Marshall McLuhan plays a highly ambivalent role in the writings of Vilém Flusser. Although at various points Flusser criticizes McLuhan’s work, the theory of media evolution that Flusser developed in the 1980s can largely be traced back to McLuhan. Unlike McLuhan, however, Flusser is not primarily interested in physical media, but in codes: in images, texts, and technical images. McLuhan distinguishes three major turning points in media culture: the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the invention of the printing press, and the rise of contemporary electronic media. Flusser, who in this context would refer instead to “upheavals,” works on the basis of a model of development in three or sometimes five stages.
As in McLuhan’s work, the individual turning points stand for radical changes that exert a lasting influence on all of society. One could, therefore, speak of technological determinism in the case of both authors. There is a further theoretical similarity as well: For McLuhan, the content of a medium is always another medium; for Flusser, each new stage contains all prior stages. Thus technical images are texts, which are derived, in turn, from images. In Flusser’s first model, images are dissolved and displaced by the invention of texts, texts by the invention of technical images. Like McLuhan, Flusser takes as his starting point two technological impetuses – the invention of linear writing and the invention of the camera – but he conceptualizes them differently with respect to both content and timing. The second model postulates five dimensions, which are arranged in a sort of countdown leading from four-dimensional space-time to a zero-dimensional world made up of points. Unlike McLuhan, who interprets the first and last stage in terms of a harmony lost and regained, Flusser defines our entry into the universe of technical images as a liberating transition into a world completely created by humans themselves.