Project 69: What I Learned On The Project

With the exception of its Bibliography and Appendices, Report on Project in Understanding New Media concludes with a section on ‘What I Learned On The Project (1959-1960)’.1 The final sentences of this final section read:

Another basic aspect of the electronic is this: it telescopes centuries of development and evolution into weeks or months. In speeding up actual change, it makes the understanding of change much more feasible just as a movie of an organic process may reveal years of growth in seconds. But such acceleration of growth in no way prepares the human community to adapt to it. Suddenly there is a nine foot redwood where in the morning you had experienced a bedroomOur educational, political and legal establishments are scarcely contrived to cope with such change. There is no mercy for culture-lag in our new technology. There is no possibility of human adaption. Yet in all these situations we confront only ourselves and extensions of our own senses. There is always the possibility of escape into understanding. We can live around these new situations, even if we cannot live with them. (…) In purely realistic terms, I feel that the associated power of specialist and vested interest of many kinds definitely insures that we shall fail to meet any and every challenge that is offered to us in the electronic age. Why should we [come to] understand [our] new media when no generation of the Western past has understood [its]2 media? However, now that we have begun to [try to] understand all media for the first time (see H.A. Innis, Empire and  Communications) there is the outside possibility that we might decide to consider them as fit objects of study and control.3

McLuhan ended his Report in this way by implicating the great problem of time plural, namely, the problem of understanding the relation4 of “development and evolution” (aka “adaption”), on the one hand, to what can come only “suddenly”, on the other. This was a labyrinthine question which had been raised by great minds for millennia and never solved intellectually or socially (“study and control”). McLuhan was plainly divided as to the prospects5, but knew that in either case, utter disaster or understanding at last, “we confront only ourselves”.

In fact, McLuhan’s lifelong enterprise might be put as the question of what is to become of human extension? Will it continue only outward to oblivion or turn back inward to what is already there, namely, the underlying prior possibility of such extension? And of its potential return?

On the way to these concluding thoughts, ‘McLuhan made a series of related points:

Correction for Lasswell formula6 [Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect] — not who is speaking to whom, but what is speaking to whom. Lasswell ignores the media, except speech; but obviously if a person is speaking into a P.A. system or into a radio microphone, etc., the who and the what are profoundly transformed.

McLuhan’s observation here is indeed obvious enough: media do transform who we are, what we communicate and to whom we communicate. Yet this massive field has been virtually ignored even while its world-transforming effects have gigantically accumulated.  Now in 2018, almost 40 years after McLuhan’s death, in an age of grossly inflated fake news and unforgivably inflated real deaths, his observations about information war ring more true than ever:

Today, when the largest commodity of all is information itself, war means no longer the movement of hardware [like weapons], but of information. What had previously been “a peace time” activity within our own boundaries now becomes the major “cold-war” activity across frontiers.


Today, civil defence would seem to consist in protection against media fallout.

But beyond the pressing practical need for the investigation of media in matters of war and peace, there was also the prior question of just who we are as human beings:

Media are extensions of the human senses. They modify the patterns of human association while remaining rooted in this or that sense, and these staples are not limited to any geographical area, but are co-extensive with the human family itself.

  1. Presumably this section (and its others like ‘Purpose of the Project’, ‘Materials Developed by the Project’, ‘Itinerary And Summary Of Activities Of The Consultant’, etc) was required by the terms of the research grant.
  2. McLuhan has “all media” here, a phrase evidently intended to contrast with Innis studying “all media” in the next sentence. But behind this matter of vocabulary and style lay his conviction that we can come to understand any medium at all only by understanding media per se.
  3. It would seem that McLuhan wrote ‘What I Learned On The Project’ hurriedly and with little or no revision.  Awkward phrasing and repetitions are common in it.  The apparent explanation for such haste is given in the ‘Itinerary and Summary of Activities of the Consultant’ section: “Project 69 travel was amply rewarding in insight and friendship. Unfortunately, it had adverse effects on my health, requiring hospitalization and a long period of rest, delaying the conclusion of these reports and the summarizing of the results of this project.”
  4. “Relation”: both the fundamental difference and the equally fundamental harmony of the two.
  5. Soon after this, in 1962, McLuhan would publish two papers on our dim prospects: ‘Prospect’ in Canadian Art magazine and ‘Prospect of America’, a review in UTQ of The Image: What Happened to the American Dream by Daniel Boorstin.
  6. Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) and his communication model. Lasswell already appears in the references of Harold Innis — both had their PhDs from the University of Chicago in the early 1920s. Lasswell’s concerns with the political, social and psychopathological implications of communications might usefully be compared and contrasted to those of McLuhan.