Digital McLuhan

In an attempt to tackle any “misunderstandings” of McLuhan’s medium theory, Paul Levinson explains the media theorist’s views in relation to contemporary media, emphasizing the visionary character of McLuhan’s ideas. Rejecting the prejudices that surrounded McLuhan’s theory – the content of a medium being less significant than the message it conveys – Levinson takes a stand in re-examining McLuhan from a new media perspective.

Levinson explains how misinterpretations of McLuhan’s content theory occurred, as the theorist considered that a medium was not offered as much interest as it should have been. Instead, it was the content of a medium that received most attention, given the audience effects theories that defined media theory at the time. As a result, Levinson returns to what he considers McLuhan had implied and approaches content by situating it within today’s media environment. In this respect, Levinson draws a parallel between what content meant for old – traditional – media and what it means nowadays, in the Internet age. Departing from McLuhan’s idea that the content of a medium is another medium (speech for writing, thoughts for speech), Levinson claims that the content of the Internet are several media, as the web encompasses radio, television and print press. Moreover, the way web content is experienced today is two-way, and Internet users become the content of this new medium, since it is them who create it. However, Levinson avoids the label “technological determinist” that McLuhan had received , mentioning that web users are also “masters of media” having an “unprecedented choice over what content will be” (Levinson:40) He concludes by adopting McLuhan’s idea of old media being the content of new ones.

Levinson goes on to praise McLuhan for his visionary media theory that is most relevant in today’s media setting. In spite of not referring to a “digital” world as we know it today, McLuhan was able to distinguish a certain tension between “acoustic” (digital) and “visual” space (Levinson: 43), since the electronic revolution would grant electronic media a certain edge over the usual literal, visual means of communication. What Levinson attempts to do is continue McLuhan’s line of thought into the digital age: the acoustic space McLuhan talks about is better emphasized via web, as radio and television are both present in what we now call cyberspace.

Questions for discussion

Levinson mentions the existence of alphabet as the main content of digital media. He relates this to the case of manuscripts and the debate about dialectics and writing (see our first week discussion on Plato). Following radio and television as products defining cases of “closed acoustic space” , where ideas could not be fully grasped by the receiver due to the one-way communication system, how does blogging or any other online – written – form of communication stand apart? In other words, what would the downsides of trying to get your written message across online be? Are there still disadvantages to a two- way form of written communication?

Levinson places speech at the basis of our ability to relate to the abstract. He mentions media such as painting, photography, motion pictures , radio and television have nurtured this ability to address the abstract. What would the role of the Internet be(combining all the aforementioned media) in establishing our relation to what we think of as abstract?


~ by Silvia Alexe on March 15, 2009.

7 Responses to “Digital McLuhan”

  1. When I was having coffee with McLuhan just before a conference I organized back in 1949 he said to me “Watch out for this Levinson guy, he really doesn’t get me.”

    I seem to find that McLuhan hasn’t been that wrongly interpreted in regard to the “content thesis” but that many have just resisted the teleological implications of it. Levinson reduces everything back to speech and ends up with Internet as “the medium of media.” (with his sidebar on photography, which does not really find a place particulary when he reduces this back to communication and even DNA when it becomes digital)

    What does McLuhan mean with the user as content of a medium? I really doubt it was the human “calling all the shots” as Levinson proposes. I have trouble with what he interprets as a “resilient humanist element in McLuhan’s view of media and content.” Isn’t it simply the extension thesis, which to me subscribes to a technological supremacy over human agency.

    Furthermore Levinson rejects the written word as visual space and propose that it is acoustic space instead.

    Altogether it seems that Levinson has neglected the core ideas of the “extension thesis” and focused only on the “anti-content thesis”

    BTW: I it bugged me that terms like “virtual” and “interactivity” weren’t used.

    PS weren’t you expecting him to conclude with, thereby the content is the medium (Levinson 1987) or something corny like that?

  2. It’s true, Levinson focuses mainly on the so-called “anti-content” theory, almost completely overlooking the idea of media as extensions of our senses. When he says that people are media content I believe he actually refers to what McLuhan himself once stated (McLuhan and Nevitt, 1972, p.231). The main idea argued here is that people become disembodied whenever they convey messages via different types of media: they become a voice without face/body (in the case of radio) or a body with a face and voice, but no “substance”. As a result, people become disembodied content for the media.
    I think the closest he gets to the idea of interactivity is when he mentions the Internet “trafficking in human conversations”. I agree with you on that, but I am not sure whether the 2 terms were part of the usual jargon at the time he published/wrote the book. (1999) It did seem like he was avoiding them , indeed.
    Had he wrapped it up with “the content is the medium”, it would have probably justified McLuhan’s attitude towards Levinson!

