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We are all “Richard Nixon”

When I was a younger I started reading the works of Marshall McLuhan.

I think I was introduced to him thanks to his cameo in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”.

From that film, I wondered who this McLuhan fellow was and what were his theories?

So, I started to research him.

I found a copy of his book “Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man” where he first put forth the idea of “the medium is the message”. I’m sure you have heard that phase before. To break it down in the simplest way, McLuhan is telling us that the format, not the content, determines our mindset. For example, McLuhan says the written word – which you are reading now – gives us the idea of cause and effect relationships and the idea of sequence. This may not be the case, but because we have come to live in the world where one word follows another, we come to “understand” that the world works in that way.

McLuhan also birthed the idea of “hot” and “cold” media. He understands that to mean the level of active mental engagement needed to work within the space. For example, he says radio is a “hot” medium because you need to actively use your imagination to create the pictures in your mind. While at the same time, McLuhan called TV a “cold” medium because the images have been created for you and engagement with that medium is passive.

(The interview with McLuhan starts at 2:45 in this video.)

Since McLuhan’s death in 1980 I've been looking for someone else to pick up where he leaves off – a Marshall McLuhan for the “digital age”. I believe I have found him in the BBC’s Adam Curtis.

Since the mid-1980’s, Curtis has been created a series of documentaries on various topics related to media, politics and the intersection of the two. One reviewer for the Observer says "if there has been a theme in Curtis's work since, it has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragicomic consequences of those attempts."

For example, a recent short film breaks down how we now live in a world where everyone we know has turned into “Richard Nixon”.

As Curtis states in the voiceover, “Just like him we have all become paranoid weirdoes. This is the story of how television and newspapers did this to us and how it has paralyzed the ability of politics to transform the world for the better.”

Curtis’s most recent work, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, is a three-part documentary about how some believed computers were going to save us from ourselves and evolve society worldwide beyond the traditional roles government and politics have played as a stabilizing force.

In the first part, Curtis looks at the how Ayn Rand inspired many of the people who built Silicon Valley as well as those who went on the run the economy during the 1990s boom and bust.

I’ve watched the first part, so far, and I find it very interesting. I’m looking forward to checking out the other two very soon.

If you get a chance, take a look at some of Adam Curtis’s work. I'm sure you will find his ideas worth debating.

At the bare minimum, do yourself a favor and spent six minutes to watch the Nixon short because I think Curtis's film has a lot to say about the mindset and political climate we find ourselves in today.