Friday, July 21, 2017

On McLuhan's birthday, an essay about "The medium is the message" as it applies to motorcycles

Today would have been Marshall McLuhan's 106th birthday, so I'll re-issue this long-lost 'Backmarker' column from the old Road Racer X web site. It was originally written right after the first Anaheim SX race of the '07 season. Since then, there's been a lot of talk in both road racing and flat track about 'the show' and I think McLuhan's theories are still relevant.

So, I was up in the Knothole Club (which, despite the name, should not bring to mind “Dueling Banjos”) last Saturday afternoon. That’s the fancy bar high in the Anaheim stadium grandstands. The first round of the AMA Supercross season was about to start.

Supercross is hugely different than Superbike racing. I don’t mean the obvious differences in the tracks and bikes, but rather the way the sports are presented to the public. This occurred to me before any racing had even started. During the singing of the national anthem, rockets were actually launched to coincide with the words,  “And the rockets’ red glare.” Then, bombs went off on the line, “…bombs bursting in air.”

Man, I thought, this makes the runup to a road race seem like a darts match. I had half a mind to conduct an impromptu interview on the differences in ways the two AMA “premiere” series are promoted. There was any number of road racing stars in the Knothole I could have buttonholed. The Hayden brothers were there, but as they form their own tight-knit posse, I would have felt like a real intruder. Miguel Duhamel was there but on the phone the whole time, even during the pyrotechnics. It took me a long time to spot John Hopkins, mainly because I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his girlfriend. Max Biaggi was right behind me, in a Corona Suzuki jacket about two sizes too large with the hunted, please-don’t-talk-to-me expression that he always seems to wear in public.

So I let all those guys be. Anyway, the person I’d’ve most liked to interview wasn’t any of them, it was Marshall McLuhan. Besides being dead, McLuhan was never a motorcyclist (as far as I know) so he was highly unlikely to make an appearance at A1. But his prescient theories on the interrelationship between the media and pop culture really illuminate the packaging of the two sports.

I should take this moment to admit that even Backmarker readers–the most hyperliterate motorcyclists–may not be familiar with McLuhan. If you didn’t study Lit Theory at a Canadian university in the ’70s, it’s likely that your only direct exposure to the great man was in Woody Allen’s 1977 film, Annie Hall. At one point in that story, Allen and his date are in line at a movie theater, stuck listening to a crashing bore...

MAN: It’s the influence of television. Now, now Marshall McLuhan deals with it in terms of it being a, a high–high intensity, you understand? A hot medium…

WOODY ALLEN: What I wouldn’t give for a large sock with horse manure in it.

MAN: …as opposed to the truth which he [sees as the] media or…

WOODY ALLEN: What can you do when you get stuck on a movie line with a guy like this behind you?

MAN: Now, Marshall McLuhan…

WOODY ALLEN: You don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan’s work.

MAN: Really? Really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called TV, Media and Culture, so I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity.

WOODY ALLEN: Oh, do you?

MAN: Yeah.

WOODY ALLEN: That’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.

(At this point, ALLEN walks a few steps and pulls the aging Canadian academic out from behind a potted plant in the theater lobby.)

WOODY ALLEN: Come over here for a second?

MAN: Oh…

WOODY ALLEN: Tell him.

MARSHALL McLUHAN: I heard what you were saying. You, you know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

WOODY ALLEN: Boy, if life were only like this.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Lasers were flashing around the stadium, fireworks were going off. There was a disembodied, booming voice over the P.A. alternately growling and screaming, “Anaheim! Do you want to be on live TeeVee?!?” And I was thinking, where’s Marshall McLuhan when you need him?

Marshall McLuhan (b.1911 d.1980) spent most of his adult life as a professor of English at the University of Toronto. His seminal books were Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). The first of those books examined the influence of print on human culture and the second expanded upon those ideas, with regard to the influence of “electric” media–then, mainly the telephone, radio and television–on popular culture. Those books are to media studies what Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity are to physics.

Even people who haven’t read McLuhan are familiar with his most famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Almost everyone who hears that (or quotes it) completely misinterprets it, but even misinterpreted it’s still true. That’s one way to know you’re dealing with a real prophet.

On the face of it, the medium is the message sounds right, in the current popular senses of both the words “medium” and “message.” People naturally assume that by medium he meant a channel of communication, such as radio or the Internet. And that by message he meant a bit of content carried by that medium. From there, people leap to the conclusion that the channel is more important than–indeed, that it defines–its content. When the Supercross announcer yelled, “Do you want to be on live TeeVee?” he seemed to validate the popular notion that the point isn’t what you’re saying or doing on television, it’s simply that you’re on television.

But that’s not all McLuhan meant by that quote. He had coined his own idiosyncratic meanings of the words medium and message. To him, a medium was any innovation, whether a technical one such as an invention, or simply a new idea or approach to a problem. All such innovations are intended to do something. They also all have unanticipated consequences. Any change created by an innovation was, in his word, a message. If you’re confused I should warn you that a merely superficial reading of Understanding Media will not help; McLuhan comes across as Zen master communicating primarily in koans. It’s not that he was being intentionally obtuse, it’s just that he was so smart that he had trouble remembering that the rest of us could barely keep up.

