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The value of Levinson’s article goes beyond updating his 1999 edition of Digital McLuhan. In the typically artful style of his lectures, the elements of McLuhan’s communication Tetrad are brought into twenty-first century perspective to provide a matrix for a multi-generational conversation about our digital media environment. Beginning with a clear explanation of McLuhan’s Tetrad method of analyzing communication devices, he applies to these principles his own take with examples of recent social communication devices and applications. I look forward to asking my students, (none of whom were born when McLuhan’s son Eric published his father’s last manuscript) how they might relate the media they use every day to McLuhan’s tetrad of media as interpreted here by Levinson. They will, I think, appreciate that Levinson is well aware of the digital products they use and how they use them. For them, the flipping action of photographs goes far beyond what those of us who read McLuhan "back in the day" even realize: as Levinson points out, lately users have become producers – like Stanford students Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, who developed Snapchat to circumvent the criticism that the embarrassing photos (often selfies) posted on Facebook and elsewhere are hazardous to the subjects’ professional reputations. Levinson’s commentary about Snapchat reminds me that the app retrieves and then flips what was a problem for the first inventors of photography: the tendency of images to disappear for lack of effective fixing chemistry.
Levinson also provides a matrix for a conversation between those who have grown up exclusively in a digital world, and those who reached adulthood in the age of desktop computing and floppy disks and something called record albums. Some of the latter embraced new and convenient methods of interacting with the world, while others have accepted them only selectively and reluctantly. How would they react to the remark that the photograph “obsolesces verbal and written descriptions of events”? Can Levinson’s article, (updating his print book) itself be analyzed in terms of the tetrad?
Readers will also find interesting Levinson's discussion of the impact of digital publishing on traditional views of information distribution.
“McLuhan in an Age of Social Media” will remain current, as the user qua producer trend continues. In an ironic “flip” of the self-destruct mechanism embedded in the Snapchat app, Spiegel and Murphy have updated their user agreement to acknowledge that posted material might end up being re-used for development and what they refer to as “business partners.” So – I might ask my students, is that amplification, obsolescence, retrievability, or what? Levinson’s ability to take what might be dry theory and make it relevant to a new generation of readers makes it a perfect supplemental reading for any media or communications history course. That should not deter anyone from making required reading of Digital McLuhan, the volume that inspired this article.
McLuhan in an Age of Social Media
This light essay extends the examples of McLuhan's prescience about media with an update on how global and how like a village our media has made our world. Sadly this includes, in my view, the ability to ruin reputations, bully children to the point of suicide, and provide demagogues with "their own facts" that fly in the face even of their own recorded, and publicly posted, easily retrievable, prior statements.
As a caution to fast, easy publication I would just suggest correction of a word he uses in connection with early poetry and Homer- I am sure he meant "mnemonic" not "pneumonic." Editing still matters, even for a textual selfie.