This review adheres to all four of Judge Joel Pearce's laws for writing DVD reviews.
"We become what we behold. We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us."—Marshall McLuhan
Without question, Marshall McLuhan was one of the most influential thinkers of the last 50 years, even though he is often overlooked on such lists. He is one of the fathers of media and cultural studies, developing multidisciplinary theories that focused on things like television and advertising long before we all realized how important these things were to in our society. He has left an impressive legacy. McLuhan's Wake examines the impact of his ideas, while also telling us the story of his life.
Facts of the Case
In the latter part of his career, Marshall McLuhan worked with his son, trying to develop a strict set of laws that could be applied to any new medium. After years of work and study, drawing from both ancient Greek philosophy and contemporary critical theory, they came up with the following four questions:
• What will this tool enhance?
McLuhan argued that it is critical that these questions are asked when new media technologies are introduced. We live in a world that moves so quickly that new technologies are widely accepted before we fully understand their nature and consequences. To accept the use of a tool like the Internet without carefully considering its power is no different than the use of nuclear technology or genetics research. McLuhan's Wake walks through the framework of this theory while showing how McLuhan came to these ideas through his own experiences.
McLuhan's Wake is packaged as both a documentary and an educational package for McLuhan's four laws. Because of that, I'm going to assess it with a wider range of criteria, and I will also explore the strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of this theory.
As a documentary, McLuhan's Wake is largely successful. It has been assembled with love and care, creating a touching portrait of a highly respected thinker. We learn much about McLuhan's private life, which reveals the perspective from which he approached his theories. His life was full of major victories, equally major hardships, and an ascent into a very strange type of fame. While he did a great deal of pioneering in the field of cultural studies, he never gained much respect in the academic community during his lifetime. As he did become famous, it was as a strange anomaly, clearly brilliant but equally opaque to the people who heard him speak. He remained highly critical of the popular culture that he studied, to the point that he alienated many media producers.
McLuhan's Wake is technically well assembled, though with a few distracting quirks. Audio during the interview footage is panned across the sound stage, which is highly distracting and annoying. The documentary also uses contemporary footage in strange ways, not explaining well how it connects to what is being said.
As good as the biography segments of the documentary are, McLuhan's Wake really shines when it focuses on the theories instead. Director Kevin McMahon uses the biography as a launching point to explore the four laws of media, showing how they apply to current society. These tastes of McLuhan's theories are delightful, but all too short in a 94 minute documentary. Marshall McLuhan had many fascinating ideas that have become increasingly relevant as time has gone on. For me, the four laws aren't as revolutionary as some of his other ideas, such as "the medium is the message," hot and cool media, and the global village. I would have liked to see the film focus on some of these ideas in a clear, organized way. Instead, we get short gems of knowledge delivered largely without context, which is one of the major complaints McLuhan had with his own fame: that people enjoyed his ideas but never stuck around to understand how important they were or how to apply them properly. Ultimately, the documentary has the same problem that so many do. It's a useful introduction to McLuhan, but people who know nothing about him won't be drawn to the DVD. Those who do check it out will find it doesn't dig deeply enough into the theories to be truly useful.
Which brings me to the theory itself. According to McLuhan (and the creators of McLuhan's Wake), the media laws tetrad can be applied to any technology, even those that have nothing to do with media distribution. I think the four laws are still relevant, but that they are much more limited than McLuhan would have liked. Let's consider a couple examples. According to McLuhan, every technology does the following four things:
• Extends some human trait or experience
Let's take a look at a technology that McLuhan didn't explore. Email has become an important new technology for communication, and the four laws can be applied quite easily. It extends written communication in a practical, efficient way. It has effectively obsolesced letter-writing as a practical way to deliver fast information. It retrieves the long-lost method of the telegraph, in which a brief, information-driven communication could reach long distances instantaneously. We have found, though, that spam and junk mail have reversed the efficiency of email as a practical means of communication. We now have more communications to filter through to get the information we want, and we find after a short vacation that our inboxes are literally overflowing with new information to deal with. McLuhan's theory applies well here, and we should think carefully before we become to reliant on this new medium for communication.
