Sunday, October 12, 2008

Marshall McLuhan, Interactivity & Video

I just read the "Medium is the Massage" (yes that’s right, massage) by Marshall Mcluhan (see the terrific video above cut to the most provocative selections from the audiobook). The book itself is short and it’s filled with 1967 “pop” visuals. After six readings on my train rides to and from New York I’m ready to tackle a big issue that's raised.

Originally I was going to post this piece on my new group blog Cable Marketing. Given the breadth of the issue raised I decided to post here to reach a broader audience.’s Marshall.

The impresario of media criticism in the 1960s, McLuhan coined memorable phrases still used today from “the medium is the message” to the fact that new media was creating “the global village.” McLuhan’s analysis of "electric media" is prescient and has been credited with foreseeing the emergence of the internet.

That’s old news. Instead, I’d like to take a look at McLuhan’s pronouncements related to the fundamental oft-promised and never delivered benefit of true INTERACTIVITY and see whether the media currently found on the internet is delivering an interactive experience. My theory is that, despite all the advances in TV, cable TV, and particularly internet video, all these media types are surprising behind the interactive curve…especially when measured by McLuhan's standards for involvement.

Let’s look at a core McCluhan pronouncement from the book.

“All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”

McLuhan follows with a series of phrases to illustrate: “the wheel is an extension of the foot”; “the book is an extension of the eye”; “clothing, an extension of the skin”; “electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.”

Now…think of a Mac or PC as a media delivery device for the internet. What are the extensions which I think McLuhan would identify? The screen is an extension of the eyes. Audio speakers are extensions of the ears. The keyboard is an extension of touch. The Intel processors are extensions of the central nervous system. What other media delivery device touches all these human faculties? None. That’s what makes the PC such a dominant and powerful new media tool.

Obvious you say. Yup sure is…but have you thought about it that way? Ironically what’s key to the whole line of thought is the importance of the keyboard. The keyboard, the oldest of the PC extensions, is the most powerful by far. It’s your means of self-expression…your ability to ask questions, make choices, determine directions, provide instructions. The keyboard is the only truly interactive element on the PC.

Now let’s look at the burgeoning world of video on the internet. Yes…the internet has driven an enormous amount of additional content. Go to the "Heroes" sub-site on and you’ll find writer’s interviews, a bulletin board for fan comments, online contest, but no truly breakthrough interactivity. The PC and the internet at this moment are preoccupied with delivering television shows, old and new on networks sites and sites like Hulu.

McLuhan’s right on in this comment:

“The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land”

Sure video whether on or off the internet is slightly more interactive…but nothing that really delivers INTERACTIVE. No…I’m not thinking of ordering movies online, or voting online or eliminating commercials. Instead, I’m thinking of video that truly moves into the 21st century and disrupts the linear narratives that define all the media which we’ve lived with so long. It's time for video that substitutes a fluid narrative, altered during the broadcast, by the viewer’s preferences.

To bring it all back home, all you need for that is a keyboard…yes…a keyboard

Amazingly, an organization is developing true INTERACTIVE video out there right now. As usual, they're further from the communications centers of the world than you can imagine. More on who and how later.

Please visit our new group blog on television marketing, which includes exclusive posts by noted new media critic Daisy Whitney, Cable Marketing.


Jennifer said...

Scott -- I meant to comment here some time ago. Sorry it's taken me so long. Have you been to Root Clip? It's a collaborative video project, not quite the interactivity you are talking about here, but in the same family.

Scott Lackey said...

Jennifer...thanks for your visit. Good to hear from you.

I haven't seen Root Clip...but I'll look at it and add it to the mix.

I've been researching a very cool project and writing a long post on it. The Macy's windows, which seem to appeal to my child-like tendencies, have sidetracked me.

mightygosh said...

I read Paul Levinson's Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millenium. I can't recall the ideas you suggest being covered there, but they compliment them nicely. Its a great illuminating read discussing what McLuhan would have thought of the internet by one of his close colleagues. Recommended.

Scott Lackey said...

mightygosh...Thanks a lot for stopping by...and for the recommendation. I'll definitely pick it up and take a look. Maybe then I'll return with a comment on Levinson's book. What do you think of McLuhan?

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