Last week’s “Classes without Quizzes” event featured Dr. Adriana Grimaldi, a lecturer in the department of language studies, discussing the connection between philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli and theorist Marshall McLuhan, and their impact on society.
Scholars consider both Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance philosopher, and McLuhan, the twentieth-century media theorist, as prominent public contemporaries of their respective times. Grimaldi recognized the two individuals as “products of their time […] they were very good observers, very astute observers of what was going on in their day and were able to analyze and evaluate the importance of that.”
McLuhan, a Canadian professor and a sensational figure in media studies, is perhaps most widely known for his perspectives on “mediums” and their ability to alter the particular message being observed, or, in McLuhan’s own words “the medium is the message.” Grimaldi explains that McLuhan’s quote is so highly integrated into his common identity that “it is the shorthand that we use for McLuhan, they become synonymous with each other.”
To provide some context to this famous quote, Grimaldi presents an analogy focused on the methods used when breaking up with a partner. “The message is you’re trying to break up with someone [but] how is that message changed, how is that message perceived differently, depending on what method of communication you choose to use?” asks Grimaldi
She presented attendees of the lecture with four options to communicate the break up: phone call, e-mail, text, or a post on social media and asked which would be most or least hurtful to the receiver of the unfortunate news. Many found the phone call to be the most intimate method. Regardless of the audience’s individual answers, Grimaldi emphasized that the medium used to communicate a message is important.
Grimaldi notes that a medium is “something that we put in place outside of ourselves to help us understand the world at large.” She mentions mediums of immense proportions, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and their effect on how information is spread.
McLuhan anticipated this phenomenon when he said that “the new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.” The arrival of electronic media and the communicative power that it grants an individual would allow for interconnectedness in a manner unprecedented in history.
Many believe McLuhan to have predicted the existence of the Internet decades before its first rendition through his insights into the “global village,” the idea of condensing the whole world into one “village” through electronic media, and what that might entail.
Despite the positive connotation that concepts like interconnectedness might hold, social mediums such as Facebook have, in truth, made the general community anti-social.
“Social media was supposed to enhance our ability to socialize. But what it did do was maximized the quantity of the encounters, yes, but it minimized the quality of those encounters,” Grimaldi explains.
Grimaldi considered these friendships analogous to exhibits in a museum; one can examine their “friends” at a superficial level, but can never hope to interact with something that is not truly real past that level. “You’re not friends with people; you’re friends with the heavily curated images of these people—images that they themselves want to project.”
Machiavelli, despite having existed in a time period centuries before McLuhan, possessed similar, even interchangeable ideas to him. A significant factor in Machiavelli’s popularity today can be attributed to not just what he wrote and spoke about, but how he conveyed such information. Grimaldi elucidates that “Machiavelli intuitively understood how to engage his reader; by making him or her feel like an accomplice to his theory, and not merely a consumer of it.”
What connects Machiavelli and McLuhan, two seemingly arbitrary figures of history, was their willingness to be useful to society. Grimaldi elaborates on their ability to both see and predict what was occurring in their environment and translate that ability into written works; mediums intended to aid the public. And unlike social media, these particular mediums have never strayed from their intent as time passes.