Longreads + Open Thread

China, Inequality, 401(k)s, AI, Content, Counterparties, Costco, McLuhan



Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: There's always a viable niche in the media ecosystem for The Book That Explains it All. In narrative monoculture, this is often a religious text, but there's also room for sweeping nonfiction: The Selfish Gene, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Sapiens, etc. Understanding Media is an early entry into this genre. The book was apparently originally intended for high school students, and I'm sure a few high school students get a kick out of it, but it's much less a practical overview of the media environment as experienced by the average person and more an attempt to see how every medium influences the zeitgeist.

It's a zeitgeisty work! When I read The Money Game, I wondered where the book got its peppy, casually-overintellectualizing tone, and it feels like Understanding Media was patient zero for that. (Both books even compare someone to Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny—when a sufficiently influential book makes some pop culture references, those references will at least temporarily enter the general canon.)

McLuhan's thesis is captured in his catchphrase that "the medium is the message." This is a pretty maximalist take: I tend to think that CNBC, Stocktwits, and the Wall Street Journal have a lot in common with one another, and are different from the Hallmark Channel, Weird Sun Twitter, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But he's right that the mode of consumption matters, and he's very right indeed when he extends the concept of "media" to include houses, clothes, money (it's the high-order bit ($)) etc. It's a very useful exercise to think about how the same message has a different impact in different media: a retweet is faster than a review, it's easier to remix a song than a novel, a folk tale never stops evolving while a slogan stays fixed but can change its meaning. (The phrase "well-behaved women seldom make history," for example, was coined with roughly the opposite meaning of what it means on a bumper sticker.) But the message still matters! The same medium can pacify or inflame people depending on its content; TV in McLuhan's age could provide endless light entertainment that distracted people from social issues, or it could bring Vietnam and Selma to every living room in the country.

Some parts of the book are quite prescient; he was early to what's now a management consulting cliche, that companies are in the business of solving customers' problems, not selling specific products. He has a riff on how every single purchase a consumer makes is fed into elaborate systems that predict demand and alter supply, which wasn't necessarily true back then but is mostly the case now. On the other hand, he thought that the EU would cause World War Three, and that TV ads would eliminate sales as a profession. Some points the book makes are weird, and lead to less wondering about whether or not McLuhan was on to something and more wondering just how dilated his pupils were while he was writing this book. (It feels more like an amphetamines-influenced work than anything else, but McLuhan was good friends with Timothy Leary.)

The trouble with reading any influential book a few generations too late is that you've already heard all the big ideas. And when you heard them, they sounded like clichés, because you've taken for granted the conclusions that are downstream from those original ideas. Reading a book like this is a good calibration exercise—people with big, influential ideas often get a lot wrong along the way. But you can invert that: as long as you get a few big things right, people will mostly forget about the rest.

Open Thread

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