Marshall McLuhan makes sure we get it right: Narcissus didn’t see himself in the water. He saw the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, sure. But he mistook his image for something other than his image. He didn’t think it was himself. He just thought it was beautiful. And he dies, lost in this beauty. His epic mistake was not that he was self-absorbed, but rather that he didn’t realize he was self-absorbed in his own image. And it killed him.
McLuhan’s suggestion seems to be that if Narcissus had realized that it was his own image in the water, that he was lost in his own reflection, he could’ve managed his situation a little better and moved out of the way. If he’d known that he was fascinated with himself he could’ve saved himself from his mythic mistake. This is McLuhan’s general claim in ‘Understanding Media‘: only we are Narcissus and media technology is our reflection in the pond.
McLuhan says that a medium is an extension of us. A medium–alphabetic text, radio, television, speech–is an extended version of ourselves in the world. He implores us to learn from Narcissus: we must read the reflection responsibly, as a message itself, and not get ignorantly lost in the content that it carries. If we don’t see that the medium carries a message–that it’s just us, expressed in the world–then we risk a narcotized, pointless, and ignorantly self-absorbed death, our lives nothing more than a tranquilized and passive breath, self-slaughtered by an obsession with a beauty that was always our own but never under our control. (Not to mention the fact that these media change our sense ratios and change our thought to fit their patterns–as if Narcissus’s eyes got watery the more he looked into the water.)
So my question is: What are the media we’re fascinated with now, and how can we heed McLuhan’s warning? I thought of Gchat, a ubiquitous media for people my age. What do you think of it? What’s the message of Gchat? Here are a few ingredients:
–Real-time conversation, no delay
–Held always through a Google server, and recorded if you don’t specify otherwise (under Google’s political auspices)
–You can only chat with people that you’ve corresponded with on Gmail, no one else
–Gchat is next to your email box, so you’re always looking to see who to chat with
–You can send links to videos or other websites
–Easier to participate in the Internet Dialect of English (LOL, symbols, mispellings, less grammar, slang)
–You can see when someone else is typing and type at the same time
–Different set of conversational norms: you can get up and leave one without causing as much trouble
–Can conduct several Gchats at once, the most I’ve seen is 5
–No sound, blocked from any tonal inflection
–No image, blocked from any paralinguistic suggestion
What does all this mean? If we don’t talk about it, what Gchat’s message is, then we risk sitting for hours gchatting with our friends–the media changing our patterns of thought without us knowing it or choosing it and slowly killing us.
(P.S. What’s the message in WordPress blogging?)