The User is the Content

26 Mar

The sad thing is, I actually read a book last week! I just never got around to writing about it, instead hoping that the e-mail of review-related notes I’d sent myself sometime around Tuesday would perhaps magically transform itself into several paragraphs of coherent thought, and then post itself online. Funny how that didn’t pan out.

My book for last week (again, we’re like six days late here) was Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, a brief biography of the 1960s media theorist (Marshall McLuhan) by tech/future/dystopia-focused fiction author Douglas Coupland. I picked up this particular book for three reasons. First, both Coupland and Chuck Klosterman (the latter one of my all-time favorite nonfiction writers) were speaking in New York at an event focusing on McLuhan and his contributions to our understanding of the media landscape (which undoubtedly included questions like “What the fuck would he have thought of Foursquare?”) Unfortunately, work prevailed and I wasn’t able to make the event (I’m still bitter) but by then I was halfway through the book and I am not (anymore) the type to give up. Second, among his many other teaching posts, Marshall McLuhan for a brief time taught at Fordham University, my alma mater, and for this reason (plus, you know, his general fame) was brought up with some frequency by my professors at Fordham, some of whom knew him personally (yes, I majored in media theory, let’s all just deal with it). Third and finally, it was short. Like 200 pages short.

For those who don’t know, Marshall McLuhan was a 1960s media theorist known most commonly for the little gem “the medium is the message.” He based his understanding of the media environment (and far more importantly, on how media transforms the way we behave and think) on literature, the Renaissance and other seemingly unrelated topics, which made his ideas at the time (again, ’60s) seem more batshit than prescient. But prescient they were. Here are a few choice McLuhan quotes, most from 1962.

The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness—will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.

We shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us.

The user is the content.

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction.  And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.

[Terror] is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time … In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.

Kind of spooky, right? In any case, it’s worth noting that McLuhan has become such a source of soundbites in part because his longer writing, including seminal books like Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy, aren’t entirely accessible to the average reader (which is to say you have to have a bit of the media nerd in you to really get into them). That particular brand of wonk may not have been what inspired Coupland to write a straightforward and short biography, but his book certainly has the side benefit of laying out some key McLuhan facts without forcing one to dive too deep.

There’s a lot I want to say about McLuhan, though I’m reluctant to give up too many of the points shared in this relatively small book. It fascinates me that despite his prognosticating, McLuhan actually loathed technology, thought the world was going in the wrong direction and simply felt compelled to report on the matter. I also find it interesting that he assembled his understanding of media by absorbing as much of it as he could, reading countless books on all kinds of subjects in the hopes that the more he knew, the more connections he would make (sounds a lot like the Internet, no?) And I can’t help but wonder, seriously wonder, what exactly Marshall McLuhan would think of 2011. The Internet, mobile phones, apps, blogging, Foursquare, Skype, Facebook, Netflix, and so on. So much of what he theorized about ultimately came true, or beyond true; I wonder if his brief satisfaction at having been right would rather quickly be trumped by his hatred for a world where we spend most of our time looking at screens.

But I guess I haven’t really discussed Coupland’s book. It was good! Easy to understand, straight to the point. Well-researched, without necessarily pulling the reader on tangents. A strong introduction. If I had to make any criticism, it would be Coupland’s slightly odd decision to pepper the book with intervals of non-McLuhan text–excerpts from listings for his books, Mapquest-esque directions to his house, the results of various meme-generated nicknames (i.e. Marshall McLuhan’s porn name would be…). There’s certainly something interesting in the idea, transitioning between chapters or checkpoints with glimpses of McLuhan inserted into modern technology, but because the book is so short, and the insertions seem to have no real purpose, it comes across as a bit gimmicky. But I’m nitpicking.


It should go without saying that any biography that got me writing 1,000 words about its subject probably did a decent job. And Coupland did. He writes with a casual voice that will please those fearful of biographies’ “boring” stigma. He inserts personal thoughts and anecdotes and doesn’t slow his pace in the interest of delving too deep on any particular topic. In all, he creates a strong overview, a book that will help you decide whether McLuhan is someone worth knowing more about. This isn’t by any means the most comprehensive telling of McLuhan’s life, but it’s definitely a good one.

The only reason I’m limiting the book to two paper-cuts is because I think I was ultimately more interested in McLuhan, in any form, than in Coupland’s book in particular. I would have likely gotten just as excited (and perhaps written just as many words) after reading the man’s Wikipedia page. No fault of Coupland’s really, I just have to wonder if the medium here (heh) wasn’t necessarily the most important part.

TITLE: Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!
AUTHOR: Douglas Coupland
PAGES: 224 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Hey Nostradamus!, Microserfs
SORTA LIKE: …a biography of Marshall McLuhan
FIRST LINE: “The year is 1980 and it is spring.”

4 Responses to “The User is the Content”

  1. Monica Racic March 27, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    This reminds me of that great scene in "Annie Hall," in which McLuhan steps out to tell the Columbia professor "you know nothing of my work."

  2. Monica Racic March 27, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    Oh shoot—I just reread that and realized it sounds wrong—you perfectly encapsulate McLuhan's work! This book just reminded me of how much I loved that scene. (That was all I was saying!)

  3. Monica Racic March 27, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

    Upon reading that, I realize I also sound like classic fool.

  4. Kira Bindrim March 28, 2011 at 1:01 am #

    Haha, you don't! I know exactly which scene you're talking about; I think he references it in the book too. Man, who knew 4+ years after being technically done with media theory classes, I'd end up pursuing the ish in my spare time anyway.

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