One of the many environments available within Lawnmower Racing Mania 2007

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.

The wheel is an extension of the foot; the book is an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin; electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.

Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change. (26-41)

. . .The technology of the railroad created the myth of a green pasture world of innocence. It satisfied man’s desire to withdraw from society, symbolized by the city, to a rural setting where he could recover his animal and natural self. It was the pastoral ideal, a Jeffersonian world, an agrarian democracy which was intended to serve as a guide for social policy. It gave us the darkest suburbia and its lasting symbol, the lawnmower. (72)

Marshall McLuhan, The medium is the MASSAGE (1967)

One difficulty with this passage is McLuhan’s conception of media environment—environments don’t usually provide massages. In fact, it seems more likely that in order to qualify as an environment the condition of occupying it should be our ignorance of it. Fish don’t think about water. It isn’t the natural condition of man to contemplate the air he breathes nor the ground he walks on—we ignore our environment. Unless the environment is particularly hostile, it won’t register. And even then, like a Minnesota winter, we still ignore it if at all possible. In short, we tend to isolate or senses from the environment through many of these extensions, stroking nature through a fur, leather, or virtual reality glove.

Has there been a change in the ratio of sense perceptions? The more historical research I do, the less I am convinced of that. The onslaught of the visual, lamented/embraced by many before/after McLuhan seems more like a case of selective amnesia, a desire to believe that ours is a unique position. Oliver Wendell Holmes certainly thought so in 1864:

War is a new thing to all of us who are not in the last quarter of their century. We are learning many strange matters from our fresh experience. And besides, there are new conditions which make war as it is with us very different from war as it has been.

The first and obvious difference consists in the fact that the whole nation is now penetrated by the ramifications of a network of iron nerves which flash sensation and volition backward and forward to and from towns and provinces as if they were organs and limbs of a single living body. The second is the vast system of iron muscles which, as it were, move the limbs of a mighty organism one upon another. What was the railroad-force which put the Sixth Regiment in Baltimore on the 19th of April but a contraction and extension of the arm of Massachusetts with a clenched fist of bayonets at the end of it?

This perpetual intercommunication, joined to the power of instantaneous action, keeps us always alive with excitement. It is not a breathless courier who comes back with the report from an army we have lost sight of for a month, nor a single bulletin which tells us we are to know for a week some great engagement, but almost hourly paragraphs, laden with truth or falsehood as the case may be, making us restless for always the last fact or rumor they are telling. (10-11)

O.W. Holmes, “Bread and the Newspaper” Soundings from the Atlantic (1864)

McLuhan never anticipated lawnmower racing. Holmes did not anticipate the impact of the lawnmower, the video game, or virtual reality. But Holmes certainly seems to embrace newspapers the way people have come to embrace blogs.