Project 69: Purpose

Report on Project in Understanding New Media: ‘Purpose of Project’1

  • Project 69 in Understanding Media proposed (…) a new tactic (…), namely to consider not so much the constituents nor the “content” of media, as their effects. I therefore raise the question at once: “Why have the effects of media, whether speech, writing, photography or radio, been overlooked by social observers through the past 3500 years of the Western world?” The answer to that question (…) is in the power of the media themselves to impose their own assumptions upon our modes of perception. Our media have always constituted the parameters and the framework for the objectives of our Western world.
  • In top-management study and planning today assumptions and objectives are recognized to be distinct (…) “Now, the primary difference between an assumption and an objective, is that an assumption pertains to things that are beyond your control, and an objective pertains to things that are achieved through your own effort.”2  What the writer of this brief does not know is that assumptions can also come within the range of prediction and control just as soon as it is recognized that the new media of communication in any age, as they penetrate and transform the older media, are the source of new assumptions and consequently the causes of change in our objectives.
  • Media study has not begun to approach such awareness because it has not established the sort of “self-sustained growth” enabled by the “take-off mechanism”3 of social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information for eye and for ear and for touch and kinetics.4 Project 69 set out to bring media study within the range of [such] expanding awareness here indicated by Rostow5 in economics. My assumptions, then, were (…) that such understanding was quite possible [and that] media assumptions do not have to remain subliminal…

In these passages from his short (965 words on 3.5 typed pages) introductory overview of Project 69, McLuhan makes a series of points which remain startlingly unconsidered today — almost 60 years later. These points may be summarized as follows:

  1. It is necessary to differentiate between conscious and (currently) unconscious (or “subliminal”) factors in experience, corresponding to objectivesachieved through your own effort” and assumptions “beyond your control”.
  2. But “assumptions do not have to remain subliminal” and, consequently, “assumptions can also come within the range of prediction and control”.
  3. Assumptions as “the causes of change in our objectives” must be investigated through “a new tactic (…) to consider (…) their effects“, aka through the objectives they engender.
  4. Media are the vectors of assumptions and therefore are the vectors of the effects and objectives of assumptions: “media have always constituted the parameters and the framework for (…) objectives”.6
  5. “In these circumstances Understanding Media must mean the understanding of the effects of media.”
  6. However, media as the vectors of assumptions can as much obscure assumptions as illuminate them. Everything depends on making the transition from the former to the latter.
  7. New media can illuminate through being “the source of new assumptions and  consequently the causes of change in our objectives”.
  8. The new media of today can enable the needed illumination of assumptions (dual genitive!) only if their study is revolutionized through the sort of “social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information” as described for economics by Rostow in The Stages of Economic Growth (and, two years later in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn for the physical sciences in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions7).  As McLuhan cited from Rostow’s Stages in The Gutenberg Galaxy, this is the metamorphosis in thought and practice initiating “that decisive interval in the history of a society when [“self-sustained”8 economic or scientific] growth becomes its normal condition” (Gutenberg Galaxy, 90).

In sum:

The globe has become on one hand a community of learning [but so far only in fields other than media], and at the same time, with regard to the tightness of its inter-relationships, the globe has become a tiny village. Patterns of human association based on slower media have become overnight not only irrelevant and obsolete, but a threat to continued existence and to sanity.

This mortal threat even to our “continued existence” has its ground in the retention of pre-nuclear assumptions and their objectives in a nuclear age, and, at the same time, in the impediment by those pre-nuclear assumptions of the sort of media study that might alone bring assumptions “within the range of prediction and control“. This blockage occurs because recognition, let alone study, of underlying assumptions (especially its own underlying assumptions) necessarily remains “subliminal” within the Gutenberg galaxy. For this is that epoch whose very world-altering success depends upon its proceeding in principle upon a single level only: “the single-plane approach of the older literacy“.9 Within the terms of pre-nuclear objectives there is, therefore, not only no defence against their fatal implications, there is their limitless assertion. As McLuhan noted in the same year as Project 69:

the subliminal legacy of print can have strange effects in the highest scientific quarters of the post-print age. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media)

A peculiarly insidious example of this point is provided by all current McLuhan ‘research’. But  McLuhan himself summed up his work as follows: 

All the recommendations can be reduced to this one: Study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.10

McLuhan ‘research’ thus far has had — and has today — no other objective than to hoick his work back into the Gutenberg galaxy where assumptions are once again subject to “blackout”. In this way, McLuhan has been — and continues to this day to be — harnessed to the very forces he desperately attempted to combat.

  1. All citations in this post, unless otherwise identified, are taken from this introductory ‘Purpose of Project’ section of McLuhan’s Report.
  2. Citation from “a Westinghouse ‘Long Range Planning’ brief of August 3, 1960″. This is one of many references in the Report which are later than the June 30, 1960 date given on its cover.
  3. Citation from W. W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth (Cambridge University Press, 1960) — one of the many 1960 books extensively cited in Project 69 (like Gombrich, Art and Illusion and Békésy, Experiments in Hearing). Despite the date on its cover of June 30, 1960, McLuhan seems to have completed the Report only late in 1960 or even in 1961.
  4. “Eye (…) ear and (…) touch and kinetics” is the formula for McLuhan’s proposed elementary structure of media and experience: the ratio of eye to ear as modulated by touch and kinetics.
  5. See note 3 above.
  6. McLuhan in a 1961 review of Edward Hall’s The Silent Language wrote of “the effects of media in setting the assumptions of cultures”. There is a circularity here of the highest importance: media have the effect of resetting what is prior to effects!  It is this unaccountable temporal power of media which McLuhan wanted to direct towards — understanding media.
  7. Kuhn’s study was cited infrequently by McLuhan in the last decade of his life beginning with From Cliché to Archetype in 1970. He seems to have been alerted to it by Barrington Nevitt in ‘Predicting Scientific Prediction’ which appeared in the new series of Explorations in the University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 13:3, 49-64, May, 1967.
  8. Full passage quoting Rostow cited above from Report on Project in Understanding New Media: “Media study has not begun to approach such awareness because it has not established the sort of “self-sustained growth” enabled by the “take-off mechanism” of social change involved in the shaping and speeding of information”.
  9. See ‘Multi-levels of simultaneous presentation‘.
  10. W.H. Allen and H.M. McLuhan, Title VII Research Abstract’ (for Report on Project in Understanding New Media), Audio Visual Communication Review, 9:4, 1961. Re William H Allen, in the ‘Itinerary’ included in the Report McLuhan recorded: “February 28-March 5 (1960): The DAVI (Department of  Audiovisual Instruction of the National Education Association) Convention in Cincinnati where I was a member of a continuing panel. The major effect of this conference for my  studies was the sudden awareness that my approach to the media is close to the Systems Development type of effort, I owe this discovery to William Allen, Rand Corporation, and James Finn, DAVI President. As a result I have begun to work with our electrical engineering department here at Toronto.”