In the senses that McLuhan used the words, the invention of long-travel suspension in motocross was a medium. The intended effect was that those suspensions would make racers faster. An unanticipated effect was that they enabled 70-foot triples. Those jumps (and Supercross itself) were messages. Now, tracks are being modified to suit the four strokes, and in doing so Dirt Wurx, et al, are effectively killing the two-strokes altogether. Even Jeremy McGrath, the last of the high-profile holdouts, went 450 at the end. The medium is the message is the medium, ad nauseum.

I have to wonder what traction control will mean for some new “safety engineered” road racing tracks which have a lot of slow corners, often followed by nearly flat-out faster turns. One reason those slow turns made tracks safer was that, on a modern superbike, even pretty skilled riders exit first- and second-gear turns with some genuine trepidation. You don’t–or rather didn’t–just whack open the throttle, for fear of a highside. That caution slowed your acceleration towards subsequent faster bends.

Take Barber, for example. You come out of the tricky downhill turns 7a-b/8a-b complex at pretty slow speed, with the expanse of the museum’s glass wall in front of you. Then you have a roughly 300-yard acceleration zone to the 9-10 chicane that can just about be taken flat out right now, and it’s really fun. With traction control, however, you’ll arrive there going quite a bit faster, at which point it will be heart-in-mouth stuff. In that sense, the medium is the message is really just another way of expressing Gardiner’s Fourth Law of Racing, which states, “Changing anything changes everything.”

Another of McLuhan’s ideas that has penetrated the collective conscious is the notion of “hot” and “cool” media.

McLuhan knew that print was an informationally dense mode of communication. There are more words on the front page of a newspaper than are spoken in an entire television newscast. Print, he concluded, presented the reader with lots of information and required little additional input from the reader’s experience to complete the content. McLuhan called newspapers, books and the like “hot” media.

By contrast a telephone conversation or a television broadcast were  “cool” modes of communication which of necessity presented only summaries of information. They required the recipient of the information to fill in many gaps in order to complete the message.

Ironically, as with “the medium is the message,” most people who are familiar with this “hot/cool” notion get the labels mixed up. But McLuhan’s underlying idea can still help us understand the closely coupled relationship between context and content. It’s also a useful tool in comparing and contrasting the successful marketing of the AMA’s Supercross franchise to a general audience, while only a still-tiny subculture takes an interest in Superbike racing.

Seen from his perspective, Supercross is definitely hot, in the sense that the entire event takes place in a restricted space, in front of the audience. By contrast, much of the Superbike fan’s experience is imaginary, since most of the race takes place out of sight. That would make Superbike races cool.

Even when the bikes are in sight, Superbikes present a cool experience vis-à-vis Supercross racing, in the sense that the fan’s understanding of what the rider is doing has to be far more nuanced, if road racing is to be fully appreciated. Not too long ago, I read a quote from Kevin Schwantz, who’d been asked if Nicky’s MotoGP championship would have any impact on popularizing the sport here in the U.S.

I’m paraphrasing here, but Schwantz essentially replied, “Nope, not at all.” That was brutally honest. Roberts’, Spencer’s, Lawson’s, his own, and Roberts Jr.’s titles all failed to galvanize the American public, so why should Hayden’s? I wonder if the popularity of MotoGP in Europe and Asia stems from the fact that most Europeans’ and Asians’ first motor vehicle is a motorbike. That might be enough to allow them to project themselves into a road race, or to fill in the gaps with their own experience.

Let me get this out in the open right away: I’m an expert observer of road racing and a Supercross novice. I know that Bubba, Chad, Davi and the rest of them are doing lots of stuff that I don’t appreciate. So Supercross is cooler than I think, in the McLuhanesque sense. But I still feel that as Supercross supplants “real” motocross (and as even outdoor tracks evolve towards SX layouts) it’s shifting from sport to spectacle. It’s funny to watch SX riders throw huge whips in the middle of big jumps, even when they’re racing for position. It’s crowd pleasing, for sure, but doesn’t it merely reflect the fact that, for those guys, that moment 50 feet up in the air is one moment they’ve got time and concentration to spare? i.e., that it’s trivial? Showmanship like that is probably good for SX riders’ paychecks. (It hasn’t hurt NBA players’ checks, even though it has hurt American basketball. Laughingstocks like Lithuania, Greece and Italy now kick American ass.)

For McLuhan, “hot” or “cool” media weren’t inherently good or bad, it was more a matter of matching content to context. The thing he didn’t fully anticipate–and he wouldn’t have–was that after a few generations had grown up on television, the mass audience would accept that summary as sufficient (or worse, complete) knowledge. So now, the boundary between hot and cool isn’t drawn between print and television, but somewhere between the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Jackass.

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed watching the Anaheim Supercross–particularly the Lites class where flow, rhythm and momentum are still at a huge premium. But the cynic in me wonders if postmodern, mass popularity can only come to hot sports that can be sufficiently simplified–or sensationalized.  Let’s never do that to road racing. If it has to stay comparatively old fashioned and have its fan base restricted to aficionados who can complete that lap in their imaginations, I’m cool with that.

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