The Trouble with Gerrold: The Internet massage
September 24, 2012 —
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Related Search Term(s): Marshall McLuhan
I mark 1975 as the year that personal computing really began. It was when the Altair and the IMSAI S-100 machines first hit the market. That was Year Zero.
In 8 BC (Before Computers), a fellow named Marshall McLuhan published a book called “The Medium Is the Massage.” He postulated that the way we receive content massages us—the way the information is delivered affects us even more than the content itself.
A newspaper can give us lots of information, but a radio commentator summarizing that information gives us an emotional envelope. A picture gives us a visceral impact; a moving picture gives us a direct experience. A small black-and-white television image is a gritty blur, demanding concentration. A high-def wall-size screen overwhelms us with its illusion of reality.
Part of that, of course, is how much information is being delivered and at what rate. The high-def television delivers more information per second than a whole newspaper can deliver in a week. It’s a different kind of information, but it has an enormous physical and emotional effect that we are not immediately conscious of. And that’s the massage that McLuhan was discussing.
One of the best examples of the effect of the massage is Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Radio had established itself as a voice of immediate authority. You got speeches from the president and reports of the war in Europe, you got music and news and commentary. Even the commercials were presented as authoritative. So when Orson Welles used that same context to deliver an invasion from Mars, radio audiences were already conditioned to believe it.
But there are other examples as well. The Nazi propaganda machine depended on the credibility of newspapers, magazines, movies and radio to give its propaganda the illusion of credibility. Likewise, the Soviet Union. Populations that had not yet had the opportunity to learn how to assimilate the new media—movies and radio—assumed that what they were seeing and hearing was accurate. It wasn’t until much later that a healthy skepticism about all media began to develop.