Marshall McLuhan

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The Singularitarians’ time frames are largely risible, but attention should be paid to their goals. What they suggest is often only a furthering what we already have. Looking at their predictions for tomorrow can tell us something about today.

For better or worse, humans are more united by technology than they ever have been before, and for some this is merely prelude. A new Futurism article looks at Peter Diamandis’ dream of “meta-intelligence,” which would require far more radical person-to-person connectedness as well as humans being tethered brain to cloud. His overly ambitious ETA may prove false, but paramount concerns about such an arrangement go far beyond hacking and privacy. Marshall McLuhan dreaded the Global Village he predicted, believing it could be our downfall.

Gary Wolf wrote in Wired in 1996:

McLuhan did not want to live in the global village. The prospect frightened him. Print culture had produced rational man, in whom vision was the dominant sense. Print man lived in a world that was secular rather than sacred, specialized rather than holistic.

But when information travels at electronic speeds, the linear clarity of the print age is replaced by a feeling of “all-at-onceness.” Everything everywhere happens simultaneously. There is no clear order or sequence. This sudden collapse of space into a single unified field ‘dethrones the visual sense.’ This is what the global village means: we are all within reach of a single voice or the sound of tribal drums. For McLuhan, this future held a profound risk of mass terror and sudden panic.•

Print has certainly been eclipsed, and the Internet and its social media have presented specific outsize problems even a visionary could never have seen coming. These tools can help topple regimes, and all the closeness has allowed those with good or evil intentions to pool their resources and mobilize.

Garry Kasparov is relatively hopeful about what this new normal means for us, but would his arch-nemesis Vladimir Putin have been able to effect the U.S. election without the wires that now run through us all? We have to accept at least the possibility that a highly technological society will be an endlessly chaotic one.

From Futurism:


Diamandis outlines the next stages of humanity’s evolution in four steps, each a parallel to his four evolutionary stages of life on Earth. There are four driving forces behind this evolution: our interconnected or wired world, the emergence of brain-computer interface (BCI), the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), and man reaching for the final frontier of space.

In the next 30 years, humanity will move from the first stage—where we are today—to the fourth stage. From simple humans dependent on one another, humanity will incorporate technology into our bodies to allow for more efficient use of information and energy. This is already happening today.

The third stage is a crucial point.

Enabled with BCI and AI, humans will become massively connected with each other and billions of AIs (computers) via the cloud, analogous to the first multicellular lifeforms 1.5 billion years ago. Such a massive interconnection will lead to the emergence of a new global consciousness, and a new organism I call the Meta-Intelligence.•

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The messenger is supposed to bring the truth, not his or her wishes. It was more than 50 years ago when Marshall McLuhan predicted a Global Village, and those who believed the theorist was happy about this development were listening, at best, with one ear. The prospect frightened him

McLuhan feared the whole world being connected, thought it an invitation for mayhem, rightly believing local skirmishes would be played out on a gigantic stage. Believing a flatter world will be a more peaceful one assumes that everyone is driven by money, not ideology, not madness. 

Everything seems to arrive with more speed and regularity now, social justice and sorties alike. The whole world is in you pocket now, and it’s exploding.

Excerpts from 1)  Mathieu von Rohr’s Spiegel essay “Apocalypse Now,” and 2) Nicholas Carr’s Rough Type post “The Global Village of Violence.”

From von Rohr:

We are living in an age of shocks and crises that could well be traumatizing in their rapid succession and concentration, since it’s not yet clear whether they’re only a temporary jolt or the beginning of a trend with no end in sight. Of course, the sheer number of conflicts has remained constant in recent years. But there is much indication that we find ourselves in a new era of global instability. The biggest geopolitical stories of our time are the destabilization in the Middle East, the European security order and the European Union. In addition, there has been a societal shift in many Western countries: Many citizens are angry at the elites, because they see themselves as victims of globalization, free trade and migration. This anger has enabled the rise of political movements from the fringe to the mainstream in only a few years: Donald Trump, the Brexit movement, Front National and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The classic political camps are dissolving as the battle between the political left and the right is replaced by one between Isolationists and Internationalists.

