In this essay we will look into the task of understanding the effects of technology, and how this is changing the ideas of architects today, by an examination of the thoughts and theories of Marshal McLuhan. A Canadian born in 1911, McLuhan is considered by many to be the first leading prophet of the electronic age, and his subject field was in the understanding the effects of technology as it related to popular culture, and how this affected human beings and their relations with one another in communities.
McLuhan, though his probing and rigorous examination of electric technology and the media, coined the phrase “The medium is the message” McLuhan Said:
“The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” – (Marshall McLuhan 1)
Today, action and the reaction occur almost simultaneously, but we continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age.
The medium, or process, of the electric technology age is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence. It is changing us in every aspect of our personal life and forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate virtually every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Societies are shaped more by the nature of the media in which they are communicated, rather than the actual content of the communication. To understand social and cultural changes you need to have an understanding of the workings of the media. “The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreak the societies in which they occur.” – (A. N. Whitehead 2)
Understanding the effects of media
The media plays a part in our life’s that dramatically transforms our society in a way that exposes us to many unexplored facets of life. An important shift that occurred during the twentieth century was the change from industrial age to the information age. This change affected almost all the fields and changed them into new forms of realities. The growing trend towards repetition, decentralization of power, virtual reality and a blurring image between formerly distinct cultural aspects can be a way to describe postmodernism. Recently thou there has been a shift in architecture, due to a movement in science fiction, which has created new conditions and situations where architecture would be a catalyst for a new subjectivity, a new narration in this current age of digital information.
“Postmodern culture is presented as a reaction or an alternative to existing society.” – (Media and cultural studies: keyworks 3) New communication systems are presented to the postmodern society and culture as a key to a better life and a more equitable society. In the 20th century electronic media is supporting an equally profound transformation of culture identity. Telephone, film, television, the computer and their integration as ‘multimedia’ has reconfigurations of individuality, modern society fostered an individual who is ration, autonomous, centred, and stable, whereas a postmodern society nurtured forms of identity different from those of modernity. Electronic communication technology significantly enhances these postmodern possibilities.
McLuhan defines media as technologies that create an extension of the human body, and with this said he also warns that “we become what we behold” – (McLuhan 4) McLuhan’s term extension means when an individual or society makes or uses something that in some way extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new, for example, a shovel is an extension of the hands and feet, or a telescope is an extension of the eyes, to see further. McLuhan’s view of electronic technology is that it has become an extension of our senses, mainly of sight and sound. A more complicated extension is the vehicle which is an extension of the feet, allowing the travel between places only faster and with less effort. But with every extension there is a counterpart, termed by McLuhan as “amputation.” -(Marshal McLuhan 5)
Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension. An example of an amputation would be the loss of catapult skills with the development of gunpowder and cannons. The need to be accurate with the new technology of cannons made the continued practice of catapults obsolete. The extension of a technology like the automobile, amputates the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The invention of the telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship.
McLuhan had a strong belief that mankind has always been fascinated and obsessed with these extensions; he also believed that too frequently we chose to ignore the amputations. For example, we praise the extension of high speed personal travel by the vehicle, but do not really want to be reminded of the pollution that comes with it. “Additionally, we do not want to be made to think about the time we spend alone in our cars isolated from other humans, or the fact that the resulting amputations from automobiles have made us more obese and generally less healthy. We have become people who regularly praise all extensions, and minimise all amputations. McLuhan believed that we do so at our own peril.” – (Builders of the Global Village 6)
McLuhan made prophecy about media that discussed the role of technological change, in the ways in which people communicate, even before the internet as we know it today existed and even before the ‘golden age’ of television. McLuhan’s media prophecy changed the written principle of metaphor into a historical methodology for analysing the rise and fall of successive media of communication. Marshall McLuhan saw novels as disused content of television, movie as the mechanisation of movement and gesture and photography as the mechanisation of the perspective painting and the arrested eye.
