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Numbness McLuhan Style

Numbness McLuhan Style

October 29th, 2008  |  Published in Core theory  |  1 Comment

I have noticed recently that the debate among journalists has sharpened and begun to more directly engage the changes caused by the impact of the Internet on their profession. The continued decline in advertising revenue and circulation at newspapers and consequent job losses appears to me to be is the most dramatic factor driving the current reevaluation. Here in a post entitled It Is Our Fault from Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine on the state of the debate:

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post issues a resounding apologia for journalists in the American Journalism Review, arguing that the fall of newspapers isn’t their fault. Then Roy Greenslade leaps up with a resounding hear! hear! They echo a defense earlier this year from Adrian Monck (who had decreed, “The crops did not fail because we offended the gods”).

Though I respect these three men, I must call bullshit.

The fall of journalism is, indeed, journalists’ fault.

It is our fault that we did not see the change coming soon enough and ready our craft for the transition. It is our fault that we did not see and exploit — hell, we resisted — all the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented. It is our fault that we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left the business to the business people. It is our fault that we lost readers and squandered trust. It is our fault that we sat back and expected to be supported in the manner to which we had become accustomed by some unknown princely patron. Responsibility and blame are indeed ours.

From a media theory point of view I would argue that if more journalists had a basic understanding of Marshall McLuhan’s thought they would have seen the changes coming sooner and been less inclined to resist them. At the very core of McLuhan’s thinking is the idea that when technology changes, structures change and the rules by which  human institutions operate also change. Indeed, I believe if journalists were more familiar with these ideas they would be more likely to accept that technological innovation triggers irreversible change and adapt to the new environment more quickly. McLuhan saw technological development as interaction:

Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. (Understanding Media McGraw Hill p. 46)

So technology doesn’t just change the world – it changes us – and McLuhan further argued that each new technology initially numbs us to the impact on ourselves. Because we are focused on the immediate effects of a new technology we miss both the long term implications of the change and how it might change our mental processes not to mention those of our children. Because the new technology changes both the structure of the world and our inner mental structure we just don’t get it at first. As humans we can only move into the future on the basis of our past experience, and only so fast.  So an automobile is initially experienced as a horseless carriage. Before we know it, automobiles begin to encourage more paved streets and roads. Cars and pavement proliferate and traffic lights become necessary. Drivers begin to dream of stop light free travel and engineers invent freeways. And so on, but at the horseless carriage stage none of this development is obvious or even conceivable to those raised in the previous technological environment.

So I would argue that it is to be expected that journalists did not, as Jeff Jarvis put it, “see the change coming soon enough and ready our craft for the transition.” Those who knew McLuhan had to notice that massive change was coming when PCs made computing an everyday experience. However, just knowing McLuhan doesn’t tell you what is going to happen. Personally, I was just as numb to the actual changes even though I was on the lookout for them. I remember seeing some of the earliest ‘web logs’ and sensing they were significant, but feeling frustrated that I couldn’t work out why or what to do about it. However, what is amazing today is that many, journalists prominent among them, are still fighting the change and insisting that things shouldn’t be the way they are. Perhaps the most striking piece of evidence of journalistic numbness I’ve seen is the Newseum in Washington DC which is an excellent memorial to journalism as it was in the 20th century. Insofar as it includes the Internet it depicts it as an interesting ornament to the established broadcast and print institutions of the industrial age. When I visited it on its opening day earlier this year (full review here), I specifically hunted for some trace of awareness that the Internet had changed the fundamental structure of journalism. That is, from a few people (journalists) in control of the information flow to the public to a new Internet based structure where the mass audience can talk back and to each other.

So when Jeff Jarvis says ” hell we resisted — all the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented.” he puts his finger precisely on where McLuhan’s numbness interferes with adapting to new circumstances. McLuhan himself expressed similar frustration:

I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their greatest enemy was quite invisible, and quite unrecognized by them. (Ibid p. 18)

Jeff Jarvis’ wake up call comes as the implications of the Internet really begin to seriously impact the news business. Again, McLuhan predicted that it is when people begin to wake up that things get interesting:

The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. [ie numbness ed.] The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses. (Ibid p. 55)


  1. nene oyika-ojimba says:

    May 31st, 2009at 2:07 am(#)

    just read this and i find it very intresting. i’m currently working on a research topic : the role of new media and emerging technologies in newspaper publishing. i’m a student and the work is strictly for academic purpose. thanks.

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