Every now and then, there are phases in international politics during which more happens in the span of a few weeks than would otherwise happen in decades. Do 2014 and 2016 fall into that category? They’re not comparable to the most dramatic phases of the past century, when both World Wars broke out; nor are they anything like 1989, when the Cold War ended and the world order was rearranged. It’s also unclear whether this year will end with the same chaotic violence it started with.

But it is rather likely that global insecurity will become the new status quo.•

From Carr:

We assume that communication and harmony go hand in hand, like a pair of flower children on a garden path. If only we all could share our thoughts and feelings with everyone else all the time, we’d overcome our distrust and fear and live together peaceably. We’d see that we are all one. Facebook and other social media disabuse us of this notion. To be “all one” is to be dissolved — and for many people that is a threat that requires a reaction.

Eamonn Fitzgerald points to a recently uploaded video of a Canadian TV interview with Marshall McLuhan that aired in 1977. By the mid-seventies, a decade after his allotted minutes of fame, McLuhan had come to be dismissed as a mumbo-jumbo-spewing charlatan by the intelligentsia. What the intelligentsia found particularly irritating was that the mumbo jumbo McLuhan spewed fit no piety and often hit uncomfortably close to the mark.

Early on in the clip, the interviewer notes that McLuhan had long ago predicted that electronic communication systems would turn the world into a global village. Most of McLuhan’s early readers had taken this as a utopian prophecy. “But it seems,” the interviewer says, with surprise, “that this tribal world is not very friendly.”•

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At least outwardly, William F. Buckley was approving in the 1990s of Rush Limbaugh replacing him as the voice of Conservatism, believing he was to be succeeded by a more populist talker. Neither pundit, however, was really a driving force in American society. They were just well-positioned observers as responsible for political movements as alarm clocks are for the sun’s rise. Both were simply the noise accompanying the moment, as commentators almost always are.

Buckley and Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer were figures we used to call “public intellectuals,” although quite often they behaved like adult babies hurling balls of ego at one another. I don’t know we’re worse for their absence (though I grant that when Mailer wrote of technology, he was quite insightful).

As Garry Wills states in a NYRB piece, a single episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report did more to elucidate than every last insult and threat of fisticuffs from these supposed heavyweights.

From Wills:

A more ambitious project is Kevin M. Schultz’s Buckley and Mailer. He argues that the 1950s was a placid time narcotized by Eisenhower. But two radical voices, Buckley from the right and Mailer from the left, called out across the dreary middle ground, shaking things up—deep calling to deep, in Schultz’s telling. When chaos broke out in the 1960s, the two men pulled back from the violence they had created.

But had they created it? The upsetting of the old order was accomplished mainly by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-war movement. Those three things, and the vehement opposition to them, did the real churning of the waters; and Buckley and Mailer were only briefly and peripherally involved in them. The real troublemakers were people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, opposed by the likes of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Feminists like Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett were opposed to the pious legions of Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye. On Vietnam, Benjamin Spock and Tom Hayden faced down Nixon’s hardhats and Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. These deeply committed people with real followings had little time for the filigreed warblings of Buckley or Mailer. Deep to deep? Rather, flamboyant shallow to flamboyant shallow. Buckley and Mailer did not make history. They made good copy.•


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Marshall McLuhan was right, for the most part. 

The Canadian theorist saw Frankenstein awakening from the operating table before others did, so the messenger was often mistaken for the monster. But he was neither Dr. Victor nor his charged charge, just an observer with a keen eye, one who could recognize patterns and realized humans might not be alone forever in that talent. Excerpts follow from two 1960s pieces that explore his ideas. The first is from artist-writer Richard Kostelanetz‘s 1967 New York Times article “Understanding McLuhan (In Part)” and the other from John Brooks’ 1968 New Yorker piece “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox.”


Kostelanetz’s opening:

Marshall McLuhan, one of the most acclaimed, most controversial and certainly most talked-about of contemporary intellectuals, displays little of the stuff of which prophets are made. Tall, thin, middle-aged and graying, he has a face of such meager individual character that it is difficult to remember exactly what he looks like; different photographs of him rarely seem to capture the same man.

