How today’s modern advances might be seen through the eyes of Canada’s most famous media theorist
This is the year of augmented reality. In 2016, manufacturers, beginning with Microsoft, will offer products that will allow us to see virtual objects as if they were part of the material world. The uses of augmented reality for consumers are likely to include videogames and enhanced movies. But augmented reality will also allow businesses to test and adapt new products before final production. Imagine putting on a headset and viewing a new electric car from different angles and even starting it up for a virtual test drive — all before the car is manufactured.
Marshall McLuhan was an international media theory rock star, even managing to make his way into a Playboy feature interview and a Woody Allen movie over the course of his life. Born in Edmonton in 1911, he had much to say about new media. During his lifetime, the radio, television, and the computer all went from imaginative fancy to wide use. We consider Marshall’s insights about understanding and using media predictive, because they can be applied even to those media, including augmented reality, that were invented long after his death in 1980.
If Marshall were still with us, he might describe our time as a screen culture. Screens are all around us. We view and respond to hundreds of messages, both text and images, each day or, for some of us, each waking hour. Marshall often referred to the transition from a print culture, which began with the invention of the printing press in 1440, to a culture of electricity, which he judged to have begun with the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century. While a print culture was individualistic and critical, reflected in the practice of private and silent reading, an electric culture was characterized by speed, and by many things happening at once.
Marshall loved metaphors. They helped him to understand the ultimate meaning of a new medium. They also aided his public explanations. For example, for Marshall, the television screen could be understood as a mirror, and the mirror effect was first experienced by looking into still water. He reminded us that the reflection seen in water was first described in the story of the mythological figure of Narcissus. Narcissus sees his reflection in the water and believes it to be beautiful. He becomes enchanted and wants to possess this “other” person. So unsettling is the experience that he eventually kills himself by plunging a dagger into his chest.
“Narcissus oil” is still made and sold. It is a “narcotic,” a category of active components that we still use today and whose name originates from the root of the name Narcissus. The myth of Narcissus carries the lesson that observing our image in the mirror (and therefore in our screens) can have a mesmerizing effect. The effect can be psychological and neural. Narcissus has been smitten in both mind and body. Marshall describes the “numbing” effects of media in his bestselling book, Understanding Media:
“Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.”
In all of Marshall’s writing and lectures, the use of a new communications medium constitutes an exchange. A medium grants the benefit of heightened perception, but at a cost. The cost is the loss of broader understanding. The new medium changes the social environment in ways that are largely unobserved. As a medium, the mirror extended human capacities. It allowed us to see something we had never seen before – ourselves.
Augmented reality, too, will show us what we have not seen before. It will help us to manage risk and generate innovations in much faster cycles. It may also create a kind of closed feedback loop of information and images. This loop may make it difficult to, for example, draw on memory and experience rather than information, or provide time for contemplation in place of continuous analysis.
Marshall would say that applying a knowledge of history can relieve some of the numbness that accompanies the wide use of a new medium. He would say that the history of media can help us understand the new environments we create with the new media of our own day.
Marco Adria is Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, and Visiting Professor, Tecnológico de Monterrey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thumbnail courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, email@example.com