Mark Twain once described a "classic" as a book that people praise but don't read. Twain never read Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, but then neither have many other people--it's not exactly a page-turner. But this classic study of media's effects on the individual and society turns 40 years old this year, and its insights remain as pertinent as ever.
What the golden age of television has to do with human nature and today's Internet intellectuals.
It seems fitting that we conclude the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan with one of his timeless and remarkably timely observations, which in just 30 seconds manages to capture in 1960 a folly of human nature that rings all the more true in 2011 as we trek forward into this constantly evolving media landscape.
"Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which people communicate than by the content of the communication." - Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan, one of Canada's most influential and controversial figures, burst into the centre of media circles in North America with his strange and prophetic pronouncements - "electric light is pure information" - on advertising, television and the emerging computer age.
Known for his imaginative descriptions of the media environment, McLuhan coined the phrases 'the medium is the message' and 'the global village.' These two aphorisms still linger on the tongues of critics, philosophers and pop-culture makers as McLuhan's predictions and revelations continue to be proven true over and over again.
Q: Could you tell us about your first encounter with Marshall McLuhan?
A: I was a graduate student at teachers college and the course was being conducted by Louis Forsdale. He's retired now but he was a friend of McLuhan. McLuhan was an obscure English professor at the University of Toronto, but Forsdale was well aware of some of McLuhan's ideas and brought him down from Toronto to give a lecture. McLuhan, in those days, still smoked cigars, although he mostly had them unlit as far as I could see, and he gave his talk with an unlit cigar in his mouth. And he talked in that style that we later came to call McLuhanesque: a series of dramatic propositions and generalizations. He didn't pause to defend any of them, or even to explain them that much. Charlie Weingartner, my friend -- he went to graduate school with me -- we loved it. We just thought he was onto something, and we especially liked his style. Of course many of the other students didn't; some were befuddled, but afterwards Forsdale, McLuhan, Charlie and I went for a drink and I think The Mechanical Bride had been published, and either on that occasion or a later occasion when he came back to speak, we carried about 500 copies of this book which you couldn't give away at that point, and stored them in Forsdale's apartment.
But that was my first encounter with McLuhan and I was enormously impressed with the range of his knowledge and also with the intellectual daring that he displayed.
Marshall McLuhan is the man. He understood the towering role that technology has played in cultural development. The ‘medium is the message’ and ‘global village’ have so much resonance that they almost tip over into cliché. In many ways he was both an analyst of media and technology but also a visionary. He predicted the web, invented the word ‘surfing’ for casual fragmentary media browsing and gave us the concept of ‘the global village’. Although he was dealing with the media a decade before the internet, his ideas, endure, and he has much to offer those who are interested in the impact of technology in learning.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911, to Methodist parents in Edmonton, Alberta. In 1916, the family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where McLuhan attended university, earning both his BA and MA degrees from the University of Manitoba. He pursued further study at Cambridge, England, earning another BA and MA there.
July 2011 marks the the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan. Alan Jacobs examines whether the media critic and celebrity had anything worthwhile to say, and whether it's still today worth grappling with his often dizzying work.
In September 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford squared off in a presidential debate (watch here), and the following day, the legendary communication theorist Marshall McLuhan appeared on the TODAY show, then hosted by Tom Brokaw, to offer some...
Humans are social creatures, and their evolutionary success and survival has depended largely on collaborative social relationships. Each member of the tribe assumes a vital role creating a network of interdependence. As we return to the global version of the village, digital social networks have become an influential 21st century force. Today, Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa law professor and syndicated columnist discussed how social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have been instrumental in shaping public policy. Parliamentary bills relating to copyright law, as well as issues of accountability related to the CRTC, have been reviewed, overturned or reconsidered due to pressure created by orchestrating individual through social networks. Author, academic, song-writer and broadcaster Paul Levinson also reminded us that the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements were also the products of social networks.