The internet does to the world what radio did to the world

Over the holidays, I finally found the time to read Marshall McLuhan’s book “Understanding media” (I might have spent time with it during my studies but definitely didn’t pay too much attention back then). Last year, hardly a week went by without me stumbling upon a text which made a reference to the book and its most famous phrase, “The medium is the message”. Now I understand why. McLuhan’s media criticism laid out in his 1964 work feels incredibly contemporary. Occasionally to an almost scary degree.

Among the parts that intrigued me the most were the following three paragraphs, which in my opinion are very suitable to describe current media dynamics and societal events – if one, while reading, replaces the term “radio” with “internet” and “Hitler” with whoever comes to mind.

“That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and public-address systems. This is not to say that these media relayed his thoughts effectively to the German people. His thoughts were of very little consequence. Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization. For tribal peoples, for those whose entire social existence is an extension of family life, radio will continue to be a violent experience. Highly literate societies, that have long subordinated family life to individualist stress in business and politics, have managed to absorb and to neutralize the radio implosion without revolution. Not so, those communities that have had only brief or superficial experience of literacy. For them, radio is utterly explosive.

“The power of radio to retribalize mankind, its almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism, Fascist or Marxist, has gone unnoticed. So extraordinary is this unawareness that it is what needs to be explained. The transforming power of media is easy to explain, but the ignoring of this power is not at all easy to explain. It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent function, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions.”

“Just as we now try to control atom-bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. Education will become recognized as civil defense against media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defense is the print medium. The educational establishment, founded on print, does not yet admit any other responsibilities.

Clearly, education has failed to offer a large-scale civil defense against internet fallout.

Update: Have a look at the excellent comment discussion about the thoughts in this post on Hacker News.

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Photo: Flickr/Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0


  1. Would radios influence have been as it was had it created not a dozen or so stations available to a community, but given every single person an arbitrary number of them – each bidirectional?

  2. I guess then it would have been more akin to how the Internet works, right? And at least judging from the current state of affairs, the outcome might be similar. However, of course we do not know yet how the story ends this time. It is probably not wrong to assume that the bidirectional character of the internet inevitably also leads to certain dynamics that differ from the time when the radio experienced its rise; that the bidirectional character enables the formation of a strong counter-movement to the retribalizing backlash. Yesterday’s global rallies might be an indicator for this. Although, probably even there one would have tribalizing tendencies. Either you join the one group, or the other. That’s the type of polarization that seems to be happening in a lot of places.

  3. Is McLuhan implying that Western civilization (or the German people) “had only brief or superficial experience of literacy” in 1930? Because that seems dubious or at least needs more explanation. Maybe an explanation of what was different then is missing from the quote.

    • I don’t recall whether he explained this more in detail. However, I guess it all depends on the definition of “brief or superficial experience of literacy”. I wouldn’t find it out of place to assume that a large majority of the people back then in fact only possessed superficial experience of literacy. In fact, even in today’s “modern” societies the same could be said, even if to a lesser degree. Lack of digital literacy is kinda a huge problem.

  4. I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast ReplyAll called ” A Man of the People – when new technology falls into the wrong hands”. It’s a story of a charlatan, swindler and politically motivated doctor that took advantage of he new technology (radio), made piles of money and hurt thousands of other wile in the process.

    An enthralling story with so many similarities to our modern era.

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