By trade, he is a professor of English at St. Michael’s College, the Roman Catholic unit of the University of Toronto. Except for a seminar called “Communication,” the courses he teaches are the standard fare of Mod. Lit. and Crit., and around the university he has hardly been a celebrity. One young woman now in Toronto publishing remembers that a decade ago, “McLuhan was a bit of a campus joke.” Even now, only a few of his graduate students seem familiar with his studies of the impact of communications media on civilization those famous books that have excited so many outside Toronto.

McLuhan’s two major works The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) have won an astonishing variety of admirers. General Electric, I.B.M. and Bell Telephone have all had him address their top executives, so have the publishers of America’s largest magazines. The composer John Cage made a pilgrimage to Toronto especially to pay homage to McLuhan and the critic Susan Sontag has praised his “grasp on the texture of contemporary reality.”

He has a number of eminent and vehement detractors, too. The critic Dwight Macdonald calls McLuhan’s books “impure nonsense, nonsense adulterated by sense.” Leslie Fiedler wrote in Partisan Review “Marshall McLuhan. . .continually risks sounding like the body-fluids man in Doctor Strangelove.

Still the McLuhan movement rolls on.”•


From Brooks:

In the opinion of some commentators, what has happened so far is only the first phase of a kind o revolution in graphics. “Xerography is bringing a reign of terror into the world of publishing, because it
means that every reader can become both author and publisher,” the Canadian sage Marshall McLuhan wrote in the spring, 1966, issue of the American Scholar. “Authorship and readership alike can become production-oriented under xerography.… Xerography is electricity invading the world of typography, and it means a total revolution in this old sphere.” Even allowing for McLuhan’s erratic ebullience (“I change my opinions daily,” he once confessed), he seems to have got his teeth into something here. Various magazine articles have predicted nothing less than the disappearance of the book as it now exists, and pictured the library of the future as a sort of monster computer capable of storing and retrieving the contents of books electronically and xerographically. The “books” in such a library would be tiny chips of computer film — “editions of one.” Everyone agrees that such a library is still some time away. (But not so far away as to preclude a wary reaction from forehanded publishers. Beginning late in 1966, the long-familiar “all rights reserved” rigmarole on the copyright page of all books published by Harcourt, Brace & World was altered to read, a bit spookily, “All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information   storage and retrieval system …” Other publishers quickly followed the example.) One of the nearest approaches to it in the late sixties was the Xerox subsidiary University Microfilms, which could, and did, enlarge its microfilms of out-of-print books and print them as attractive and highly legible paperback volumes, at a cost to the customer of four cents a page; in cases where the book was covered by copyright, the firm paid a royalty to the author on each copy produced. But the time when almost anyone can make his own copy of a published book at lower than the market price is not some years away; it is now. All that the amateur publisher needs is access to a Xerox machine and a small offset printing press. One of the lesser but still important attributes of xerography is its ability to make master copies for use on offset presses, and make them much more cheaply and quickly than was previously possible. According to Irwin Karp, counsel to the Authors League of America, an edition of fifty copies of any printed book could in 1967 be handsomely “published” (minus the binding) by this combination of technologies in a matter of minutes at a cost of about eight-tenths of a cent per page, and less than that if the edition was larger. A teacher wishing to distribute to a class of fifty students the contents of a sixty-four-page book of poetry selling for three dollars and seventy-five cents could do so, if he were disposed to ignore the copyright laws, at a cost of slightly over fifty cents per copy.

