Clinging to the Dragon’s Teeth
AN ENTIRELY UNQUALIFIED GRAD SCHOOL DROPOUT’s HOT TAKE ON MULTIMEDIA IN FRESHMAN COMPOSITION
The Man, the Medium, the Message
Marshall McLuhan and New Media
For some help from the past, we’re going to look to a late 20th century media theorist (and full-time English professor at the University of Toronto) Marshall McLuhan. During his peak popularity, he was basically media theory’s equivalent of Neil Degrasse Tyson. He appeared on talk shows, television documentaries, interviewed John Lennon, and even showed up in a bizarre cameo (shown below) in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall.
McLuhan became well-known for his assertion that all technologies are extensions of man, and explored the profound difference the phonetic alphabet not only makes on humanity’s absorption of information but on our sense of self and our relationship with the world around us. McLuhan understood that technologies are more than simply tools to enhance some attribute of human experience, but can radically change it in a variety of ways stretching beyond our ability to travel faster, build quicker, or spend valuable hours watching people make colored goop instead of wasting our time trying to find food. Technology has the capability of changing us, and, when it has, we’ve often been ignorant of it when it’s doing it.
While introducing this concept in one of his most first major work, The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan further expanded on the idea in Understanding Media. The most transformative of technologies, to McLuhan, affected how we communicate and, in his own age, technological advancements in communication increased in frequency with every little change making enormous impacts (as they continued to do in the three decades after his death in 1980).
To McLuhan, 20th century man was a man split between two eras. These two being the era of print and the “electric age,” where information was being relayed through electrical signals. McLuhan’s famous saying “The Medium is The Message” was a signature “tease” of his that laid out his theory’s conceit in one simple phrase. You can find McLuhan himself explaining the phrase below (keep watching for some interesting thoughts on television):
“Mediums” offered their own distinctive environments.
As McLuhan pointed out, the change in our world goes far beyond simply speed or amount of knowledge. The mediums themselves can radically change how we interact with the world, each other, and ourselves.
McLuhan spent a good deal of time talking about TV, which, in his day was the “rising star” of his era’s “new” media. Even in its limited availability at the time, with only a few channels, it was radically transforming the world. If you watched a little further in the video, you would see that television was not just “creating illiteracy” but rather, “creates another form of awareness” (3:02). How much more so does the internet create a new form of awareness than TV?
We’re going to turn to one of McLuhan’s famous works, “Understanding Media,” which catapulted him to stardom. Building on the work he had started in “The Gutenberg Galaxy.” He further explored the changes wrought by the “technology” of the phonetic alphabet and extended his message to other forms of media. Any technology to McLuhan was an extension of a part of man. According to him, the media of the electric age were extensions of man’s central nervous system, involving them through the combination of images and sounds to connect us to it, much like we were connected to one another in tribal communities before we developed the individualizing technology of the phonetic alphabet and by consequence, reading.
“The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations.” (27)
Movies are supremely visual in nature and cannot be judged by the same measurements as texts in their persuasive effectiveness. McLuhan lived before the age of home computing, but his understanding of film as a movement away from linearity and into “configurations” of mixed-media elements offers a sneak-peek into modern theories about new media and hypertexts. Clifford Brooke, who I previously quoted earlier, redefined the old “canons of rhetoric” to accommodate new media and change the language as we transition from text to “interface,” which is a fancy word to refer to “new media” forms, that are, by nature, constantly changing form and content depending on who is encountering them.
Before we move further, we must step back. To understand how profoundly our own technologies could affect us, we must turn to how previous technologies affected previous generations. McLuhan gives us some clues in his work.
I’m going to tell you a story first. It’s a story that was repeated often by McLuhan to refer to the rise of the phonetic alphabet:
The first King of Thebes -at this point simply a man called Cadmus- sought revenge for the murder of his compatriots. In true, ancient Greek warrior fashion, this involved killing a giant water dragon, and, as can be expected, he did (with a little help from his friends, the gods of Olympus). He was then instructed to “sow” the dragon’s teeth into the ground. These teeth then grew into warriors, who, after a jewel is thrown into the middle of their ranks, fight against one another. Cadmus himself finished them off. All except for five. These five Cadmus took with him to build Thebes.
McLuhan interpreted the myth through the lens of Cadmus’ role as the bringer of literacy to the Thebans, and, consequently, to the whole of ancient Greece, radically transforming the region. These teeth were emblematic of the Phoenician alphabet and the resulting change, which, in this case began with conflict and misunderstanding and ended with the further spread of “civilization.”
When the dragon’s teeth were “sown,” there was conflict, with each “tooth-man” battling each other and Cadmus for the jewel. After this first bout, they became civil and helped build a civilization. This is true of any transformative technology, it creates a dissonance between the old world and the new. It challenges old ways of thinking and creates tension. For the Greeks, the alphabet was just this transformative technology. The dragon’s teeth were eblematic of the phonetic alphabet (it is unlikely the shared Phoenician roots of the phonetic alphabet and Cadmus himself was a coincidence).
“As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture.” -Marshall McLuhan
McLuhan spoke from a stance informed by an older technology that, much like the smartphone in our era, quickly took over and affected life in some pretty extraordinary ways. Societies impacted by the phonetic alphabet separated “thought and action” creating a new kind of person, one who was defined by linear, sequential thinking.
According to McLuhan, before the age of the phonetic alphabet, man was defined by his oral culture. There were few opportunities for effective, meaningful communication outside of the spoken word. There was little distinction between thought and action.