McLuhanizing Mobile Media
By Howard Rheingold, Mon Nov 24 14:00:00 GMT 2003

What would Marshall McLuhan, visionary prophet of pre-Internet media, say about mobile telephony, texting, the mobile Web, and the always-on world of wireless devices?


Although a wide variety of answers are possible to this question, I believe that I can cite an exact answer to a slightly different question: "What would McLuhan ask about mobile telephony, texting, and the always-on world of wireless devices?" The central tenet and crown jewel of McLuhan's theories were his "Laws of Media." The Laws of Media were not answers, but questions that McLuhan brilliantly applied to the "electric media" of his era - landline telephones, radio, and broadcast television. To interrogate a new medium, McLuhan asked the four questions he and his son Eric published in their book, The Laws of Media: The New Science."

"What does the artifact ENHANCE or intensify or make possible or accelerate? This can be asked concerning a wastebasket, a painting, a steamroller, or a zipper, as well as about a proposition in Euclid or a law of physics. It can be asked about any word or phrase in any language."

"When pushed to the limits of its potential (another complementary action), the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the REVERSAL potential of the new form?"

"What recurrence or RETRIEVAL of earlier actions and services is brought into play simultaneously by the new form? What older, previously obsolesced ground is brought back and inheres in the new form?"

"If some aspect of a situation is enlarged or enhanced, simultaneously the old condition or unenhanced situation is displaced thereby. What is pushed aside or OBSOLESCED by the new 'organ'?"

McLuhan was the original master of non-linearity, reacting to the lockstep sequential thinking enforced by the old the medium of printed type by experimenting with books that were, discontinuous, fluid, gestalts of aphorisms and visual images. In that spirit, McLuhan was not advocating answering these questions sequentially, nor in ordering them in a hierarchy of priorities. Think of the questions as a kind of mental lens that can be used to switch modes of focus, and thus see the whole world of media, people, causes and effects in a new way. Keeping in mind that each question can be seen in a new way if considered in relation to every other question and answer, how might we subject the mobile telephone to McLuhanesque interrogation?

I humbly offer this question to everyone who reads this. Please offer the first idea off the top of your head or the intricately reasoned argument that took you an hour to formulate. McLuhan would want brainstorming, not meticulously nitpicking debate. Please add your thoughts and links as comments, if you feel so moved.

I'll start: The mobile telephone enhances the ability of individuals in different locations to communicate and organize activities with other individuals. It enhances planning ("I'm stuck in traffic,") collective action ("Flashmob at the mall tomorrow!"), social solidarity ("I love you, honey"), control ("You turn off that television and do your homework right now!").

The reversal potential of the mobile telephone is that the means of liberation is also a tether. At the innocent dawn of mobile devices, the image of a person on a beach, conducting business via laptop and mobile phone, was an image of liberation: I don't have to be at the office; I can do what I do from the beach! And of course, by now it has turned into an image of enslavement: I can't ever leave the office, even at the beach.

I'll take a long leap at the retrieval question and say that in some way, the mobile telephone is reviving the oral dimension that McLuhan claimed was supplanted by print literacy, which was supplanted by "electric" literacy of simultaneous, image-heavy, quickly changing, multi-mode information. As we walk through image-bombarded Shibuya or Times Square, we spend our time engaged in the oldest human communication medium, the spoken word.

What is pushed aside or obsolesced if some aspect of mobile telephony is enlarged? How about the office? Cybernomads already cluster at Starbucks, migrating to Kinko's if necessary for hardcopy, and abandon their offices to sit in Wi-Fied parks on sunny days.

Think of each of these attempts at answers as a facet of a multifaceted prism. Pick it up and look at the whole picture through the enhancement, reversal, retrieval, or obsolescence facet. Then put down the prism and pick up another.

So...anybody have a facet? What do you think the mobile telephone enhances, reverses, retrieves, or renders obsolete?