  3. @ Silvia I think that in online written word we can see the problems that arise from asynchronous communication. The first thing that comes to mind is possible misinterpretations, as Plato said the written word is there with no one to defend it. (The online world usually gives us the possibility to go back and explain ourselves again but still there is the issue of misunderstanding to begin with) When we for instance post on this blog even, there are times we have to go back (re-post) and explain our position again, because we see from the replies that our message (in terms of meaning) did not come across successfully. In a conversation in class this might not have occurred and if it did, it would have been resolved immediately. Our intentions can be misinterpreted as well. For example sarcasm may not be identified in a written text, although when speaking the tone of voice would make it more easily identifiable.
    Furthermore we sometimes feel the need to analyze things more (or less) when writing online, as we don’t have the immediate feedback the spoken word offers. In face to face communication we can judge by peoples’ reactions and adjust accordingly.
    Additionally we could think of the technological gap that limits the audience our online written word and the idea that there are still people who feel uncomfortable posting their thoughts online.

  4. as per the ‘written text’ question – i am in agreement with joanna in regards to plato’s thoughts on the written word in regards to media such as blogs and message boards. it is difficult to make sure your message is interpreted as you wish it to be, due to both lack of facial/tonal expressions and the potential for lag in conversation – as not all participants and readers of a blog/message board may be online and able to respond directly after each other as seen in internet relay chats (IRC) where questions and comments can be addressed immediately, more like live interaction. in addition the delay of the blog allows for all posters to think through their post with a delay, again, not really available naturally through verbal or instant communication. therefore it is more a form of synthetic conversation than actual conversation in some cases.

    interestingly enough however, textual communications continue to advance in terms of replicating facial and tonal signifiers (i.e. emoticons, text emphasis, abbreviations such as ‘lol’ and ‘omg’) so that textual representations of thoughts can indeed be perceived and understood better, as one obvious sign of misinterpretation is due to lack of physical signifiers in communication. however, i think, to a certain extent, textual online communication is a language within itself, which generations growing up with it have less problem adapting to and understand, as the older generations do (even if only slightly older).

  5. Regarding your first questionn, I would have to agree with Melinda and Joanna also, though it would depend what one searches for when using it (behaviour).

    Levinson states that “the alphabet is more abstract at its actual point of usage than current digital media – which, although higly abstract on the programmaing level (the binary codes that can represent sounds, images, letters), often operates iconically on the usage level (as when we see pictures and hear sounds on the Internet)” (p. 54). He thus states that the alphabet is, compared to all other media that mostly depend upon sight and hearing, the highest possible level of abstracten we can achieve. You here pose the question how the Internet can be seen through his analysis, and I think Levinson still things the alphabet is better dan the ‘alphabet’ used in digital media. However, when reading through his argument, I came to think: is our alphabet indeed ‘more abstract’ than the digital alphabet? First, ontologically 110011 seems to be more abstract to me than ABCD, not only because I am more familiar in how to deal with ABCD, but mostly because the 26 characters of the alphabet are minimized to only 2 characters (a point Levison himself refers to too). Secondly, Levinson claims that the true ‘abstract’ ability of the alphabet is to not operate on an iconic level, therefore not relying upon vision and hearing. However, I would say that the alphabet, in its usage, operates on exactly the same level als the digital alphabet does: words are spoken or maybe ‘heard’ in our head, images are formed around those words. The fact that this process is not yours anymore but ‘the computers’ makes the digital alphabet therefore less abstract? Or would it make it even more abstract, as the thoughts our alphabet relies upon are coded in another (digital) alphabet, that decodes it in the same manner we ourselves would do in our head? And still: the alphabet is abstract, yet the alphabet is invented to make thoughts, feelings and sounds (maybe even in your head, as Nietzsche argues that it all starts with music) concrete. Despite the fact that it is indeed a code; does that mean that vision and sight are necessarily ‘uncoded’? Is the tree i see so concrete because i see it, or is it concrete because i know how to name it?

    To Karin: “I have trouble with what he interprets as a “resilient humanist element in McLuhan’s view of media and content.” Isn’t it simply the extension thesis, which to me subscribes to a technological supremacy over human agency.”

    Isn’t the humanist element that the actual content of the technology are our own thoughts (medium in medium in medium in medium), thereby creating human agency through technology? (I have a hammer, it extends not only my arm, but also my point of view, therefore the way I act etc etc). And, if the content eventually is human thought (nurtured by environment), then McLuhan might not be such a technological determinist at all? Just wondering..

  6. On McLuhan and humanism, see this very useful article by Arthur Kroker:

  7. Want to see even more of Paul Levinson, and/or are you eager to know what ‘Web 3.0’ is going to be about (scroll to 17:23)? See

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