Sunday, July 10, 2005

60s Mass Media Guru Title Bout: Ellul vs. Mcluhan

Originally posted June 5, 2005
Jacques Ellul and Marshall Mcluhan, as contemporaries both writing about media effects and using similar methodologies, arrived at many of the same conclusions. They both decided that the mass media of the '60s transformed those it touched into a 'mass audience'--a heretofore unseen species reared on information glut and an ever-present torrent of images, sounds and words. But there was one signficant point on which they differed--Ellul said that media alienated man and supplanted traditional social supports, while Mcluhan hailed its ability to turn the world into a 'global village', i.e. to foster connections between people. Scornful as they were of the scientific method (well, Ellul was, at least), neither provided much in the way of hard, unequovical evidence to support their claims. So who has history proved to be correct?

Of course, the answer is 'both'. Mcluhan's global village idea was rightfully deemed prophetic at the dawn of the Internet era, and the net certainly has connected like-minded, far-flung parties who never otherwise would have 'met.' But Ellul was correct in a crucial way as well, I think, in that telecom interfaces will always fall significantly short compared to facetime in the hierarchy of comm modes. The alienation created by technological societies can be mitigated but never entirely effaced by electronic interfaces. We instinctively crave tactile sensation, the immediacy of warm bodies in close proximity, the little perceptual  feedback channels so glaringly absent from media like chat and email. We can't escape our biology; thus the Internet, TV and even the phone should all be recognized and treated as mere simulacra of physical presence.

It's late; do forgive my grandiloquence.