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Culture

Marshall McLuhan, his life and work

Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan became a worldwide legend in media and technology theory. A century after his birth, his work and aphorisms - like "the medium is the message" - are still iconic.

Marshall McLuhan, pictured in his study in 1968

Marshall McLuhan made a point of looking beyond the obvious

Although Marshall McLuhan did not live to see the invention of the World Wide Web, passing away over a full decade before its debut in 1991, he was a media theorist, scholar, and professor whose work continues to have a profound impact on contemporary media, culture and technology theory.

The Canadian philosopher famously coined the phrases "the global village" and "the medium is the message."

In addition to teaching at the University of Toronto for over 30 years and publishing numerous books and essays, McLuhan became something of a pop icon as well, appearing frequently on TV. He even made a cameo appearance in the 1977 Woody Allen film "Annie Hall," where he delivered a now famous line: "You know nothing of my work!"

McLuhan is often viewed as something of a prophet in media and technology circles, and was even dubbed as the “patron saint,” of the American technology magazine, Wired, in its debut issue in 1991.

He was born July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and later received degrees from universities in Canada and the United Kingdom. In 1951, he authored his first book, “The Mechanical Bride,” a series of short essays that critique modern print advertising and the implicit messages behind them. McLuhan meant the essays to be read casually, and in no particular order.

Man on computer

Marshall McLuhan seemingly predicted the Internet in 1962

The global village

His 1962 work, "The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man," explored the early concept of the "global village" - the homogenization of culture through modern, pervasive broadcast media.

"Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library, the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction," he wrote. "And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence."

In the same book, McLuhan seemed to also predict the modern Internet, seven years before its birth in 1969.

"The next medium, whatever it is - it may be the extension of consciousness - will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form," he wrote. "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."

Man watching TV

McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message"

The medium is the message

However, it was his seminal 1964 work, "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man," that solidified his work and notoriety.

In it, McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message," meaning that the content of a medium is less relevant than the medium itself. For example, he posited that an evening television news broadcast about crime (the content) is not really about the crime itself, but the overarching message is to change the public's attitude towards crime by showing immediate, visceral images of crime.

"This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology," wrote McLuhan.

Mark Federman, chief strategist at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, put it another way in a 2004 essay: "A McLuhan message always tells us to look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing."

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Kate Bowen

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