Who was Marshall McLuhan, and should we care about him in the 21st century?

 “Through the discovery yesterday of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane, the physical influence of each man, formerly restricted to a few miles, now extends to hundreds of leagues or more. Better still: thanks to the prodigious biological event represented  by the discovery of electro-magnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and see, in every corner of the earth.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

McLuhan foresaw the level of connectedness this discovery of electro-magnetic waves would bring, and he did it when television was still a relatively new media. He made the majority of his fascinating insights in the 1960′s, decades before any of us would use YouTube, Facebook, or Wikipedia; before the words download and upload; and before Google and tweet were verbs. Do his ideas still have relevance in the 21st century?

Gary Wolf of Wired magazine wrote a cover story about the man in 1996, in which he interviewed McLuhan’s ghost using the Internet (certainly an apt medium for an interview with the ghost of the media guru). Wolf only poses the fictional McLuhan two questions,which are well worth the quick read. Another (much longer!) read, and perhaps the best introduction to McLuhan and his ways of thinking, can be found in a Playboy interview from 1969. As further introductions, the Wikipedia entries for his two most well-known books, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, are certainly fine places to start.

Last week (July 21, 2011) marked what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday, and I’ve seen a number of articles in the past few days about the eccentric English professor from Edmonton. People debate his legacy, argue his importance, and write him off as a bumbling eccentric who cashed in on the naive and impressionable public of the 60′s, but the more we progress into the digital age, the more we hear the validity of his poetic words.

“You know nothing of my work!” 

Who would be up to the task of writing a biography of McLuhan for the Extraordinary Canadians series? Fittingly, it was Vancouver’s Douglas Coupland. He has written a very engaging biography of the media theorist, entitled You Know Nothing Of My Work! (a line from McLuhan’s only movie appearance, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) which is equal parts biography of McLuhan and of the media landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries, filled with observations only Coupland could voice. (Which reminds me, I’m still upset that I wasn’t able to make it to the event a few months ago at the Waldorf, in which Coupland hosted a night of YouTube watching in honor of McLuhan.)

Why is McLuhan more important in the 21st century than he was in the 20th?

So far, in the 11 and a half years of this century, we’ve seen digital technologies such as computers, smartphones, and perhaps most importantly, the internet continue to grow and astonish us on a daily basis. The global village of the internet is more connected than ever before with the rise of social media. Social components are permeating every aspect of the online experience, from videogames and Facebook to Flickr and YouTube. Every site has a Share button, increasingly making the internet more  organic, crowdsourced by its network of users. The news has even become social, with every television station, newspaper (that’s an antiquated term if I’ve ever heard one), and sportscaster Tweeting nowadays.

The media of the internet has radically evolved to become much more social, and McLuhan was perhaps one of the first to see it coming. Of course McLuhan did not explicitly predict much, but that’s not to say he didn’t know what he was talking about. As Coupland points out, reading McLuhan “is a poetic or artistic experience – you get a sense of the future rather than a prescription or a prediction.” He was a man ahead of his time, and reading his books is a bit like stepping into a time machine with eyes pointed both forwards and backwards.

Some say McLuhan is the ultimate pessimist, while others contend it’s much more complicated than that. Here Coupland describes McLuhan’s view of humans as social creatures as hopeful or optimistic: “Call it religion or call it optimism, but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent needs as individuals.”

The Global Village

In the 21st century, we express intelligence through the content we post online. Sure, there are sites dedicated to lolcats and plenty of pictures on Facebook of frat boys getting wasted, but there are also engaging thoughts being exchanged on Twitter, and beautiful art being displayed on Flickr. Eric Fischer has mapped this expression of digital intelligence, by expressing geotagged Twitter posts with blue dots and Flickr photos with red dots. If the area contains both, the dot is white.

 

Photo from Eric Fischer's Flickr

 

I couldn’t help but look at these beautiful photos and realize that McLuhan’s global village is more real than he would have ever been able to imagine, and he probably would have hated it. Or would he have? While on the one hand, McLuhan has expressed countless times in his writings and interviews that he has “nothing but distaste for the process of change” he prefaced that statement with the acknowledgement that he could see  “the prospect of a rich and creative retribalized society — free of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age — emerging from this traumatic period of culture clash.” I have to wonder what McLuhan would think – has the internet returned us to our tribal roots? Are social media allowing us to free ourselves of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age? Would McLuhan be an avid Tweeter? Something tells me his aphorisms and paradoxical statements would be perfectly fit for 140 characters, and he would begrudgingly make use of the medium. But who am I to make that guess? I know nothing of his work.

 

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