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A Dangerous Luxury

Leaves in the background, with Marshall McLuhan quote overlaid
– Marshall McLuhan

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” ― Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan made an important contribution to the study of media. He wrote a book called The Medium is the Message which is still quoted to this day. McLuhan’s work was concerned with putting knowledge, media content and technology use into social context. He showed how having only a partial view of society and taking things at face value undermines progress. You have to know what you don’t know.

The following is the McLuhan quote in context. The excerpt comes from The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962).

The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures, as Harold Innis was the first to show. (1962: 48)


Harold Innis, in Empire and Communications, was the first to pursue this theme and to explain in detail the simple truth of the Cadmus myth. The Greek King Cadmus, who introduced the phonetic alphabet to Greece, was said to have sown the dragon’s teeth and that they sprang up armed men. (The dragon’s teeth may allude to the old hieroglyphic forms.) Innis also explained why print causes nationalism and not tribalism; and why print causes price systems and markets such as cannot exist without print. In short, Harold Innis was the first person to hit upon the process of change as implicit in the forms of media technology. The present book is a footnote of explanation to his work. (1962 50)


Innis in his later work tackled configurations rather than sequences of events in their interplay. In his earlier work, like The Fur Trade in Canada, he had been a conventional arranger of evidence in perspective packages of inert, static components. As he began to understand the structuring powers of media to impose their assumptions subliminally, he strove to record the interaction of media and cultures: “Improvements in communication, like the Irish bull of the bridge which separated the two countries, make for increased difficulties of understanding. The cable compelled contraction of language and facilitated a rapid widening between the English and American languages. In the vast realm of fiction in the Anglo-Saxon world, the influence of the newspaper . . . the cinema and the radio has been evident in the best seller and the creation of special classes of readers with little prospect of communication between them.” Innis is here speaking with ease of the interplay among literary and non-literary forms exactly as in the earlier quotation he was speaking of the interplay between the mechanization of the vernaculars and the rise of military, nationalist states.

There is nothing wilful or arbitrary about the Innis mode of expression. Were it to be translated into perspective prose, it would not only require huge space, but the insight into the modes of interplay among forms of organization would also be lost. Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of the urgent need for insight. A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding. As Innis got more insights he abandoned any mere point of view in his presentation of knowledge. When he interrelates the development of the steam press with “the consolidation of the vernaculars” and the rise of nationalism and revolution he is not reporting anybody’s point of view, least of all his own. He is setting up a mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight. It was a prime effect of print in altering human sense ratios, that it substituted static point of view for insight into causal dynamics. We shall consider this further on. But Innis makes no effort to “spell out” the interrelations between the components in his galaxy. He offers no consumer packages in his later work, but only doit-yourself kits, like a symbolist poet or an abstract painter. Literature and the Press by Louis Dudek provides a straight-away perspective picture of the rise of the steam press, but the effects on language, on war, and on the emergence of new literary forms are not mentioned since they would require a non-literary or mythic form in order to be explained at all. (1962: 216-217)

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