Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator

Marshall McLuhan, scholar, writer and social theorist
Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator
I’ve been reading a new biography on Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator, scholar and social theorist who is notable for having predicted the rise of the Internet years before Al Gore or anyone else took credit for inventing it.

The succinct biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland [ISBN-10: 1935633163 … also available in a Kindle edition], is quite interesting and I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in mass communications and popular culture.

Reading this biography, one gets the impression that McLuhan was a man who correctly predicted a good deal of the world of communications in which we live today. Not only did he forecast the rise of the web 30 years before it came about, he was the one who coined the expression “the medium is the message” … and who spoke about the “global village” long before Hilary Clinton came on the scene.

It turns out that this extraordinary thinker led a pretty conventional life, actually. Born in Edmonton, AB, he spent the better part of his career in Canada, although it was as a visiting professor at St. Louis University where he met his future wife, with whom he would have six children. (Born an Anglican, McLuhan was influenced by the writings of G. K. Chesterton and had converted to Roman Catholicism by his late 20s.)

Although trained as an academician in Canada and at Cambridge – and being on the faculty at prestigious educational institutions like the University of Toronto where he eventually had his own research center – the demands of raising a large family drove McLuhan to more financially lucrative work in the advertising field as well. He also had consulting stints at large corporations like AT&T and IBM.

Although passionate about and partial to his teaching and academic work, it was as an ad industry personality that McLuhan probably made his biggest mark.

As early as 1951, McLuhan published a book of essays called The Mechanical Bride, which analyzed various examples of “persuasion” in contemporary popular culture.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” as he wrote of the influence of communications media independent of their content. He contended that media affect society in which they play a role not by the content they deliver, but by the characteristics of the media themselves. True enough.

And how did McLuhan come to predict the rise of the Internet? It was right there in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which attempted to reveal how communications technology – alphabetic writing, printing presses, electronic media — affects cognitive organization and, in turn, social organization. Here’s what he had to say:

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its environment, and it will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

Remember, this was written in 1962!

McLuhan also used the term “surfing” in a way that seems uncannily similar to its meaning today – in his case, using the word “surfing” to refer to rapid, irregular and multidimensional movement through a body of knowledge.

More books would come from McLuhan’s pen in subsequent years, including:

 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (McLuhan’s best seller)
War and Peace in the Global Village
From Cliché to Archetype

All of these volumes sound pretty fascinating – definitely ones to explore in the future, although the biography provides good synopses of their contents.

It is difficult to think of someone that has had more influence over the world of media and advertising than Marshall McLuhan. Sure, there are people like David Ogilvy, but his influence has been confined almost exclusively to the advertising industry alone.

By contrast, the McLuhan’s biographer contends that McLuhan influenced scads of writers and critical thinkers – I was pleased to see Camille Paglia among them – along with politicians like Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jerry Brown. McLuhan was even named a “patron saint” of Wired Magazine, and a quote of his appeared on the publication’s masthead during the first decade of its publication.

And finally, it’s nice to discover that McLuhan’s years in academia have been given their due as well: The University of Toronto has continued his work by running a center at the school named, appropriately, the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.

Plunging Headlong into the Next Digital Decade

Looking back over the past ten years, so much has happened in the world of digital communications, it’s almost impossible to remember the “bad old days” of slow-loading web pages and clunky Internet interfaces.

And yet, that was the norm for many web users at the beginning of the decade.

So what’s in store for the upcoming decade? When you consider that a 120-minute movie file can be downloaded about as quickly as a single web page these days, how could data processing and download times get any faster than they are already?

Certainly, if the world continues with transistor-based computer chip designs, there’s very little room for further improvement. That’s because today’s chips continue to be based on the original 1958 Shockley transistor design – except that they contain many more transistors along with circuits that have been engineered smaller and smaller — down practically to the size of an atom.

We can’t get much smaller than that without a radical new design platform. And now, along comes “quantum computing” which goes well beyond the traditional binary system of using ones and zeros in information processing. The betting is that so-called “qubits” – quantum processor units – will become the new design paradigm in the 2010s that will dramatically increase processor speed and power once again.

[An alarming side effect of quantum processing, however, is the possibility that computers will become so much more powerful that current methods of encryption will become obsolete. Clearly, new ways of protecting information will need to be developed along with the new speed and capabilities.]

In tandem with the new advancements in data processing power and speed, industry prognosticators such as Wired magazine’s chief editor Chris Anderson are predicting that bandwidth and storage will become virtually free and unlimited in the coming decade. As a result, it’s highly likely that the decade will be one of much greater collaboration between people in “peer to peer” creation and sharing of information and media, online and in real-time. Think Facebook on steroids.