"There are no passengers on the spaceship Earth. We are all crew," Marshall McLuhan maintained. "Everyone is an executive. Look at the decisions a housewife has to make. Isn't she an executive?"
At the launch of his book 'Take Today – The Executive as Dropout' in 1972, Marshall McLuhan stated, "This isn't a book of theories or concepts. It is a book about processes, about what is happening now. People think you have to have some grand theory to write a book. Alvin Toffler writes a meaningless book but because he has a big, heavy moral people think it is significant. Our book (co-written with engineering consultant Barrington Nevitt) is designed to help people figure out for themselves what is going on."
In his review of 'The Medium Is the Massage' in 1967, Richard Kostelanetz of 'The New York Times' made the point, "McLuhan's books contain little of the slick style of which popular sociology is usually made. As anyone who opens the covers immediately discovers, 'The Gutenberg Galaxy' (1962) and 'Understanding Media' (1964), are horrendously difficult to read – clumsily written, frequently contradictory, oddly organized, and overlaid with their author's singular jargon.
"The basic themes in these books seem difficult at first, because the concepts are as unfamiliar as the language, but on second (or maybe third) thought, the ideas are really quite simple. Everything McLuhan writes is originally dictated, either to his secretary or to his wife, and he is reluctant to rewrite, because, he explains, 'I tend to add, and the whole thing gets out of hand.' Moreover, some of his insights are so original that they evade immediate understanding; other paragraphs may forever evade explication."
Marshall McLuhan reasoned, "Most clear writing is a sign that there is no exploration going on. Clear prose indicates the absence of thought … It is rarely that readers of anything explain what they think it means. However, most readers are eager to tell how what they read makes them feel … On the telephone, we can scarcely visualize the faces of our own family while talking to them on the phone, but we find it easier to 'see' those with whom we are not acquainted.
"Stockbrokers tell of their surprise upon meeting men they have dealt with for years on the phone: 'Never thought you looked like that.' Radio, in contrast to the telephone, permits the listener to fill in a good deal of visual imagery. The radio announcer or disc jockey stands out loud and clear, while the voice on the telephone resonates in isolation from the visual sense.
"Nobody ever wrote a lament about 'all alone by the radio,' but 'all alone by the telephone' is a classic of the '20s that is a resounding prophecy of hi-rise living in the present time (1971). The TV generation imagines it has a totally new human mandate. It sees life returned to a primal state with all the rules of the game yet to be discovered, such was the natural feeling of North American settlers when they seemed to be monarchs of all they surveyed.
"The familiar phrase can teach as much about our current media of communication. The user of the electric media, whether radio, telephone, movie or TV, has a powerful sense of being king and emperor, since he is the content of a total environment of electric services. These services extend to the moon and to Mars. The invasion from Mars occurred inevitably when radio beams made Mars a party of our planetary territory. Electric media transport us instantly wherever we choose. When we are on the phone we don't just disappear down a hole, Alice in Wonderland style – we are there and they are here."
Richard Kostelanetz continued, "In looking at history, McLuhan espouses a position one can only call 'technological determinism.' That is, whereas Karl Marx, an economic determinist, believed that the economic organization of a society shapes every important aspect of its life, McLuhan believes the crucial technological inventions are the primary influence.
"McLuhan admires the work of the historian Lynn White Jr., who wrote in 'Medieval Technology and Social Change' (1962) that the three inventions of the stirrup, the nailed horseshoe and the horse collar created the Middle Ages. With the stirrup, a soldier could carry armor and mount a charger; and the horseshoe and the harneness brought more efficient tilling of the land, which shaped the feudal system of agriculture, which, in turn, paid for the soldier's armor.
"Pursuing this insight into technology's importance, McLuhan develops a narrower scheme. He maintains that a major shift in society's predominant technology of communication is the crucially determining force behind social changes, initiating great transformations not only in social organization but human sensibilities. He suggests in 'The Gutenberg Galaxy' that the invention of movable type shaped the culture of Western Europe from 1500 to 1900.
"The mass production of printed materials encouraged nationalism by allowing more rapid and wider spread of information than permitted by hand-written messages. The linear forms of print influenced music to repudiate the structure of repetition, as in Gregorian chants, for that of linear development, as in a symphony. Also, print reshaped the sensibility of Western man, for whereas he once saw experience as individual segments, as a collection of separate entitites, man in the Renaissance saw life as he saw print – as a continuity, often with casual relationships.