The danger in the new technology, authors and publishers have contended, is that in doing away with the book it may do away with them, and thus with writing itself. Herbert S. Bailey, Jr., director of Princeton University Press, wrote in the Saturday Review of a scholar friend of his who has cancelled all his subscriptions to scholarly journals; instead, he now scans their tables of contents at his public library and makes copies of the articles that interest him. Bailey commented, “If all scholars followed [this] practice, there would be no scholarly journals.” Beginning in the middle sixties, Congress has been considering a revision of the copyright laws — the first since 1909. At the hearings, a committee representing the National Education Association and a clutch of other education groups argued firmly and persuasively that if education is to keep up with our national growth, the present copyright law and the fair-use doctrine should be liberalized for scholastic purposes. The authors and publishers, not surprisingly, opposed such liberalization, insisting that any extension of existing rights would tend to deprive them of their livelihoods to some degree now, and to a far greater degree in the uncharted xerographic future. A bill that was approved in 1967 by the House Judiciary Committee seemed to represent a victory for them, since it explicitly set forth the fair-use doctrine and contained no educational-copying exemption. But the final outcome of the struggle was still uncertain late in 1968. McLuhan, for one, was convinced that all efforts to preserve the old forms of author protection represent backward thinking and are doomed to failure (or, anyway, he was convinced the day he wrote his American Scholar article). “There is no possible protection from technology except by technology,” he wrote. “When you create a new environment with one phase of technology, you have to create an anti-environment with the next.” But authors are seldom good at technology, and probably do not flourish in anti-environments.•

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The New York Times started to go electric during the 1970s, beginning on the task of computerizing its newsroom to simplify production, but Marshall McLuhan was already dismayed by the antiquated way he had to consume the information. From a 1976 Barbara Rowes People article:

“For years, while he waited for breakfast, McLuhan read the New York Times, until he suddenly decided it was obsolete. ‘The complicated layout of the Times is 19th-century. To get through the whole damn thing would take at least a week. In the electronic age people want information quickly.’ He now picks up the news of the day from the Toronto Globe and Mail.

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Do people still consider Marshall McLuhan to be so many mumbles the way they did when he fell from grace, without cause, by 1980 or so? He wasn’t always right, but the theorist was no Nostradamus, whose writing needs to be spun like an angel on the head of a pin to appear to be right. McLuhan was more correct about the looming Information Age than anyone. From Paul Herbert’s Pacific-Standard piece, “The Medium Is the Message: 50 Years Later“:

“TWENTY YEARS AGO, IN the introduction to a re-print of Understanding Media, renowned editor Lewis H. Lapham wrote that much of what McLuhan had to say made a lot more sense in 1994 than it did in 1964, what with two terms of Reagan and the creation of MTV. Twenty years after that, the banality of McLuhan’s ideas have solidified their merit. When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, compared the expansion of big data to the planet developing a central nervous system, that’s McLuhan. When Chief Justice John Roberts opined that an alien from Mars might mistake the smartphone as an integral feature of human anatomy, that’s McLuhan, too. In 2014, it’s hard to overstate McLuhan’s prescience.

‘People who don’t like McLuhan in the academic world are either lazy, stupid, jealous, or some combination,’ says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, where McLuhan taught for a year in the late ’60s. ‘McLuhan wasn’t into commonsense, reasonable propositions. He liked looking at things in a poetic, metaphoric way.’

And it’s true: McLuhan had a penchant for speaking in riddles and rhymes that might baffle at first, but grow into epiphany if given the chance. His rhetorical style was hyperbole. He didn’t shy away from playing the holy fool, as Wired would later call him, and on a number of occasions claimed his mission was simply to probe the new terrain, not come back to camp with answers.”


McLuhan with Tom Wolfe, one of his champions, in 1970:

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In the new Technology Review article “The Limits of Social Engineering,” Nicholas Carr looks at the potential and pitfalls of Big Data, which can tell us where things are going but can also bury the lead. In the piece, Carr references a 1969 Playboy interview with Marshall McLuhan, which was both really wrong and really right. The opening:

“In 1969, Playboy published a long, freewheeling interview with Marshall McLuhan in which the media theorist and sixties icon sketched a portrait of the future that was at once seductive and repellent. Noting the ability of digital computers to analyze data and communicate messages, he predicted that the machines eventually would be deployed to fine-tune society’s workings. ‘The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness,’ he said. ‘Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.’ He acknowledged that such centralized control raised the specter of ‘brainwashing, or far worse,’ but he stressed that ‘the programming of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically.’

