, but did not explicitly state, was that our new highly advanced electronic media if used by evolutionarily unadvanced mortals will lead to cultural annihilation. These new media that work with the speed of light require a new spiritual consciousness of Light. They are so fantastically efficient that they cannot work to the good unless we are good; they only can be safely used if we tell the truth and live in the Truth. If we try to check and control them for lesser purposes, such as power, gain, misrepresentation, and the accumulation of wealth for private property in cyberspace, then blockages in the flow will generate distortions, noise, and a generalized cultural entropy in which no human relationships are possible. We end up in caricatures of religion in the form of demonic states of possession or William Gibson's dystopian nightmares of corporate dis incarnation. Only now, thanks to cyberspace, these states of possession are not simply psychic states, they have become virtual states that are not restricted to virtual reality. Nothing less than truth, goodness, and a Buddhist universal compassion are going to get us through this transition from industrialization to planetization. Our level of consciousness has now be come the biggest obstruction to the continuity of human existence. We have made normalcy nonviable, so we have opted for an "up or out" scenario in cultural evolution. We either shift upward to a new culture of a higher spirituality to turn our electronic technologies into cathedrals of light, or we slide downward to darkness and entropy in a war of each against all.