Professor Marshall McLuhan is an interesting chap. His notable ideas: “the medium is the message” and “the global village” continue to inform (and to prompt debate). Some argue that McLuhan predicted the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented. His ideas also covered metamedia, media ecology, figure and ground media, tetrad of media effects, and hot and cool media.
Born in Edmonton, educated in my hometown Winnipeg, and notable while a Professor at the University of Toronto, McLuhan passed away in 1980. He was a celebrity intellectual and as the Globe and Mail points out, “For most of the 1960s and part of the 1970s, McLuhan seemed to be everywhere – on radio, in print, in film (most notably with a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) and especially on television. The latter, ironically, was a medium he considered pernicious, a certain harbinger of the eventual demise of print culture. He distilled his genius, including phrases that became and remain part of the daily lexicon, such as ‘the medium is the message,’ into sometimes puzzling aphorisms, an early form of the sound byte.”
His ubiquity and popularity turned on him. As the preeminent communications and technology theorist, his raft of ideas on “electronic communications media” (what we would today call digital or online) and how it impacted human thinking, interaction, and collaboration came to be labeled “McLuhanacy”.
But now McLuhan is back. I found this out on a visit to Facebook in Palo Alto. A too-youthful executive shared that McLuhan is required reading at the social network and lo and behold there were plenty of copies of Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy in many cubicles. The U.S. essayist Lewis Lapham credits McLuhan’s resurgence to the accuracy of his predictions or as The Globe and Mail phrases it, he “makes a lot more sense now that so much of what he foresaw in the 1960s has come true”.
Facebook and others follow the Professor because of his belief that every new technology created a new environment and new way of thinking. Social media is certainly a new environment that accentuates aspects of human behavior particularly the need to share and connect. University of Calgary historian Douglas Francis points out, that McLuhan saw humans as essentially communicative animals, he believed it was the technologies of communication that were primary in shaping who we were, what we thought, and how we acted, with effects that often were subliminal and therefore not recognized.
McLuhan was cool, controversial, he forced us to look at ourselves, and made us question our actions and behaviors. His brilliance often came out in his wit and Canadian self-deprecation. In addition to his thoughts on media, McLuhan criticized advertising but begrudgingly admired its influence and he also foresaw the negative impacts of suburbia on how we live. In short, McLuhan’s ongoing relevance is found in his quote, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”