The interview appeared when computers were used mainly for arcane scientific and industrial number-crunching. To most readers at the time, McLuhan’s words must have sounded far-fetched, if not nutty. Now they seem prophetic. With smartphones ubiquitous, Facebook inescapable, and wearable computers like Google Glass emerging, society is gaining a digital sensing system. People’s location and behavior are being tracked as they go through their days, and the resulting information is being transmitted instantaneously to vast server farms. Once we write the algorithms needed to parse all that ‘big data,’ many sociologists and statisticians believe, we’ll be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what makes society tick.

One of big data’s keenest advocates is Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, a data scientist who, as the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, has long used computers to study the behavior of businesses and other organizations. In his brief but ambitious new book, Social Physics, Pentland argues that our greatly expanded ability to gather behavioral data will allow scientists to develop ‘a causal theory of social structure’ and ultimately establish ‘a mathematical explanation for why society reacts as it does’ in all manner of circumstances. As the book’s title makes clear, Pentland thinks that the social world, no less than the material world, operates according to rules. There are ‘statistical regularities within human movement and communication,’ he writes, and once we fully understand those regularities, we’ll discover ‘the basic mechanisms of social interactions.'”

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Here’s an odd pairing: Timothy Leary, famous salesman, just two years before his death, interviewed in 1994 by Greg Kinnear on Later. The LSD guru and software developer discusses once sharing a cell block with Charles Manson, whom he describes as a “right-wing, Bible-spouting militarist.” He also gives partial credit to Marshall McLuhan for the famous phrase: “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Begins at 11:45.

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Michael J. Arlen wrote a very funny, and, I think, very unfair piece about Marshall McLuhan in the April 1, 1967 edition of the New Yorker (paywalled here). It was a response to an NBC Experiment in Television program which featured the thoughts of the media and cultural critic. Arlen depicts McLuhan as master of the obvious, which at least wasn’t the usual critique. But I think history scores it a solid win for McLuhan. From the piece:

“The NBC program provided a fairly broad embrace, as these things go. ‘The electric age is having a profound effect on us,’ intoned the narrator, paraphrasing McLuhan. ‘We are in a period of fantastic change…that is coming about at fantastic speed. Your life is changing dramatically! You are numb to it!’ And ‘The walls of your rooms are coming down. It is becoming a simple matter to wire and pick out of your homes your private, once solely personal life and record it. Bugging is the new means for gathering information.’ And ‘The family circle has widened, Mom and Dad! The world-pool of information constantly pouring in on your closely knit family is influencing them a lot more than you think.’ Well, O.K. But it all sounds too much like the revival preacher, who really doesn’t tell you anything about hellfire you didn’t know before but who tells it to you more forcefully, with all the right, meliorative vogue words (‘fantastic change…fantastic speed…dramatically…numb’), and so makes you feel appropriately important and guilty in the process.  In this instance, McLuhan tells us, the fire next time will be technological and lit by an electric circuit, but, having told us that, the preacher seems content to take up the collection and walk out of the church, leaving us with happy, flagellated expressions and a vague sense of having been in touch with an important truth–if we could only remember what it was.”

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Marshall McLuhan thought traditional education was dead as soon as the Industrial Age began changing into a Digital one, thanks to TV’s potential to bring answers more directly to students of all ages. While his contemporary Ivan Illich thought we should shutter the schools, McLuhan favored a modernized Socratic method rather than repetition and memorization. Television turned out to be largely a false god, but the Internet is the real deal, both holy and unholy–abundant and interactive and interconnected and always quietly taking as much as it gives. What will become of the classrooms?

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In a 1966 issue of Ramparts magazine, writer Howard Gossage tried to explain the teachings of Marshall McLuhan, whose book from two years earlier, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, had announced him as a media star with a message. An excerpt:

“McLuhan’s theory is that this is the first generation of the electronic age. He says they are different because the medium that controls their environment is not print — one thing at a time, one thing after another — as it has been for 500 years. It is television, which is everything happening at once, instantaneously, and enveloping.

