Thoughts on Marshall McLuhan

People gather around a television in their living room in the mid 50s.
Credit: Press Association Images

McLuhan makes a lot of good points in his communication theory but as technology has changed, a lot of the ways he categorized different mediums has become irrelevant. The tribal and fragmentary way of categorizing different technologies still holds some relevancy; we do interact with different formats in different ways. The novelty of certain mediums and the way that society interacts with technology has not remained static since the years that this theory was formulated. For example, when McLuhan was working with these ideas, television was a relatively new idea that captured a lot of attention from people. If your family had a television, it was frequently a group activity in which the entire family would sit together and watch one of the few programs available at the time. Because of the limited selection of programming, watching television was a big deal to humanity in a social aspect. If you had to miss an episode of the popular program at the time, it could make someone feel left out, since there was no way to go back and see it. Therefore there was a lot of social pressure and interest in consuming television, making it a tribal media. Moving into the future, television became much more affordable and easy to access, leading to more people having access to them. The real shift came when programming essentially boomed, suddenly there were hundreds of options of things to watch. People still had to tune in at a certain time to see what they wanted to watch, so there may have been some tribal aspects if your social group was all invested in the same program. There would have been less congregating to consume this media at that point. With the introduction of streaming services, McLuhan’s placement of television on this scale became almost completely flipped. Suddenly every individual can watch whatever they want whenever they want on their own personal devices. Television as a media no longer refers necessarily to the big screen in the family room- it becomes shows as individual bits to consume wherever you have access. This is even the case in countries where big pieces of hardware like televisions may not have been as widespread- smartphones are much easier to acquire and are more versatile so there is virtually nowhere where television viewing is still a major tribal event. There are, however, certain instances like major sporting events where many many people are tuning in at the same time. I still think that I would categorize television as fragmentary in this instance because every individual’s environment and viewing experience may vary. Some could be watching it on cable TV with one set of ads while others are streaming it from their ESPN apps on their phones. Considering all of this, I wouldn’t put television as strictly fragmentary, but it is important to notice its evolution away from tribal as just one example of how McLuhan’s theories may need to be updated to fit the changing technology.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *