Tag Archives: McLuhan


I use a flip phone. My parents recently got smartphones. Droids. Then they got new smartphones. It’s part of the family plan. My mother gave me her old smartphone. She said “here, switch over to this one. I’ll pay for the data plan.”

Data plan.

At first I said no. Then I said yes. Then I looked at my girlfriend. I said no again. I said yes. I said no. My mother rolled her eyes. We were going to Rosh Hashanah services. We wore suits and ties. She said, “We’ll go to the Verizon store after services.”

I stood with the smartphone in my hand. “Okay,” I thought. “This is going to happen eventually and I can’t help it–all my friends have them–and I can use it for various things. Tweeting. I’ll use it to tweet. I have four Twitter accounts. I can pay more attention to them. And getting lost. I won’t get lost. I’ll know where I am. And a calendar. I screw up appointments a lot. This will help me that.”

Then I asked myself, “this is late capitalism, right?”

Then I answered, “Yes. It is.”

I stopped. I decided to do something that cellphones and smartphones have made extremely popular among my peers: I decided to decide later.

I asked a philosopher friend if I should get the smartphone. He said no. Smartphones make you less smart. The capacity for memory, the interest in living questions, the constant (mis)direction of attention away from the present moment–just don’t. You don’t want to mess with that. You’re better without it.

I already have an iPad. I stare at it for hours. Every day. Mostly reading PDFs I download for school. Hobbes, Plato, Foucault, etc. This week it’s Adam Smith.

I see people walking down the street on their smartphones. I see them eating dinner, the smartphone sitting in front of them next to their food. I see them playing games on their smartphones on the train. Reading the newspaper. Checking email. Facebook. The New York Times. The best tweeters I know couldn’t do what they do without a smartphone. Richard Nash. Andy Carvin. Also Maud Newton made this connection: ancient humans used to carry smartphone-sized tablets with poetry and scripture carved into them. In Cuneiform.


I can see them walking around in cloaks and sandals with their faces hunched over their smartrocks after written language became vogue. The people that thought too much probably got nervous and talked with their friends about what they should do. Should we trust writing? Should we trust these scratches that everyone in the market is staring at? What will happen to our memory? What will happen to the truth of voice, of sound, of memory? Plato wrote a whole Socratic dialogue about it called Phaedrus.

Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?

Should I trust this smartphone that can neither speak for itself nor teach the truth adequately to others?

Marshall McLuhan says media technologies are ablated mental states. It’s like a slice of my mind fell onto the table one day after breakfast and kept doing whatever it was doing when it was in my brain. It turned into writing, a telegraph, a telephone, a television, a computer. When I stare at the computer and write it’s like when people used to sit and think about Homer’s poetry. Now I can hold whatever was happening there in my hand. I can push its buttons.

Obsessing with technology is just self-obsessing. It’s narcissistic. But it’s just like any mental state. I have the option to be well-disposed towards it. If I get angry when I’m walking because I hate when people pull their dogs while they’re trying to pee, and I obsess over that anger, it’ll consume me. It’ll ruin my day. It’ll make me be a jerk to the dog-owner, who might need a gentle reminder, sure, but not my sass. Other people don’t deserve shitty treatment because I can’t deal with myself in a non-shitty way. Same with smartphones.

We’ve been dealing with this problem for a long time. How do I treat myself well around other people? How do I not become obsessed? How do I reach a balanced happiness? How do I lead a good life? Etc.

Will a smartphone lead to a good life? I don’t know yet. The smartphone arrived  like anything else from the universe. A stubbed toe. My father’s laughter. A death in the family. A political debate. A fungus on my little finger. A love poem.  Do any of these lead to a good life?

They’re just life, I think. What makes a good life is a good me in life. Can I be a good me in life with a smartphone? I hope so.

Yesterday morning I woke up and my phone wasn’t on. I always leave it on to wake me up in the morning because I don’t trust myself to wake up at the right time without it. I tried to turn it on. It gave me a message:

“Please use genuine battery power or phone will shut down.”

Then it gave me a count-down. 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Then it turned off. It did the same thing when I tried it again. I spent the day without a phone. I panicked. I went to the Verizon store after I inadvertently stood a friend up for lunch.  They said it was water damage. That I’d have to get a new phone. They asked me, “Do you have a phone we can transfer your information to?”

I said, “Yes. I have a smartphone.”




Gchat Might Slowly Kill Us.

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:

–Alphabetic text
–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?)