A child who gets his environmental training on television— and very few nowadays do not — learns the same way any member of a pre-literate society learns: from the direct experience of his eyes and ears, without Gutenberg for a middle man. Of course they do learn how to read too, but it is a secondary discipline, not primary as it is with their elders. When it comes to shaping sensory perceptions, I’m afraid that Master Gutenberg just isn’t in the same class with General Sarnoff or Doctor Stanton.

Despite the uproar over inferior or inept television fare, McLuhan does not think that the program content of television has anything to do with the real changes TV has produced; no more than whether a book is trashy or a classic has anything to do with the process of reading it. The basic message of television is television itself, the process, just as the basic message of a book is print. As McLuhan says, ‘The medium is the message.’

This new view of our environment is much more realistic in the light of what has happened since the advent of McLuhan’s ‘Electric Age.’ The Gutenberg Age, which preceded it, was one thing after another in orderly sequence from cause to effect. It reached its finest flower with the development of mechanical linkages: A acts on B which acts on C which acts on D on down to the end of the line and the finished product. The whole process was thus fragmented into a series of functions, and for each function there was a specialist. This methodology was not confined to making things; it pervaded our entire economic and social system. It still does, though we are in an age when cause and effect are becoming so nearly simultaneous as to make obsolete all our accustomed notions of chronological sequence and mechanical linkage. With the dawn of the Electric Age, time and speed themselves have become of negligible importance; just flip the switch. Instant speed.

However, our methodology and thought patterns are still, for the most part, based on the old fragmentation and specialism, which may account for some of our society’s confusion, or perhaps a great deal of it.”

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From a recent Atlantic article by Ross Andersen about video artist Jason Silva, a passage recalling a meeting between Marshall McLuhan and Timothy Leary, when the latter was imprisoned:

When Timothy Leary was in prison he was visited by Marshall McLuhan, who told Leary “you can’t stay way out on the fringes if you want to compete in the marketplace of ideas—if your ideas are going to resonate, you need to refine your packaging.” And so they taught Leary to smile, and they taught him about charisma and aesthetic packaging, and ultimately Leary came to appreciate the power of media packaging for his work. According to the article, this is where Timothy Leary the performance philosopher was born, and when he came out of jail all of the sudden he was on all these talk shows, and he was waxing philosophical about virtual reality, and downloading our minds, and moving into cyberspace. All of these ideas became associated with this extremely charismatic guy who was considered equal parts rock star, poet and guru scientist—and that to me suggests the true power of media communications, because these guys were able to take these intergalactic sized ideas and spread them with the tools of media.•

· · ·

Leary in Folsom prison, 1978:

A sample of Silva’s work:

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Fun 1984 doc about McLuhan that was scripted and “hosted” by Tom Wolfe.

See also:

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The opening of “Divine Inspiration,” Jeet Heer’s new article in The Walrus about the religious underpinnings of Marshall McLuhan’s vision:

“APPROPRIATELY ENOUGH, a century after his birth in 1911, Marshall McLuhan has found a second life on the Internet. YouTube and other sites are a rich repository of McLuhan interviews, revealing that the late media sage still has the power to provoke and infuriate. Connoisseurs of Canadian television should track down a 1968 episode of a CBC program called The Summer Way, a highbrow cultural and political show that once featured a half-hour debate about technology between McLuhan and the novelist Norman Mailer.

Both freewheeling public intellectuals with a penchant for making wild statements, Mailer and McLuhan were well matched mentally, yet they displayed an appropriate stylistic contrast. Earthy, squat, and pugnacious, Mailer possessed all the hot qualities McLuhan attributed to print culture. Meanwhile, McLuhan adopted the cerebral and cavalier cool approach he credited to successful television politicians like John F. Kennedy and Pierre Trudeau, who responded to attacks with insouciant indifference.

Early on in the program, McLuhan and Mailer tackle the largest possible issue, the fate of nature:

McLuhan: We live in a time when we have put a man-made satellite environment around the planet. The planet is no longer nature. It’s no longer the external world. It’s now the content of an artwork. Nature has ceased to exist.

Mailer: Well, I think you’re anticipating a century, perhaps.

McLuhan: But when you put a man-made environment around the planet, you have in a sense abolished nature. Nature from now on has to be programmed.

