Saturday, March 21, 2009

Notes on McLuhan: More Unseen in the Rear-View Mirror

Marshall McLuhan's "rear-view mirror" metaphor has long been one of my favorites - "we look at the present through a rear-view mirror, we march backwards into the future" (McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, 1967) - by which McLuhan meant that we first understand the future by relating it to the past. The danger of such initial perceptions is that we can miss and misunderstand important, unexpected impacts of new media. A radio is much more than a wireless (telegraph or telephone) - it brought into being the simultaneous mass audience, and was a powerful tool for good and bad political leaders ranging from FDR and Churchill to Hitler and Stalin.

But I realized this morning, on a panel at the Lunacon science fiction convention, that the rear-view mirror not only obscures or distracts from the future, but does the same for the deeper past.

Think about it. All we see in the rear-view is what we immediately passed - not what we passed on the previous block or in the previous hour. Similarly, if we engage new media, technologies, and events by only their immediate predecessors, we lose sight of the deeper history from which they emerge.

Radio was not only not just a wireless, not only a simultaneous mass medium, but was a kind of public speaker's corner which went much further back in our history than the telephone and the telegraph. McLuhan did talk about these retrievals of the deeper past in his "laws of media," but they also have a role in what is unseen in the rear-view mirror.

Something to consider - how do our new technologies relate to the deeper past that stretches out far beyond and before the rear-view mirror...
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