"Print even made Protestantism possible, because the printed book, by enabling people to think alone, encouraged individual revelation. Finally: 'All forms of mechanization emerge from movable type, for type is the prototype of all machines.' In 'Understanding Media', McLuhan suggests that electric modes of communication – telegraph, radio, television, movies, telephones, computers – are similarly reshaping civilization in the 20th century.
"Whereas print-age man saw one thing at a time in consecutive sequence – like a line of type – contemporary man experiences numerous forces of communication simultaneously, often through more than one of his senses. Contrast, for example, the way most of us read a book with how we look at a newspaper. With the latter, we do not start one story, read it through and then start another. Rather, we shift our eyes across the pages, assimilating a discontinuous collection of headlines, subheadlines, lead paragraphs, photographs and advertisements." Marshall McLuhan pointed out, "People don't actually read newspapers, they get into them every morning like a hot bath."
Richard Kostelanetz continued, "Moreover, the electronic media inititate sweeping changes in the distribution of sensory awareness – in what McLuhan calls the 'sensory ratios.' A painting or a book strikes us through only one sense, the visual; motion pictures and television hit us not only visually but also aurally. The new media envelop us, asking us to participate.
"McLuhan believes that such a multisensory existence is bringing a return to the primitive man's emphasis upon the sense of touch, which he considers the primary sense, 'because it consists of a meeting of the senses.' Politically, he sees the new media as transforming the world into 'a global village,' where all ends of the earth are in immediate touch with one another, as well as fostering a 'retribalization' of human life." Marshall McLuhan expressed, "Any highway eatery with its TV set, newspaper and magazine is as cosmopolitan as New York or Paris."
Richard Kostelanetz continued, "In his over-all view of human history, McLuhan posits four great stages: (1) Totally oral, preliterate tribalism. (2) The codification by script that arose after Homer in ancient Greece and lasted 2000 years. (3) The age of print, roughly from 1500 to 1900. (4) The age of electronic media, from before 1900 to the present (in 1967).
"Underpinning this classification is his thesis that 'societies have been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication. His most famous epigram – 'the medium is the message' - means several things. The phrase first suggests that each medium develops an audience of people whose love for that medium is greater than their concern for its content.
"That is, the TV medium itself becomes the prime interest in watching television; just as some people like to read for the joy of experiencing print, and more find great pleasure in talking to just anybody on the telephone, so others like television for the mixture of kinetic screen and relevant sound. Second, the 'message' of a medium is the impact of its forms upon society. The 'message' of print was all the aspects of Western culture that print influenced.
"Third, the aphorism suggests that the medium itself – its form – shapes its limitations and possibilities for the communication of content. One medium is better than another at evoking a certain experience. American football, for example, is better on television than on radio or in a newspaper column; a bad football game on television is more interesting than a great game on radio. Most congressional hearings, in contrast, are less boring in the newspaper than on television. Each medium seems to possess a hidden taste mechanism that encourages some styles and rejects others. To define this mechanism, McLuhan has devised the categories of 'hot' and 'cool'."
As understood, a 'hot' medium (such as radio, print, photography, film and paintings) had a considerable amount of detailed information. 'Cool' required that the audience participate to complete the experience such as a TV cartoon because Marshall McLuhan argued, "simply because very little visual information is provided. Any hot medium allows of less participating than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialog.
"It was no accident that Senator McCarthy lasted such a very short time when he switched to TV. TV is a cool medium. It rejects hot figures and hot issues and people from the hot press media. Had TV occurred on a large scale during Hitler's reign he would have vanished quickly. (Television) is revolutionizing every political system in the world.
"The executive drops out because specialism is impossible at the high speed of the Electric Age. Henry Kissinger, for example, is a specialist in the history of World War I. Kissinger is a man out of the 19th century. Why, he does not even understand what electric money is. There's something strange about the current (in 1972) campaigns. The conventions are outdated forms, like something from science fiction.
"The parties are meaningless; they have no policy and are looking only for an image. Richard Nixon is an interloper. In fact, nobody can take the job of being president in the electric world. The scale is too big. Things have to be run by surrogates and computers. The centralized constitutional government is doomed to break up into smaller tribal regions. Kids today (in 1972) are a whole new ethnic group."
Richard Kostelanetz continued, "McLuhan advocates radical changes in education, because he believes that a contemporary man is not fully ‘literate’ if reading is his sole pleasure: 'You must be literate in umpteen media to be really 'literate' nowadays (in 1967).' Education, he suggests, should abandon its commitment to print – merely a focusing of the visual sense – to cultivate the 'total sensorium' of man – to teach us how to use all five cylinders, rather than only one."