McLuhan said that the personal and social consequences of any medium result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of us, or by any new technology. This means that it was not the machine that is our primary concern, but what we did with the machine, that is its meaning or as McLuhan says ‘its message’. Characteristic of all media means that the content of the medium is always another medium in its self. The medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action, so ‘the medium is the message’. All media are very diverse thou as they are ineffectual in shaping the choses and actions of human association, for example: “Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.” – (Understanding media: the extensions of man 7)
If it was not for the radio of Hitler’s time and had TV occurred on a large scale during his reign he would have vanished quickly. Had TV come first there would have been no Hitler at all, as Hitler was great for speaking out on the air waves, but not one for visual depiction. TV is a cool medium. It rejects hot figures and hot issues and people from the hot press media. As per McLuhan we live in a processed world now. “As we enter the electronic age with its instantaneous and global movement of information, we are the first human beings to live completely within the mediated environment of the techno structure The ‘content’ of the techno structure is largely irrelevant (the ‘content’ of a new technology is always the technique which has just been superseded: movies are the content of television; novels are the content of movies).” – (Communication theory: media, technology and society 8) “It was McLuhan’s special genius to grasp at once that the content of new technologies serves as a ‘screen’, obscuring from view the disenchanted locus of the technological experience in its purely ‘formal’ or ‘spatial’ properties.” – (Communication theory: media, technology and society 9)
We see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information in this electronic age. The media has the power to translate experience into new forms, as we move towards the technological extensions of consciousness. What this means is that we can translate more and more of ourselves into other forms of expression that exceeds ourselves. “Under electric technology the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing. It is evident that ‘touch’ is not skin but the interplay of the sense, and ‘keeping in touch’ or ‘getting in touch’ is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into sound and sound into movement, taste and smell.” – (McLuhan: Understanding Media 10)
The youth of today are not permitted to approach architecture with their technological awareness, as they are growing up in a rear view mirror society. The student finds no means to involve himself in the educational scheme to relate to his mythic world of electronically processed data and experience, which for him is a clear and direct response. The new information media is a very persuasive outside world, which has created a friction in the class room between the struggle of the educational institutions and the student with his recognition of discovery, probing and exploration of the language of forms.
Digitalisation and computer technology provides ways to produce order to matter by being organising tools for structuring, configuring, transforming the matter, idea, message into physical reality. With the possibility to intervene randomness, layering, mixing, merging, distortion or fragmentise the matter to be forms of curiosity, excitement, discovery, shock or simultaneity when dealing in visual images and sounds. Media creates through simulation of hyperrealism in advertisements and entertainment, certain symbols of status, grace, beauty, power and wealth into society.
The ideas of the modern architect
Science fiction sometimes gives people an idea of what the future may hold, and thou science fiction writer rarely write novels or movies with the intention of trying to predict the future, have may times done just that. If we look at cyberpunk texts and films we can see displayed possibly the future of both internet and postmodernism. If we see postmodernism as simply reflecting the trends and conditions of present day societies, we can see that these trends and conditions are governed to a large part by a pervading media attack on these societies. As technological inventions in western culture became more and more complex, media such as film, radio, television, home theatre and internet have emerged; each of these new media represents a shift from textual and printed forms of communication to visual communication. The new generation can be described as being raised by the television, and with print media remaining popular among older generations, fewer and fewer in the younger generation read books and newspapers and because of this, print media has had to become more graphical and visual than textual. Postmodernism suggests a shift in how technology is perceived. According to Jean-François Lyotard postmodernism is a reaction to the computerization of society. Robert Venturi describes postmodernism in Complexity in Contradiction: “I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure,’ compromising rather than ‘clean,’ distorted rather than ‘straightforward,’ ambiguous rather than ‘articulated,’ perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as ‘interesting,’ conventional rather than ‘designed,’ accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, … inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity … I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicitly function. … A valid architecture … must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.” – (Robert Venturi 11)
The architects of today are showing an unprecedented architectural design in a plasticity of forms deriving from computer technology, generating new explorations of form. Topology in architecture comes about due to a shift from an interest in language theories to matter and substance in its theoretical discourses. With newly available technologies and programmes (like Rhino) allowing the malleability of form influences by these advances makes possible the realisation of highly differentiated, topological architecture. “An influx of new digital technology interconnects with other transformations taking place in global economic, social, and scientific practices cultivating fluid, continuous and responsive manifestations of architectural morphogenesis.” – (Perella 12) Over the past several years, a design influence has unfolded whereby the student today has the control of digital programmes like 3d-max, Rhino or Maya, to systematically explore and unfold architectural surfaces and form into various architectural programmes.
