US Election 2020: Investigate McLuhan

Regardless of where you sit on the left/right spectrum of ‘caring about the world’, if you want to learn how to control this world politically, you would be wise to Investigate McLuhan.

Even if you are a journalist writing stories suggesting that ‘Russian Hackers’ actually influenced the last US election, you would be wise to investigate the channels and modes of influence that McLuhan identified, which exist in a totally different dimension than the content of Facebook pages. 

Rather than focussing upon Russian hackers, or obsessing about James Comey’s impact on the way Americans voted, it is infinitely more valuable to explore even just one phrase of McLuhan..  

The medium is the message”, for example, is an excellent phrase to start with. This most famous of all McLuhan’s dictums is most certainly a great one to begin with. 

Even during McLuhan’s lifetime the phrase ‘changed’ meaning, at least, according to McLuhan. At first, “the medium is the message” meant “the medium is the message,” which in itself means many things.

A few years later, McLuhan introduced a hyphen. -  the phrase became: “the medium is the mess-age”.

A few years later, McLuhan wrote another book, entitled “The Medium is the Massage”; which he later, “clarified”by adding another hyphen - the phrase now meant: “The medium is the mass-age”.

Welcome to the crackling brain of Marshall McLuhan, never still, always considering and reconsidering; formulating and re-formulating, playing, re-playing and playing yet again!

If anything, the above is more an indication of McLuhan’s love of punning and wordplay, than any alteration of the substance of “the medium is the message” from when McLuhan first outered it.  (McLuhan used to say that an ‘uttering’ was actually an ‘outering’). 

It’s a very flexible phrase, but as the saying relates to politics, McLuhan is very clear: a change in medium almost always brings about a change in governance. Control the medium and you control the country. 

If you’re going to control the dominant medium of communication, though, you have to first know what it is. This sounds almost asininely obvious, but, one big reason Hillary lost, is that her team failed to see that television is no longer the most powerful medium. The Clinton camp invested squillions in television and print, the two living dinosaurs of a bygone era, and her presidential hopes soon went the way of the dinosaurs. To one who understands ‘the medium is he message’, the conclusions from this act were forgone. 

This oversight (or myopia) probably had more to do with Trump winning the election than than all the work of all the Russian hackers in the world, combined.  

 “Clinton’s convention was made for TV;  Trump’s was made for Twitter,” 

Declared  the New York Times in a pre-ballot headline in that proves the Times did at least  get something right in the lead-up to election day.  Or, as the Toronto Star put it:​ “we may look at this distinction as one candidate sticking with old media and the other tacking to the prevailing media winds.”

One thing Trump has been able to do throughout his life, is identify these prevailing winds and ride them for all they were worth to achieve his purpose at the time. When Television was king Trump successfully used that medium as  kingmaker for his own image. Via his reality show ‘The Apprentice’ Trump imposed a 192-episode, 15-year period of mythmaking upon the American consciousness, that seems to have seeped in enough to pay off in the polls in 2016. The myth he built up around himself was that he was a glamorous, wildly successful billionaire who possessed all the characteristics of a good president. Trump even successfully used the medium of print in the form of The Art of the Deal to reinforce this image. In the era of social media, Trump found Twitter to be a perfect format for his personality and a perfect avenue for his messages to bypass the mainstream media. 

Radio created Hitler as a delinquent Peter Pan charged with cosmic emanation

McLuhan told Pierre Trudeau in 1968. He was referring to the fact that in a TV era, Adolf Hitler could never have achieved the same degree of power as he did during the time when radio was king, because radio was the perfect medium for Hitler’s delivery.

 In this case, McLuhan is saying that it wasn’t necessarily Hitler’s hateful message (his policies) that convinced Germans to unite under the banner of the Nazi party, it was Hitler’s mastery of the medium of radio, or at least his total suitability for it, that was the decisive factor. Perhaps this accounts for some of McLuhan’s popularity in Germany. FDR with his fireside chats used radio effectively, too. 

“Radio charisma is a completely different thing from TV charisma. TV charisma means looking like a lot of nice people, e.g. the [Walter] Cronkite image. Radio charisma merely consists of sounding dedicated,” McLuhan wrote this in one of the last letters of his epistle-replete existence, a few months before a stroke robbed him of the ability to communicate. 

How vital is it to find a medium that suits the candidates charisma? McLuhan believed it could change the course of history. In 1977 he told a CBC interviewer: 

 “If Hitler had been around to be on tv he would have been over … finished, in about a month. Never heard of again.” 


Obviously, identifying the the most influential medium, is an essential and glaring prerequisite for winning the political media game. It is also certainly relevant to some understanding of McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” mantra. 

But “the medium is the message” gets much more profound than this surface understanding. 

But once you’ve identified a suitable medium, you still have to understand how to harness its forces. McLuhan viewed every different medium as a universe unto itself, a whorling vortex with its own currents, peculiarities and laws. 

Innis was a political economy professor who had written books on such unglamorous topics as the Canadian fur trade and the cod fisheries. To these industries Innis brought a “poetic sensitivity and a historical imagination that enabled him to perceive how the pursuit of even these humble commodities had transformed a society.” McLuhan was enamoured he described Innis’ work as forging a path “from the external trade routes of the world to the internal trade routes of the mind”.  

