In the first chapter of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan concerns himself with the way media alters the scale and form of social relations. Moving primarily between the subjects of the technology of writing and what he calls “electric technology”, I believe as a way to describe digital media, the language of “scale and form”—usually of “human associations and action” or “human affairs”—is employed to denote the way in which technology influences human interaction/communication (8,9). The idea that the medium of technology is its message lies at the heart, or the top, of his argument through which he generates historical and social claims on what he calls the electric age. McLuhan’s engages with the argument that the medium is the message through attempts to compare Western relationships with pre-electric (which I think describes the increase in digital media and mediums) technology to the present. He tends to use this comparative analysis to formulate cultural critiques and arguments on the way people of the electric age relate to media of that time.
McLuhan also claims that Western technology has resulted in an increase in communication and contact between the West and non-West. One problematic that can be noticed in his attempt to explore technology and communication within the context of international and cross-cultural relations is his top-down analysis. Imbued in the chapter is a hegemonic Western lens of examining human relationships to technology and communication as it is informed by culture and socioeconomics. We can see this too when describing non-Western communities, usually African, as “cultures of prehistory”, which begs us to question why one would think that any community or society is without and disconnected from a history (16). Within his discussion on cross-cultural communication and literacy, he suggests that “we [Westerner] are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literature milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture (16). McLuhan appears to understand the concept literacy within the limiting confines of Western paradigms and employs a language, a way of speaking about “the native” and their culture and economy as primitive in comparison to Western culture. McLuhan’s claim that we are numb to the introductions of different or “new” technologies and unable to cope with the dynamism of our technological environment tends to forget that communities themselves are dynamic and adapt to the way technology evolves.
From this perspective, the author easily falls into an analysis implicit with a superiority complex. From McLuhan’s claims to Western technologies’ influence on the non-West, questions around different forms of literacies, especially as informed by differences in culture, history, and political economies, is worth consideration as an addition to the conversation. This allows room to question the influence and significance of non-Western technologies on the emergence and development of Western technology.