Mailer: Marshall, I think you’re begging a few tremendously serious questions. One of them is that we have not yet put a man-made environment around this planet, totally. We have not abolished nature yet. We may be in the process of abolishing nature forever.

McLuhan: The environment is not visible. It’s information. It’s electronic.

Mailer: Well, nonetheless, nature still exhibits manifestations which defy all methods of collecting information and data. For example, an earthquake may occur, or a tidal wave may come in, or a hurricane may strike. And the information will lag critically behind our ability to control it.

McLuhan: The experience of that event, that disaster, is felt everywhere at once, under a single dateline.

Mailer: But that’s not the same thing as controlling nature, dominating nature, or superseding nature. It’s far from that. Nature still does exist as a protagonist on this planet.

McLuhan: Oh, yes, but it’s like our Victorian mechanical environment. It’s a rear-view mirror image. Every age creates as a utopian image a nostalgic rear-view mirror image of itself, which puts it thoroughly out of touch with the present. The present is the enemy.”


The full ’68 McLuhan-Mailer debate the article references:

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Marshall McLuhan, in 1977, before electricity truly started to flow, recognizing early how new media would fray secrecy and expose information. But what if we know about everything and we still don’t do anything? What then?


From Lewis Lapham’s TomDispatch post about publishing and technology, a passage about Marshall McLuhan’s idea that what we create ends up creating us:

“Why then does it come to pass that the more data we collect — from Google, YouTube, and Facebook — the less likely we are to know what it means?

The conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing 50 years ago the presence of ‘an acoustic world,’ one with ‘no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis,’ a new ‘information environment of which humanity has no experience whatever.’ He published Understanding Media in 1964, proceeding from the premise that ‘we become what we behold,’ that ‘we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.’

Media were to be understood as ‘make-happen agents’ rather than as ‘make-aware agents,’ not as art or philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers. Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought.”

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Marshall McLuhan knew already in 1965 that the world was becoming virtual.


Ben Ehrenreich, a brilliant guy who is consumed by death, looked at the end of print in an electric age in his great 2011 essay, “The Death of the Book,” at the Los Angeles Review of Books. An excerpt:

“In 1962, Marshall McLuhan had published an almost spookily prescient book titled The Gutenberg Galaxy. It was, among other things, an extended critique of the culture of print. Technology shapes our consciousness, McLuhan argued, and the development of the printed book in the mid-fifteenth century had inaugurated a reorientation of human experience towards the visual, the regimented, the uniform and instrumental. Language, which had once been a wild, uncontainable affair between the oral and aural (think whisper, shout, and song, the playful market-square dynamism of dialect and argot) was silenced, flattened, squeezed into lines evenly arrayed across the rectilinear space between the margins. Spellings were standardized, vernaculars frozen into national languages policed by strict academies. Print, for McLuhan, was the driver behind all that we now recognize as modern. Through it nationalisms arose, and other horrors: capitalism, individualism, alienation. Time itself was emptied out—reduced, like the words on each page, to a linear sequence of homogeneous moments. Print had stolen something. Books had shrunk us. They had ‘denuded’ conscious life. ‘All experience is segmented and must be processed sequentially,’ McLuhan mourned. ‘Rich experience eludes the wretched mesh or sieve of our attention.’

An end was in sight. We had already entered a ‘new electric age’ characterized by interdependence rather than segmentation. ‘The world has become a computer,’ McLuhan wrote, ‘an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction.’ The Internet was still a Cold-War fantasy, but for McLuhan print’s corpse was already growing cold. (He dated the collapse of the Gutenberg Galaxy to 1905 and Einstein’s early work on relativity.) This was not necessarily cause for optimism. McLuhan coined the phrase ‘global village’ to describe the hyper-networked world that was already taking shape. He had no illusions, though, about the nobility of village life. Our newly TV-, telephone-, and radio-enwebbed multiverse could just as easily be ruled by ‘panic terrors … befitting a world of tribal drums’ as by any bright pastoral harmony. And so it was and is.”