Deepening McLuhan’s interest was a discovery Innis made via his study of another of Canada’s staple commodities: pulp and paper. By connecting the pulp and paper industry to its raison d’etre - the production of newsprint and the circulation of information and opinion - Innis realized that “the greatest staple of all were the various media of communications.” When Innis spoke of the characteristics of press and radio, apart from what they print or broadcast,  McLuhan was transfixed. Innis final book The Bias of Communication examined throughout the history of western civilization “the implications of the media of communications for the character of knowledge.”  Here Innis concluded that some media (like papyrus) were conducive to the extension of a society in space, while others (like stone tablets) were, due to their durability and difficulty to transport  more conducive to the continuity of a society over time. “A civilization employing clay tablets and cuneiform … was apt to be more limited in area and preocupied with religious and moral themes that by their nature remain relatively unchanged over centuries. Papyrus, on the other hand, encouraged the growth of empires of vast extent”.

One can almost hear McLuhan’s wheels turning as he considered Innis’ insights. And it is easy to see how Innis’ work on the media of communication led McLuhan along the path to his belief that “the medium is the message.” If nothing else, Innis taught McLuhan to study the effects of media by looking beyond the content of the messages the media conveyed. 

"The thing that you see is 'figure,' the thing that affects you is 'ground'; and that's what I mean by 'the medium is the message.'"

One of McLuhan’s greatest gifts was his ability to see the unseen. McLuhan believed that the greatest influences on our thought, behaviour and habits are always the ones that we are least aware of and he developed a knack for seeing through the ostensible causes of any effect and discerning the true forces that existed much less obviously in behind.   

How did he do so? One clue McLuhan left us is his repeated insistence that he studied “percepts not concepts”.  In focussing upon the fundamental process of human perception, McLuhan discerned patterns that informed his overall vision and led to his famous, and famously misunderstood, catchphrase “the medium is the message”.  Indeed both the catchphrase, and McLuhan in general, become much easier to understand if we take McLuhan at his word and approach him first via the doors of perception - the senses through which all humans discern reality.

The terms ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, which were never far from McLuhan’s lips, come from the Gestalt school of psychology, whose influence upon McLuhan cannot be overstated. Gestalt’s primary concern was with percepts: 

“How [do] we organize the bewildering jumble of stimulation from the environment so that coherent perceptions result. ...

How do we organize what we see?

How does context affect our perception? ” (Psychology an Introduction p, 466.)

Consider these central questions of Gestalt psychology while examining the below diagrams. These curious chiaroscuros are used in Gestalt to show that our perceptions are governed by hidden elements, that the meaning of a situation can be dramatically altered by our focus, which is itself a fluid, shapeshifting force inside our being - albeit one over which we have some control. 

To study the effects of media with a focus only on its content  is akin to studying any of the above diagrams under the premise that the meaning is contained exclusively in, either  the black or white area inside the frame. 

In fact, both the black and the white spaces carry independent meanings - and even more importantly, the meanings of the blacks and the whites are created by the interplay, or resonance, between the two. Take either black or white out of the situation and all meaning disappears - all effect, totally nullified. 

McLuhan was the first to realize that this interplay of seen and “unseen” also applies to the influence media has upon its audience. The perceptual revelations of these paintings convinced McLuhan that if we wanted to understand the true effects of media we had to consider both media figure and media ground, especially the way the ground determines and delivers the figure whilst remaining unseen:   the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored”  

The ‘figure’ of media is its most obvious attribute, its content. What Trump tweets, where Trudeau stands on immigration, what costume he wears or with whom he stands in his selfies are all ‘figures’ of media. It is obvious that if we want to study the effects of media we have to study content.  But McLuhan believed that it is delusion to study content while ignoring the ground from which the content arises. 

Unless explicitly pointed out to us, the ground of any situation is nearly impossible to detect. To the fish, the ground is water. For human life in general the ground is both the literal terra firma and the earth’s atmosphere. To the modern citizen with a smartphone, the ground has become electricity. Technology has outstripped and enveloped the Earth.  “For the first time in history, Nature is a Man made environment.” (McLuhan.) No moji on earth can adequately express the power of this new predicament. LIke the subliminal impact of an ad -  rather, like the subliminal impact of all the ads in history, combined, the ground of media is most powerful when we are unaware of it.

“McLuhan’s point was that most people are trained not to look for the ground in any situation,” says Philip Marchand.  “They focus on one part and ignore the rest. If people consider the motorcar, for example, they focus on the car itself, rarely perceiving the network of gas stations, highways, neon signs, parking lots and all the altered habits and perceptions that arise out of the existence of the car - the ground, in other words, of the automobile. True perception, according to McLuhan, is the ability to hold both figure and ground in one’s attention, in a dynamic and resonating relationship.” (Marchand p. 48) (Italics mine) 

Transfer Marchand’s metaphor of the ‘motorcar’ to that of the smartphone ... What is the hidden ground of media in the era of the smartphone? What are the effects that have nothing to do with the content of the screens? For example, the sheer volume of Trump’s tweets, gives him a constant and instant presence on the screens and in the minds of millions  - a presence that is not dependent upon any mainstream media outlet to deliver. 

By shifting our focus to ground, we see how  the impact of electric media extends far beyond the content of the screens. The death of Blockbuster Video and the encroaching extinction of the print newspaper format have alone caused unquantifiable changes to society. Same with the renewed interest from the stockmarket in companies that mine lithium or cobalt, because these are what smartphone and electric car batteries are made of. Conversely, the decline in production and sales of wristwatches, because people now consult their smartphones when they want to know the time.   

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, and all the money made by the people working for them, and all the money handed over to them by those who are not. Satellites, self-driving cars, cell phone towers, Twitter, Pokemon Go, selfies, selfie-sticks, drones - and the industries that have arisen to support them, as well as the laws that have arisen to regulate them - are just some examples of the enormity of the new ground that the electric age has created upon our world.  

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