How would McLuhan look in 3D glasses?

Image of theatre audience wearing 3D glasses Marshall McLuhan introduced an enigmatic paradox when, in his often cited work Understanding Media, he asserted: "In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."

At the risk of over-simplifying what is sometimes referred to as the McLuhan Equation, good old Marshall was not merely advancing the notion that a six hundred channel universe irrevocably made the content of any single channel inconsequential. On the contrary, McLuhan was suggesting that though there may be obvious advantages or disadvantages when new technologies are embraced, there may be latent or unintended consequences which may not be apparent without the benefit of hindsight.

Take, for example, the public transit rider who snatches an iPad from their book-bag to maximize the usefulness of their otherwise mundane and unproductive commute time. As their 3G portable device loads the online copy of the Globe, they are effectively precluded from the benefit of a social experience they might otherwise have derived from stopping at the local coffee shop and leafing through the complementary hard copy brought in every morning by the waitress Sally.

Despite the similarity of content in the online and paper editions, I can't help but wonder what substantive benefit is derived by reading the newspaper on a tablet. By embracing technology and eschewing the alternative, one would never know that Sally's son Patrick will be graduating from Trent this spring. "Gee," he muses with an ere of sarcasm in his voice, "I wonder if Patrick's impending graduation is on Facebook?" I suspect McLuhan would recognize the ironic juxtaposition between news and what passes for news in light of this technological embrace. Should you have any doubt about the medium being the message, consider this: Is your iPad more likely to tell you what colour Princess Beatrice's latest fascinator is or when Sally's son Patrick will be graduating from University? Parallels can easily be drawn, and an uncanny resemblance exists, when considering the film industry's embrace of technology and the recent shift towards 3D film production.

The industry has been involved in the production of 3D film for roughly 60 years with Bwana Devil, a film generally regarded as the benchmark for the introduction of 3D film, being released back in 1952. And for roughly 60 years audiences have seen the 3D film phenomena wax and wane as refinements in technology, for lack of a better term, were introduced. The past few years have been characterized by a resurgence of 3D films; the most likely reason being to entice audiences back to the theatres and put "bums in seats". Of course the film industry, cognisant to the economic threat posed by patrons streaming video to their portable devices, has responded with 3D technology boasting astonishing enhancements to the movie experience.

There is, in my view, nothing spectacular in the 3D film experience. Certainly there are modest enhanced perceptions of depth in the 3D experience but audiences don't instinctively recoil in an effort to thwart objects leaping off the screen at them. About the only extraordinary experience I've managed was a slight headache; most likely a consequence of peering through darkened lenses or wearing uncomfortable, ill-fitting eye glasses for an extended period. Let me tell you what I really think though: "Watching a 3D film at the theatre is not unlike being an usher or a bridesmaid at a wedding... you're forced to wear something that makes you look like a moron and it's not a particularly rewarding experience."

When you ask theatre patrons "What's the best 3D film you've ever seen?" they will inevitably respond with a resounding "Avatar!". You could just as easily have asked them "Who's the smartest Stooge? Larry, Moe, Curly or Shemp?". The fact that Avatar might be the best 3D film they've seen doesn't make it a great film. Similarly, Moe isn't an intellectual giant by virtue of his standing as the brightest Stooge. In the land of the blind, they guy with one eye will be King. Or, put another way, "You can put a pretty dress on a pig, but it's still a pig in a pretty dress."

The 3D films produced thus far, I would argue, are nothing more than pigs in pretty dresses. I come up short as I try to recall a single 3D movie whose plot and cast have been so illustrious as to etch a permanent image on my brain. To this end, Avatar's acclaim is entirely by virtue of its countenance as a 3D film and not, as movie purists would expect, as a qualitative measure of its merit as a film. It would be difficult, without slightly raising an eyebrow, to ask the incredibly innocent question: "Why was a 2D version of the film even made?" It would be downright provocative to suggest that if the 2D version were that good, it would not have been necessary to make a 3D version.

In my less than humble opinion, Hollywood will continue to pump out dirge that panders to the lowest common denominator as long as the lemming-driven market is willing to accept the trite being released as entertainment. Though I did not specifically count every film I attended in 2011, I would estimate the number to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of forty films. And if I were to assess each to determine their qualitative value and determine if they represented good value for the money I can, without reservation, reduce that number to three films: Paul, Bridesmaids and The Help. Interestingly, none of them are (or were) produced as 3D films.

If McLuhan was with us today and you were fortunate enough to catch him at a 3D film don't be surprised if he expanded his missive slightly. "The medium is the message," he'd undoubtedly begin, "and the message blows chunks."

Submitted by "Big Banana" Bob Loblaw, 23 February 2012