Marshall McLuhan and Harold Adams Innis Watching Netflix

Curator's Note

I like to image Marshall McLuhan talking to other media theorists beyond the grave. Today, I’m imagining him in conversation with Harold Adams Innis, that other great Canadian media ecologist, about Netflix. Rather than the young couple depicted in this video, I see these two technological determinists sitting on the couch, McLuhan smoking his cool pipe, watching episodes of, say, House of Cards, on Heaven’s Apple TV, debating what the principle effect of this "new medium"* might be on mankind.

As the elder of the two, Innis would go first, remarking perhaps that Netflix, in allowing viewers to watch movies, but especially TV shows, individually and on-demand, is a space-biased medium. People no longer need to watch TV at "the same Bat Time and on the same Bat Channel," freeing them from the “ritual” of watching together. By encouraging asynchronous viewing, Netflix breaks the continuity in time, promotes a concern for the present—binge watching being a manifestation of this—and shatters the last vestiges of the communal experience of watching, as the couple in the ad demonstrate. Innis would also point out that Netflix breaks the monopoly of broadcast and cable TV (not to mention movie rentals: RIP Blockbuster), and perhaps most importantly, of TV advertising, since Netflix allows audiences to view commercial free TV. In short, Netflix is a deepening of our societies spatial-bias.

McLuhan would nod along with Innis and then ask to add a footnote to his theory. He would then state that the most important effect of Netflix is the sensory and cognitive changes the medium causes. “Netflix is the hotting up of TV,” he would say. Whereas TV, with its serial format, spreads information out across several senses and time, Netflix lets users do just what the woman in the ad did, binge watch a series, experiencing it as a continuous flow of information rather than as small incomplete chapters; Netflix collapses TV and film together into one hot medium. Even as it does so, it still requires a broad range of senses: the visual, the auditory, the tactile (especially when watched on an iPad). In that, McLuhan might note, it could resemble its cool predecessor, TV.

Regardless of what either theorist might say, I'm sure both would agree with the warrant implicit in Netflix's own warning to "Watch Responsibly," the technologies we use to communicate are profoundly powerful.




I realize that Netflix is not exactly a communications technology per se in the way either theorists might conceive of it, but it’s still fun to apply their theories! Also, I've chosen to focus on McLuhan's earlier theories rather than, say, his tretrad. I do hope someone else will take a minute to apply his tetrad to Netflix.

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