So far, so good. The problems arrive when we apply this theory to non-cultural technologies. Consider the microwave oven. While it does extend our ability to heat/warm food quickly, it has not fully obsolesced other cooking technologies. Most of us still have stoves, ovens, and toasters, meaning that the only thing the microwave has truly replaced is the popcorn popper. I've been trying to think of a way that the microwave oven has retrieved some long-lost method or experience, but I honestly can't think of one. You could argue that an over-reliance on microwave ovens results in overcooked, disappointing food, but that isn't the reverse of quickly cooked food, just a demonstration that the technology has serious limitations. Most new technologies don't fit comfortably into McLuhan's laws, really just those that deal with communications and media production.
This is not that serious a limitation, but there are other problems as well. Technology has continued to develop more quickly over the past twenty years, and new communication technology isn't straightforward enough to study simply using these four questions. While it's easy to apply this theory to email technology, it becomes impossible if we try to apply it to the Internet as a whole. It has come to extend so many existing experiences, that we would just end up with a tangled mess if we started to assemble a list. There's also some question as to how practical the four laws are. By the time we can answer these questions, the technology has already gained a foothold. It has already obsolesced another technology, one that we won't get back. The risk of grasping onto this theory too tightly is that we will become jaded by the new opportunities, and never be willing to enjoy what they have to offer. At the same time, the core of this theory states that we need to consider not only the capabilities of new technologies, but the consequences. That doesn't just go for military technologies either. Communication and media technologies are changing the way we live, and we shouldn't just accept that at face value.
At times, the voices in this documentary think too much of McLuhan and his theories. While he was a truly brilliant theorist with groundbreaking ideas well ahead of his time, some of these ideas are no longer as applicable as they once were. McLuhan was also not alone in his critical crusade. At the same time as he was doing his work here, theorists such as Barthes and Baudrillard were approaching similar ideas. In the past few decades, media studies has continued to evolve, and there are new and more relevant theories arriving all the time. The four laws were an important part of media studies at the time of their arrival, and they are an important stepping-stone to the kinds of discussions we need to be having about the media, but there will never be a single theory that will always apply to every new technology. They were simply an idea that worked well at the time, for the world that McLuhan inhabited. Now, we need to use them as a basis for a new approach to the constantly changing way that we interact with each other and the media.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
These limitations aside, The Disinformation Company has used this opportunity to deliver a unique DVD package. It's foolish to talk about a film and special features here, as the documentary itself is only a small part of the overall package. The technical quality is fairly strong, a clean letterboxed widescreen image and stereo sound. There are a few things that fit in the special features category, such as the whole "maelstrom" story and the complete interview with McLuhan's widow. The shooting script and notes are included on the disc in pdf form, as well as a number of other documents. McLuhan's aphorisms are just a collection of cute sayings taken out of context, but there is also a handy bibliography and biography for teachers or others who want to dig a bit deeper. The director's notes is a nice alternative to the usual interview, and the study guide is useful for teachers who are interested in utilizing the four laws. Printable pdf files on documentaries aren't used often enough, and this highlights how effective they can be. The DVD also has some four laws examples, which would help for new viewers, confused by the technical terminology. To cap it all off, there are several very long audio clips of McLuhan lecturing, the score from the documentary, and some audio interviews. If you do want to get a crash course on this material, it would be hard to find a better way than this disc.
As far as casual viewers go, it's hard to go wrong with McLuhan's Wake. It offers an impressive introduction to McLuhan's four media laws, which are a bit out of date but still useful in developing a fundamental knowledge of media and cultural studies. If you are already well versed in cultural theory, it won't be very useful unless you teach media studies, in which case it could prove to be a valuable resource. Some of McLuhan's ideas and concerns have become even more relevant since his death, even though he hasn't been able to update his own writings to incorporate these new mediums and technologies. Like anything, McLuhan's Wake needs to be approached with caution and a critical eye. McLuhan would have wanted us to approach his own theories like that, I think. If only the creators of this set had done that a little more.
Not guilty. This is a great way to showcase a theorist's ideas for newcomers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Disinformation Company
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