Dummying the Medium is the Massage

Scott Boms, design lead and and studio manager of the Analog Research Lab at Facebook in Menlo Park, has a special connection to Marshall McLuhan, although they never actually met in person. He is the caretaker of some McLuhan artifacts and the next generation of McLuhan thinking. I asked him to talk about McLuhan’s influence and particularly this rare item—the dummy of The Medium is the Massage designed and visually conceived by the designer Quentin Fiore. The title is a play on McLuhan’s oft-quoted saying “The medium is the message.” McLuhan adopted the term “massage” to denote the effect each medium has on the human sensorium, an inventory of the effects of numerous media in terms of how they “massage” the conscious mind. (Photographs courtesy of Scott Boms.)

What is your relationship to Marshall McLuhan?
Beyond a personal interest in Marshall’s work, I’m married to his granddaughter Emily, whose father Eric is Marshall’s eldest son and frequent collaborator.

The Medium Is The Message is, as they say today, a meme. It was also a mantra back in the day. What does the book mean to you both as a professional and a relative-by-marriage?
The book is such a brilliant distillation of Marshall’s ideas, taking pieces from The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, and translating them into a form that’s so approachable. It’s quite a marvel. Along with Bucky Fuller’s I Seem to be a Verb, those two books represent an incredibly significant moment in publishing and graphic design—one we continue to see mimicked to this day, though rarely as well.

Personally, to be so close to such a significant piece of graphic design is a trip. Yes, it’s just a book, but it’s one I think everyone should read, especially in today’s media-rich environment.

The book and others like Counterblast or Understanding Media have become more personal over the years because of stories Eric has shared of working with his father. His son Andrew, my brother-in-law, has picked up the torch as well—and between him and Eric, continue to make me want to pick up those books and keep digging to find my own understanding of what Marshall was trying to say. And they’re good at setting me straight too because there’s no better source of truth for Marshall’s work than those two.

Did you have a chance to know him or was your introduction to his work a revelation as you grew up?
I was only five when Marshall passed away in 1980, and unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet him. I did get to spend time with his wife Corinne in their home in Toronto and heard many stories from her and other family members and longtime friends who knew and worked with him.

He was, I suppose, strangely present in my youth. I have vivid memories of watching Cedric Smith as McLuhan regularly in the “infamous” Canadian Heritage Minute short films that aired daily, but also through his influence on Wired magazine, and appearance in Annie Hall. And of course, his most well-known aphorisms like “the global village” and “the medium is the message”. Over the years my interest in his work—and that of his peers and contemporaries has become unexpectedly relevant.

How did you come to be in possession of the dummy that Quentin Fiore designed?
I stumbled on the dummy in the basement of McLuhan’s Wychwood Park home after his wife Corinne passed away in 2008. It was tucked away in a box of newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and other ephemera dating back to the late 60’s—just sitting there collecting dust. It very well could have ended up in the trash or tossed into another box and forgotten again.

Speaking of memes—or icons—the Global Village was also an important term. I was actually designer for the first video documentary studio The Global Village, obviously an homage to McLuhan. You’re now at Facebook, how does MM’s work interface with your own?
It’s not hard to see Facebook as the ultimate manifestation of McLuhan’s ideas. The News Feed is a perfect example of a new medium usurping others that came before while giving those old mediums new purpose. Renewed interest in things like board games, vinyl records, and even books are all evidence of that.

Part of what drew me there back in 2012 was the allure of the company mission, but also because it was a unique opportunity to see Marshall’s ideas from the other side. If anything it’s all helped me look at my work in our Analog Research Lab more critically, to consider the place of traditional media today, and to tap into people’s curiosities about the effects of the things we make, intentional or otherwise.

Was there any deviation from dummy to original edition?
On the whole, it’s not hugely different. My guess is that the dummy was assembled near the end of the design and editing process. There’s a handful of pieces that aren’t quite finished, bits and pieces that would be completed in prepress, but also several handwritten notes and annotations—likely from McLuhan, Fiore, or Agel.

Marshall was very hands-off in the production of this book. I think his most significant contribution was to keep the typo in the book title!

MM was quite a controversial figure in the early days of mass communication. Do you feel his ideas are still on the edge or have we finally caught up?
In hindsight, I think it’s easy to see why people were skeptical of many of his ideas in the 60’s and 70’s. People weren’t ready for the things he was talking about—technologies at the time were rudimentary in many ways, but he was connecting the dots. He saw the way the winds were blowing. We’ve caught up since, but I think it’s funny to think of Marshall getting the last laugh, proving Tom Wolfe was mostly right.

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What do you want to see happen to the words, ideas and artifacts of McLuhan in the coming years?

Well, Marshall’s library of thousands of books and his personal archives recently received a UNESCO World Heritage designation. This is a good sign that both will be preserved for generations as research tools and artifacts of our cultural history. But that’s just scratching the surface.

Andrew, Marshall’s grandson, and my brother-in-law is working on some projects around McLuhan archives that aren’t part of the collections at the University of Toronto or the National Archives of Canada which could make for an exciting exhibit. We haven’t spoken too much about that, but I know he’s working on a few things beyond his work bringing things like the concept of the Tetrad to high school students, and along with his father, even to Facebook last year!

Even more, people need to learn to be better digital citizens. Marshall’s work lays out some of the signposts, identifies some of those patterns. We’re at a point now where media studies are as critical a part of a student education as social studies. Perhaps even the same. It’s not something I’ve seen taken seriously, and without getting too on-the-nose, I think you can see where that’s got us all today …


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