In 1967, when Jacques Derrida took up the theme of ‘the end of the book’ in Of Grammatology, McLuhan’s ideas were still sufficiently in the air that the philosopher could refer to ‘this death of the civilization of the book of which so much is said’ without need for further explanation. But the ‘civilization of the book,’ for Derrida, meant more than the era of moveable type. It preceded Gutenberg, and even the medieval rationalists who wrote of ‘the book of nature’ and via that metaphor understood the material world as revelation analogous to scripture. The book for Derrida stood in for an entire metaphysics that reached back through all of Western thought: a conception of existence as a text that could be deciphered, a text with a stable meaning lodged somewhere outside of language. ‘The idea of the book is the idea of a totality,’ he wrote. ‘It is the encyclopedic protection of theology and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing, against its aphoristic energy and … against difference in general.’ Those, in case you couldn’t tell, are fighting words.”


Dylan goes electric, Newport, 1965:

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Marshall McLuhan deconstructs a go-go bar, fucking ruining it for everyone.


Marshall McLuhan and artist and ace typographer Harley Parker enjoy a bull session in 1967’s “Picnic in Space,” which is informed by the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Godard.

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Marshall McLuhan watching the tube, urging us to drown out the white noise, to observe more closely.


If I was asked to name a single recent book that best crystallizes the media-drenched world we live in today, the clever things we’ve done to ourselves and each other, the way the sun never sets nor rises anymore in our endless stream of flickering images, the way we’re smarter and dumber, closer together and further apart, I would choose Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!  That may seem like an odd thing to say about a book written about someone who died in 1980, but Coupland’s brilliant first chapter analyzes the contemporary media landscape with rare insight and then proceeds to march forward from McLuhan’s birth as the philosopher grows to understand the signs and symbols and links of a brave new world that was in its infancy (and still is). Coupland is mostly known for his fiction, and that’s a proper match for McLuhan, whose ideas were fantastic–they couldn’t be true, yet, more often then not, they were.

The 1962 McLuhan quote that Coupland uses at the book’s outset:

“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. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”


“You know nothing of my work”:

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For all my interest in Marshall McLuhan, I never realized until now that there was an experimental audio version of The Medium Is the Massage that was released by CBS Records in the late 1960s. It’s a pastiche that upends itself, by design. I bet Zappa knew it well.


Early global television broadcast, 1967, which features media seer Marshall McLuhan as a guest. “It’s a real humming, buzzing confusion,” he says, referring to the crowded control room, but also predicting the nature of the more connected, interactive media to come.


Speaking of Marshall McLuhan, in the 1996 Wired article, Channeling McLuhan,” Gary Wolf interviewed one of the Canadian media philosopher’s doppelgangers, a shadowy person who posted to a computer mailing list under the McLuhan name. It was an odd gambit, but the exchange elicited a contrarian idea about the invasion of privacy in the digital age, which seems an even more apt point of discussion now. An excerpt:

Wired: Do you think privacy and anonymity are being eroded in the digital age?

“MM”: Don’t be fooled by ‘anonymity.’ There is no such thing, since every node in a communication system must have an ID. Concerns about privacy and anonymity are outdated. Cypherpunks think they are rebels with a cause, but they are really sentimentalists.

In the ’50s, men were crying about the ‘mass’ man and spilling tears over too much anonymity. And they were right, or more right than the cypherpunks. Factories and corporations gave men roles, not souls. Industrial society was anonymous. Cities, factories, secret ballots with mechanical polling booths – that’s anonymity. The Big Brother bogeyman of the machine age used technology to enforce anonymity and prevent anybody from doing his own thing.

The era of politics based on private identities, anonymous individuals, and independent citizens began with the French Revolution and Napoleon’s armies (a product of the popular press) and ended with Hitler (the product of radio). The cypherpunks are still marching to the same martial music. You think private individuals and mass industrial society are opposites? They are part of the industrial configuration. Instantaneous electronic society gives everybody an identity – which we all want, and which we all also want to lose – while putting almost intolerable pressure on our sense of privacy.

Privacy disappears in the simultaneous stimulation of our patterns of thought.”

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