The first generation of architects that are not burdened under the inner workings of modernism are freer of the responsibility to take on a more modern architecture, unlike their predecessors. The first generation are bored with modernism in all of its forms, reconstructions and quotations. Architects like Frank Gehry and Eisenman have worked under the influence and inherited the consciousness of great architects of modernism like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Aalto, that preceded them. The new architects are working in an era of ever expanding thresholds of speed; efficiency and meaning are changing our comprehension of the city space. “Architecture does not get any better. Le Corbusier is just different from Palladio, Serlio, Piranesi, Giulio Romano, or anybody with a discourse. It is changing, it is responding to different social and cultural conditions.” – (Natural born CAADesigners: young American architects 13)
Globalisation, information and telecommunications; all suggest that place no longer matters, hence, a multiplicity of components, activities and culturally diversified situations are present in the new transnational and reterritorialised culture. (Reterritorialisation, can be seen in Hitler’s propaganda campaign, that lead to World War II. He had books banned and burned which contradicted his values and then replaced them with his own). The architects of the future will be influenced by notions of time, speed, movement, flows, displacement, transit, noise and liquidity; all reflecting activities, situations and needs, more than geographic implications.
The creation of countless new hyper realities, that is ephemeral, virtual and ever changing from a continuous attack of media images and mass communication, are constantly changing us and advancing at a great speed. As we perceive reality through space and time, this ever changing medium is changing our perceptions of space and time, and with this changes our experiences of reality. As this rapid growth in media speed up and we experience more and more in communications and transportation, eventually the world will seem to shrink and even more space and time are compressed. Electronic media, advertising and the entertainment industries have a far better grasp of these new hyper real experiences of time, space and place than do other disciplines including architecture.
The principal concept through which the new experiences of today are made consumable is through image and the content of the image that commodities are made to appeal to us as the consumer. As more and more the decontextualizing of image and the freeing of specific substance and place happens the more the image becomes available for endless recycling. This is increasingly common in film and music; this also seems to be the emerging case in architecture as well.
Our time is that of a time for crossing barriers, exploring into the unknown and for erasing the old categories, to look at the world from a new and exciting point of view to allow the discoveries of starling unique ways to see the world. With architects creating new forms on programs like rhino “because they can” – (Paul Davies 14) and to the fact that we are slowly turning into different forms of information, it has to be said that this is a very exciting time that we are living in. However with a question of whether it is right to be extending ourselves in all possible directions, senses and manners, is still to be seen, but like McLuhan predicted back in the 1960’s this is something of which we have become fascinated and obsessed with and with the speed of which change comes about it, make you believe that we will see these changes sometime soon.
Technology and digital technology have pushed media in unbounded space where neither is independent of each other; this can also be seen as a by-product of advancement in communication technologies. This creation of ever changing media leads to a collapse of meaning and destruction of distinctions between media and reality, and to the point that we over extending ourselves, whether that be through the architecture of virtual realities to the point of our natural condition not being enough, for examples, the idea behind the film ‘The Matrix’.
We see is that the malleability of form and programme influenced by new technologies make realisation of highly differentiated, topological architecture possible. This media producing complex and non-standard forms in architecture is going to be a small part in a greater widespread shift in technical change. This paradigm shift in architecture is an on-going cultural adaptation of society to an electronic environment.