Welcome to Marshall McLuhan’s world.
The Canadian media savant, who famously coined the phrase “The medium is the message,” died near the end of 1980, at the age of 69. He had lived through an age of extraordinary change — and an age that, unlike any other, had trumpeted that change for all to hear from a growing list of sources, even if we didn’t always understand the message.
McLuhan made his name as a communication theorist and philosopher, chronicling and analyzing how media and communication changed the human experience in the 20th century.
He was a visionary of the first order. Among other things, he foretold the Internet — and its incredible influence.
No doubt he could even have imagined how social media would unfold in the 21st century. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would seem obvious to a mind that keen.
He would also have understood that social media’s prime users, for the most part, are more interested in style than substance.
And certainly when McLuhan said, “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values,” he could have been talking about Twitter in the clutches of politicians and their handlers.
Last week, a firestorm erupted over comments made by Edmonton city councillor and Alberta Urban Municipalities Association president Linda Sloan. She suggested that the Conservative government was less than fair in its dealing with municipalities, handing out money based on Tory support rather than clear and entrenched formulae.
She was quickly chastised by Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths, who threatened to boycott an AUMA event unless Sloan retracted her statements.
But before she could, Premier Alison Redford’s chief of staff, Stephen Carter, was firing notes on Twitter that Sloan “lied . . . maliciously.” This is the same man who resigned as Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith’s chief of staff after mocking then-premier Ed Stelmach on Twitter in 2009.
Redford had Carter apologize.
And Sloan, too, recanted — after a fashion — claiming a misquote (in the world of electronic devices, it’s tough to refute a taped interview, and the one in which she made those comments apparently was taped).
And Griffiths happily tweeted to his followers that he would be attending the AUMA breakfast meeting after all. All was forgiven.
And then Sloan, in only slightly softer language, repeated her allegations on Thursday.
When McLuhan said, “Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behaviour,” was he talking about how this little drama unfolded and unfolded again? Or was he offering us a view into how the impending provincial election will be battled?
Sixteen months ago, Naheed Nenshi rode a wave of social media to victory in Calgary’s mayoral race. His use of Twitter and Facebook drove 53 per cent of eligible voters to the polls (Red Deer, by comparison, had a voter turnout of 25 per cent).
Nenshi’s success, no doubt, made politicians all across the country take notice — and start applying the lessons learned.
Some are better at it than others, obviously.
Nenshi offered substance and value in his campaign. Whether we will get the same from provincial politicians in coming weeks as we prepare for a election in Alberta is anyone’s guess.
But McLuhan probably best understood how this would all play out, on average.
“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery,” he said. “The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
So style, delivered by social media, trumps substance on the campaign trail. And we should not be surprised.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.