The Media Environment

Marshal McLuhan was a media critic given to spectacular assertions – his most famous being “The media is the message.” It is often missed that in his earlier work he built his case in a traditional academic manner using closely reasoned argument and plenty of footnotes. I am thinking in particular of his Gutenberg Galaxy which traces the impact of the invention of printing – or more properly movable type – on the Western mind. It is in this book that he establishes the argument behind the declaration ‘the medium is the message’.

The basic premise is that the invention of movable type changed the way we think. That developments in the way we mediate information change the very mental processes by which we think about and evaluate information. McLuhan further argued that sense ratio changed. Sense ratio it the emphasis or importance placed among the five senses. For example, a preliterate culture places heavy emphasis on the sense of hearing while a literate culture emphasizes the sense of sight. So, to use one of McLuhan’s examples, the British in India discovered that Indian exam candidates could reproduce whole textbooks verbatim from memory because, McLuhan argued, they had grown up in an ear based culture without writing and therefore had developed the ability to recall words exactly. Even written words after they had attained literacy. So the basic idea is that changes in media cause changes in human abilities and uncover or obscure particular skills and potentials.

It doesn’t stop with individuals, but effects whole cultures and the way they operate. A simple example of a change in human potential caused by the development of movable type is our idea of correct spelling. We all now understand correct spelling, but before movable type there was no such thing. It was inconceivable or nearly so. You could spell a word the same as a previous writer did, but another previous writer may have used a variant – and often did. It wasn’t until there was the technology to publish dictionaries that you really get the idea of a single correct spelling.

It took dictionaries a while to appear. Gutenberg invented movable type in 1447. Samuel Johnson published his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language exactly 300 years later and produced the actual dictionary in 1755. The possibility had been seen for some time and there were earlier dictionaries, but Johnson was the first to crystallize the features such as definition, spelling, and examples of usage found in the modern dictionary.

McLuhan’s broader argument in the Gutenberg Galaxy is that the invention of movable type drove the explosive development of western thought. Wikipedia summarizes the role of Gutenberg’s role thus:

Although Gutenberg was financially unsuccessful in his lifetime, his invention spread quickly, and news and books began to travel across Europe much faster than before. It fed the growing Renaissance, and since it greatly facilitated scientific publishing, it was a major catalyst for the later scientific revolution. The ability to produce many copies of a new book, and the appearance of Greek and Latin works in printed form was a major factor in the Reformation. Literacy also increased dramatically as a result. Gutenberg’s inventions are sometimes considered the turning point from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period.

McLuhan takes the argument much further. He points out that the irresistible quality coming from the printing press was a massive increase in the ability to create uniform products.

Gutenberg demonstrated the power of the printing press by selling copies of a two-volume Bible (Biblia Sacra) for 300 florins each. This was the equivalent of approximately three years’ wages for an average clerk, but it was significantly cheaper than a handwritten Bible that could take a single monk 20 years to transcribe.

If it took 20 years using a pen, it was nearly impossible to carve out whole pages from single blocks of wood to reproduce an entire Bible. The increase in efficiency inherent in having a collection of letters all on a uniform base so they can be set and reset in different orders to make up each page is the critical breakthrough. The very idea of being able to make item after item exactly the same, quickly and cheaply, was there from the first copies of Gutenberg’s Bible begging to be extended into other areas of craftsmanship. Again, it took 300 years for the industrial revolution to become a reality, but the mental pathway, McLuhan argues, was opened by Gutenberg.

A bit later in the 1770s manufacturing had begun to assimilate the core idea of movable type – interchangeability – into manufacture. According to this Wikipedia article on interchangeable parts:

The first concepts of interchangeability began to be developed in France during the 18th century, and around 1778, Honor Blanc began producing some of the first firearms with interchangeable parts. Thomas Jefferson saw a demonstration in 1785, and five years later, Blanc demonstrates in front of a committee of scientists that his muskets could be assembled from parts selected at random. Jefferson took the idea back to the United States, where Eli Whitney and other inventors moved the concept forward.

And move it forward he did. Wikipedia continues:

Eli Whitney saw the potential benefit of developing “interchangeable parts” for the firearms of the United States military, and thus, around 1798, he built ten guns, all containing the same parts and mechanisms, and disassembled them before the United States Congress. He placed the parts in a large pile and, with help, reassembled all of the weapons right in front of Congress, much like Blanc had done some years before.

The Congress was immensely impressed and ordered a standard for all United States equipment. With interchangeable parts, the problems that had plagued the era of unique weapons and equipment passed, and if one mechanism in a weapon failed, a new piece could be ordered and the weapon would not have to be discarded. The principle of interchangeable parts also made mass production relatively easy. It was based on the use of templates, applied by semi-skilled labor using machine tools instead of the traditional hand tools.

That final step of applying the core idea of Gutenberg’s invention to manufacturing finally gave birth to the familiar modern world full of machines with interchangeable parts. It is worth mentioning that such a line of progression is not inevitable. The Chinese had actually developed movable type by the 12th century and produced many printed books but because they had a written language consisting of hundreds of characters the gains in efficiency were less spectacular and less revolutionary than in the West where only 26 letters were needed to reproduce any text.

The journey from interchangeable type to interchangeable parts is just one thread that McLuhan explores in the Gutenberg Galaxy. He looks in great depth at literature and philosophy to develop his case, but his central insight is this: a change in the media environment can radically alter the way we think about and experience the world which in turn can create new institutions, new ways of dong things, and even completely change how power and wealth are achieved and exercised in our societies. In my next post I want to explore how the media environment has changed in the 20th century and how it might be changing our mentality and all manner of things around us.

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