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Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium

reviewed by Rick Voithofer - 2001

coverTitle: Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium
Author(s): Paul Levinson
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 041519251X, Pages: 226, Year: 1999
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The cover of Paul Levinson’s Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium depicts the face of Marshal McLuhan emerging from a printout of computer code. The farther one holds the cover from one’s eyes the clearer one can see the details of McLuhan’s face. This reveals the underlying metaphor of the book – the farther we get in time from McLuhan’s theories the more clear they become. Digital McLuhan is driven by the notion that McLuhan’s ideas were waiting for the world to catch up with them. With the emergence of the information age and the continued rapid adoption of its primary conduit, the Internet, that time has come.

Levinson, a media scholar, science fiction writer, and friend of McLuhan, writes from all three perspectives. He weaves his understanding and interpretations of McLuhan’s work with personal accounts of his relationship with McLuhan while continually connecting his observations to the social, cultural, psychological and economic conditions of the information age. The book offers those new to McLuhan an accessible overview of his major works and presents those more familiar with his ideas justifications for McLuhan’s continued relevance. Digital McLuhan is lucid and entertaining as it offers both a defense and celebration of McLuhan’s work and life.

I read Digital McLuhan from the perspective of an educational media designer interested in the ways people use media to construct knowledge. From this perspective the book provides productive ways of thinking about educational technology and distance education. As an early online educator and university teacher, Levinson often writes from a pedagogical perspective in his discussion of the impacts of computers and the Internet on learning. Even though his renderings of online learning are often uncritical as he celebrates the promise of constant access to unlimited information and learning communities, his descriptions of the cultural dissemination and impacts of media offer educators important insights into the ways that personal computers and the Internet have been integrated in and are changing the ways that we learn, work, and are entertained.

Digital McLuhan is divided into 15 chapters. The first chapter establishes the context of the book by offering short summaries of McLuhan’s major concepts in relation to various media including film, television, and the Internet. Many of the chapters address in greater detail the relationship of McLuhan’s major theories to the Internet and the digital age including: "The Medium Is The Message" (chapter 3), "Acoustic Space" (chapter 4), "Discarnate Man" (chapter 5), "The Global Village" (chapter 6), "Light-through, Light-on" (chapter 8), and "Hot and Cool" (chapter 9). Chapter 2, "The Reluctant Explicator" builds Levinson’s defense of McLuhan’s ideas and writing style by suggesting that they are more appropriate to the non-linear, threaded nature of hypertext, online discussions, and the Web. Chapter 7, "The Fate of the Center" argues that the power and content centers that previously controlled media and education are no longer holding because people have on-demand access through the Internet to vast amounts of information from multiple sources. Chapter 10 "The Rusted Gatekeeper" describes how anyone with a computer and Internet access can become a publisher with access to a large audience without the gate keeping of publishers and the costs of paper, printing and distribution. Chapter 11 "Serfs to Surfs" looks at how the media convergence created by the personal computer and the Internet has combined work and play and thereby has changed the nature of both by blurring the distinction between the two. Chapter 12 "Beauty Machines" outlines how the digital age is turning all previous media including, television, print and film into art as a result of the nostalgia of older populations (i.e. Baby Boomers) while younger generations inaugurate the Internet as the primary communicator and ratifier of culture. Chapter 13, "Balinese at Work" observes how information allows us to save time and be more productive because of the speed, immediacy, and growing access provided by computer networks like the Internet. Chapter 14, "Through a Glass, Brightly" describes how we often look backwards at old media while moving forward to new media thereby initially obscuring the revolutionary functions of the new media while framing it (i.e. the Internet) through the social and cultural standards, expectations, and diffusions of older media (i.e. radio, TV, film, print, etc.). In the final chapter, "Spirals of Media Evolution", Levinson explains McLuhan’s "Laws of Media.", McLuhan’s attempt at a unifying theory of his ideas about media. The four laws that trace the life cycle of mass media include, amplification (e.g. radio amplifies the human voice), obsolescence (e.g. radio makes print obsolete as a source of news), retrieval (e.g. radio retrieves the town crier), and reversal (e.g. radio reverses into audio-visual television).

Like many media scholars, Levinson often paints in broad strokes as he discusses the social and cultural effects of the information age. What is lost in such depictions are significant if one believes that culture (including popular culture) takes on its meaning in the specificity of local contexts. A reading of cultural studies media scholars like Stuart Hall and David Morley along side Digital McLuhan would provide a valuable contrast to the cultural silences that exist in the book. Despite these structured absences, Digital McLuhan is a valuable book to anyone who uses media to teach. It offers thought provoking insights into how the information millennium is redefining our understandings of education, work, play, and art.


Rick Voithofer is a professor at The Ohio State University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 1, 2001, p. 138-140
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10547, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:32:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Rick Voithofer
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    Rick Voithofer is a visiting assistant professor in the School of Educational Policy and Leadership at Ohio State University. His scholarship focuses on applying cultural studies to the design of educational media, developing culturally relevant new media pedagogies, and the use of media production as a research methodology.
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