Chapter 7: The Evolving Medium is the Message: McLuhan, Medium Theory, and Cognitive Neuroscience

Teresa Harrison

Although Marshall McLuhan had departed the cultural landscape more than a decade before the widespread diffusion of the Internet and the invention of the World Wide Web, there is little doubt about his importance in helping us to make sense of the changes introduced by new information and communication technologies. As perhaps the first theorist of new media, McLuhan speculated about the effects of “electric” media such as radio and television on a world whose configuration and preoccupations he viewed as largely the consequence of print on paper. After nearly disappearing from disciplinary discussion by the end of the 80’s, his ideas were revived in the 90s, becoming even more influential in helping us understand the nature and consequences of “electronic” or computer-mediated information and communication technologies.

McLuhan believed that the particular content or message conveyed by a medium was far less important a media experience than the accumulated impact on generations of media consumers of consistently absorbing messages conveyed by a particular medium form. His general claim, supported by the work of Ong, Havelock, and others, is that the medium through which messages are transmitted shapes and structures one’s cognitive experience of the world. More specifically, the persistent effects of consuming alphabet fixed on paper, made possible by the printing press, have created a kind of thinking and social order that emphasized the development of linearity, deductive logic, and argumentation more generally as the sine qua non of rigorous thinking, tendencies toward individualistic identities, and even the growth of nationalism. McLuhan believed these tendencies were destined for radical and wide-reaching change given the alternative experience of using television and radio and, by extension, electronic computer-mediated media (in which television and radio could be embedded). Thus, McLuhan was not only a theorist of the particular new medium of television, he was also a theorist of new media more generally as they contribute to and shape the ongoing cognitive and cultural development of human beings

McLuhan’s ideas about the interaction between media ecology and cognition, learning, and social organization were born partially of his own familiarity with the physiological processes of the brain (McLuhan,1978). Indeed, he found the hemispheric division of labor in the brain assumed at the time to be evidence for his claims about how media interactions shape cognition. Three decades later, it is evident that the brain is significantly more complex than he imagined, but it is also evident that McLuhan’s ideas about the fundamental importance of media might now be explored in more of their complexity. Essentially, the effects of media on culture take place through the interactions of media with the human brain. If McLuhan is correct, interactions with media produce characteristic cognitive forms and these cognitive forms come to be mirrored in the organization and institutions of culture. McLuhan and others have argued this case for the effects of print and literacy on linear thinking and institutions in western culture, in contrast to the preceding oral culture. It now behooves us to inquire about the ways that thought and social organization may change as we transition from a historical and cultural dependence on print to a media ecology that is electronic.

In this chapter I trace the history of McLuhan’s thinking (as well as those who have extended his work) about media and cognitive development from its initial contrast in the transition from oral to print culture to its more contemporary contrast in the anticipated transition from print to electronic culture. My goal is to synthesize from this body of thought a set of expectations and testable claims about the effects of specific new communication media on the cognitive development of digital natives and the kind of cultural evolutions we might expect to follow from such changes.