‘Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind…in order to manipulate, exploit, control…’
This was the disquieting declaration made by Marshall McLuhan in his 1951 book, The Mechanical Bride – his influential critique of modern mass communications.
The book proposed to cast a critical eye on the potential effects of mass culture, and put forward a number of radical ideas that resonate even now 60 years since its original publication.
To mark what would have been McLuhan’s hundredth birthday, The Mechanical Bride is now being published for the first time in the UK.
The book’s prescient analysis of using sex to sell and how mass entertainment can mask any comprehensible message is illustrated by dozens of examples from ads, comic strips and vintage columns.
McLuhan put forward the suggestion that the conflation of millions of images, messages and suggestions make for a confusing stream of pictures and signs, making the actual information they present an irrelevance.
The audience, he suggests, would be so dazed by this constant stream of stimulus that they would be rendered too confused to know whether they were actually happy or not – ‘manipulated’, ‘exploited’ and ‘controlled’ by the media around them.
On computers, McLuhan suggests, ‘With the computer we all move out of the age of number and statistics into the ace of simultaneous awareness of structures.’
Before the days of the internet, his words on the growing network of physical ‘superhighways’ carry something of a prophetic message about the internet today.
‘The guy who is going to use a superhighway thinks he is the same man who used the dirt road it replaced’, he says. ‘He doesn’t notice that the highway has changed in relation to his family and his fellows.’
Now, how can we fit that into 140 characters? Suggestions via pigeon-post welcomed.
The Mechanical Bride by Marshall McLuhan is published by Duckworth Overlook on 10 November, priced £16.99