Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Marshall McLuhan - Digital Visionary

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birthday. To commemorate this milestone and recognize McLuhan's ongoing relevance to communication and media theory, various organizations and people have been holding events or writing about McLuhan. Although McLuhan is generally regarded as Canada's preeminent communication scholar and is still well known for his theories and concepts such "The medium is the message" and the "global village", his role as predictor and shaper of digital technology is less well known.

At a McLuhan event last evening a colleague and friend of McLuhan's, Prof. Bob Logan, related McLuhan's visions of future technology that has been realized. Logan's paper, McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight, addresses this topic and clarifyies other issues about McLuhan. The work is publised in full on the website McLuhan Galaxy, but Prof. Logan has allowed me to excerpt the passages regarding McLuhan's contributions and predictions to our digital culture.


So many of McLuhan’s pronouncements about the effects of electric media are prophetic because it seems as though he was aware of the coming of the Net, the Web and other digital media. A simple example of his prescience is that he, in fact, through his writing foreshadowed the Internet. William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, certainly deserves credit for coining the term cyberspace but long before Neuromancer was written or even conceived of, McLuhan (1967, p. 67) described the Internet in the following passage in response to being asked "How is the computer affecting education" McLuhan’s response was an almost exact description of the Internet:

The computer in education is in a very tentative state but it does represent basically speeded up access to information and when it is applied to the telephone and to Xerox it permits access to the libraries of the world, almost immediately, without delay. And so the immediate effect of the computer is to pull up the walls of the subjects and divisions of knowledge in favor of over-all field, total awareness – Gestalt.
McLuhan description of the Internet was complete with the exception of packet switching if you allow Xeroxing to represent the reproduction of a hard copy by a printer. And he opined this description two full years before the development of ARPANET in 1969, the forerunner of the Internet.

An even earlier remark by McLuhan (1962) in the Gutenberg Galaxy also foreshadows the Internet:

A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve individual encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
One can also interpret without too much of a stretch the retrieval of "individual encyclopedic function" in the above quote as a foreshadowing of Wikipedia as Derrick de Kerckhove once did (

McLuhan not only foreshadowed the Internet and Wikipedia, but he also foreshadowed, a Web site that connects companies that have a problem to solve with experts that Innocentive has aggregated. They call the process "Open Innovation," which they describe as follows:

Open Innovation allows many people from different disciplines to tackle the same problem simultaneously and not sequentially. Anyone can participate with collaborative technology and Open Innovation training. When many minds are working on the same problem, it will take less time to solve it.
McLuhan (1971 – with my emphasis) in a convocation address at the University of Alberta said:
The university and school of the future must be a means of total community participation, not in the consumption of available knowledge, but in the creation of completely unavailable insights. The overwhelming obstacle to such community participation in problem solving and research at the top levels, is the reluctance to admit, and to describe, in detail their difficulties and their ignorance. There is no kind of problem that baffles one or a dozen experts that cannot be solved at once by a million minds that are given a chance simultaneously to tackle a problem. The satisfaction of individual prestige, which we formerly derived from the possession of expertise, must now yield to the much greater satisfactions of dialogue and group discovery. The task yields to the task force.
McLuhan not only foreshadowed the development of the Internet and crowd sourcing he with his co-author George B. Leonard in an article in the popular magazine Look also explained why the digital media would be so compelling to young people and to a certain degree their elders. They suggested that the age of print and the fragmentation that it encouraged was over (McLuhan and Leonard, 1967).

More swiftly than we can realize, we are moving into an era dazzlingly different. Fragmentation, specialization and sameness will be replaced by wholeness, diversity and, above all, a deep involvement... To be involved means to be drawn in, to interact. To go on interacting, the student must get some-where. In other words, the student and the learning environment (a person, a group of people, a book, a programmed course, an electronic learning console or whatever) must respond to each other in a pleasing and purposeful interplay. When a situation of involvement is set up, the student finds it hard to drag himself away.
He and Leonard (ibid.) also predicted that the relationship to humankind’s knowledge would change with electrically configured information as we are beginning to see in this the Internet Age.

When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds. Then, the human brain will not have to serve as a repository of specific facts, and the uses of memory will shift in the new education, breaking the timeworn, rigid chains of memory may have greater priority than forging new links. New materials may be learned just as were the great myths of [p. 25] past cultures-as fully integrated systems that resonate on several levels and share the qualities of poetry and song.
Still another foreshadowing of McLuhan was that of the smart phone as described by his biographer Phillip Marchand (1989, p. 170).

He told an audience in New York City shortly after the publication of Understanding Media that there might come a day when we would all have portable computers, about the size of a hearing aid, to help mesh our personal experiences with the experience of the great wired brain of the outer world.

What makes this prediction even more amazing is that there were no personal computers at the time, no cell phones and no Internet (i.e. "the great wired brain of the outer world").
The notion of the need for keeping messages short and hence the power of the one-liner foreshadows in our digital era texting, instant messaging and Twitter.


I believe that I have only scratched the surface in explaining the ideas of this great thinker. No article can do justice to the ideas that Marshall McLuhan engendered. I hope that my essay helps the reader in their approach to McLuhan. However, the only way to understand McLuhan is to read him directly and figure out what he means for you for as he said “the user is the content.”


Marchand, Philip. 1989. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Toronto: Random House.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1967. “The New Education.” The Basilian Teacher, Vol. 11 (2), pp. 66-73.


Thanks to Bob Logan for permission to use this.

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