Professor Marshall McLuhan is a fascinating fellow. His notable ideas: “the medium is the message” and “the global village” continue to inform and to prompt debate regarding their real meaning. Pundits argue that McLuhan predicted the World Wide Web thirty years before it was invented. His ideas covered metamedia, media ecology, figure and ground media, tetrad of media effects, and hot and cool media.
Born in Edmonton, educated in 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.”
This ubiquity and popularity turned on him. As the preeminent communications and technology theorist, his raft of ideas on “electronic communications media”, what we today call digital or online, and how it impacted human thinking, interaction, and collaboration came to be labeled “McLuhanacy”.
Now McLuhan and his ideas are back. I found this out on a visit to Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. A too-youthful executive shared that McLuhan is required reading at the social network. I saw copies of Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy in many cubicles. 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 creates 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. We need such self-examination. 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 the medium’s influence. He also foresaw the negative social and environmental impacts of suburbia. In short, McLuhan’s ongoing relevance is found in his quote, “We come what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Here are more quotes that inform and entertain.
“The medium is the message.”
“Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.”
“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”
“Far more thought and care go into the composition of any prominent ad in a newspaper or magazine than go into the writing of their features and editorials.”
“I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”
“Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition.”
“Jokes are grievances.”
“Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.”
“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.”
“Obsolescence never meant the end of anything, it’s just the beginning.”
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”
“The business of the advertiser is to see that we go about our business with some magic spell or tune or slogan throbbing quietly in the background of our minds.”
“The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”
“The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”
“We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”
And my favorite which illustrates McLuhan’s self-deprecation, “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”