April 6, 2003
McLuhan: Live and in Real Time
The War: Live and in real time…
In 1991, at the outbreak of Gulf War I, I sat riveted to my television. Live green visions of Baghdad, tracer bullets emanating from both ground and sky, shocked me with a new reality. I kept repeating to myself: “I am not watching The War of the Worlds.”
What I was witnessing, what we all were witnessing crossed a fuzzy line between science fiction and reality. And I wondered if we were capable of discerning the difference.
I was single back then. But I was concerned about the effect these visions would have on my young niece and nephew. This was their first war. While these compelling images were shocking to me, would they have a similar effect on them? I was literally on the edge of my seat. Were they? The hyperreality of video games merged with the reality of war.
Marshall McLuhan called television a “cool” medium. The scanned images displayed on our relatively small screens offered only a limited amount of information. It’s coolness required participation, that is, the involvement of the user. Conversely, McLuhan deemed motion pictures to be a “hot” medium, full of detail and nuance. The more detailed, the less it required the viewer’s interaction to fill in between the lines. Television, he thought, was much more of a reactive medium than film.
McLuhan believed the tools we created for producing and absorbing imagery were becoming literal and very tactile extensions of our own bodies. Medical students viewing closed-circuit instruction in surgery reported sensations of actually performing the surgery rather than just watching it. Yet, he noted the contradictory quality of television’s power to engage its audience:
The [John F.] Kennedy funeral…manifested the power of TV to involve an entire population in a ritual process… Most of all, the Kennedy event provides an opportunity for noting a paradoxical nature of the “cool” TV medium. It involves us in moving depth, but it does not excite, agitate, or arouse.
Today many of us in new media have embraced and have expanded upon McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” But even before his death in 1980 (and for some time thereafter) his theories held little significance to theorists and cultural wonks of the time. With Gulf War II Sarah Boxer (New York Times, free registration required) feels it’s time to look once again at his work, particularly as it pertains to TV coverage of the hostilities on the roads to Baghdad.
Boxer: “The tanks rolling into Iraq from the south were not just tanks but extensions of marching legs and protective skin. The night vision goggles were extensions of eyes. And what about those television cameras attached to the tanks? …[They exert] a powerful effect on the audience. Suddenly everyone watching television is dragged into war.”
Friday, CNN “embedded” reporter Walter Rodgers and his film crew came upon a wounded Iraqi soldier soon after a skirmish with the US 7th Calvary. While talking to network anchor Anderson Cooper “live and in real time,” Rodgers narrated while the cameraman recorded the crew attending to the soldier.
I was there. Yet I was simultaneously walking on a treadmill at my gym (ironically in the basement of the US Department of Justice). I am no longer in awe of events like these. In fact, I can hardly watch these visual diaries from the front. I can’t make myself participate, to be immersed in their lives. This is not an anti-war statement. The experience simply leaves me feeling shallow as I realize the dissociative nature of my reactions. When viewing these reports in a group, as I was on Friday, I was not only attending to the wounded soldier but was noticing everyone watching in the gym. As soon as the report was over, we all returned to our exercises without comment.
Boxer: Meanwhile, just as the audience feels a part of the army, the army becomes part of the audience. American troops on an aircraft carrier watch CNN to see how the war is playing and progressing. Soldiers are watching other soldiers on television.
Saddam probably is as well.
Boxer: “…there is a general confusion as to who is acting and who is watching. …Are the television cameras the witnesses to war, or are they part of the weaponry? Or both?”
NBC reporter Peter Arnett lost his job when he decided to become the subject of an Iraqi television interview. Afterwards, he contritely apologized for his confusion, calling himself a “casualty of the information war.” Giving his opinion freely he made it look easy to turn from a chronicler to an active participant to a wounded soldier in the conflict. Within days he was hired by Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya. His ability to effortlessly crossover should be studied further. He is a prime example of a 21st century citizen.
With so much confusion it’s no wonder the Iraqi people’s public facades are cautious as Coalition troops make their way through the Iraqi desert to the center of Baghdad. As Boxer points out: “If Saddam Hussein can appear to be in power on television, he is in power. If the United States military can show the world it is winning, then it is winning.”
We are all struggling with how to absorb, interpret, and react to the images we are experiencing in the Middle East. The difficulty in moving from one universe to another is not reserved just for those who are physically there.
Now that I am a parent (and with twelve years of “new” media education behind me), I’m even more concerned about the effects of the media’s war coverage on my children. I wonder about the diary of information we are keeping for them. How will history be reflected and interpreted by the images we are making from this event? And what will their involvement be like in future pan-cultural ritual processes?
McLuhan laid the foundation for understanding media. But, now that we’ve created the tools and technology to immerse ourselves in simultaneous realities, what will we do with all that power? Will we even think much about it?