Marshall McLuhan – Futurist
McLuhan isn’t often though of as a futurist, but consideration of his works indicates a considerable concern about the future:
“We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”
“We march backwards into the future.”
“The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.”
“The circuited city of the future will not be the huge hunk of concentrated real estate created by the railway. It will take on a totally new meaning under conditions of very rapid movement. It will be an information megalopolis.”
“Tomorrow is our permanent address.”
McLuhan was considered enough of a futurist to be included in Alvin Toffler’s edited book The Futurists (1972), along with himself, Arthur C, Clarke, Buckminster Fuller and others. This essay by Ken Hollings is about McLuhan as a futurist.
In January 1996, Wired magazine published an extensive interview with the celebrated author of Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan, in which he discussed with great animation and insight the effects that the new digital technologies were having upon our most basic perceptions. In fact, McLuhan seemed remarkably alert and well informed for someone who had been dead for the past fifteen years. As citizens of the 21st century, we have naturally grown accustomed to such intrusions. It was McLuhan himself, after all, who had observed that we only catch glimpses of the future through the rear-view mirror as we reverse boldly into tomorrow. So where was this new voice coming from? Did it emanate from the past or the future? Or had our perceptions of progress and its discontents become so compacted that the future had finally become the rear-view mirror? And was it still possible to change gears with a phantom hand on the wheel?
At the actual hour of his death on December 31st 1980, the man responsible for introducing into mass consciousness such flashcard concepts as ‘the global village’ and ‘the medium is the message’ had been all but forgotten. There was a time in the 1960s, however, when Professor Marshall McLuhan’s face would have been on the cover of Newsweek, his name slapped across car bumper stickers, his reputation as a wild predictor of cultural upheaval the subject of New Yorker cartoons. An academic who preferred talking with businessmen [than] to his fellow academics, a soberly attired polymath whose perceptions meshed with the colourful sloganeering of youth culture, what plugged McLuhan straight into the rapidly overheating world of the 1960s was his ability to explain television to itself.
In an age when electronic telecommunication systems were still considered as primary conduits to the future, this was no small talent. The fact that such explanations were rarely understood didn’t seem to matter much. ‘Marshall McLuhan, what yuh doin’?’ Henry Gibson would inquire with deadpan naivety on primetime TV as the media guru approached the height of his media fame.
When it comes to the future, however, you can’t kid a kidder.
McLuhan’s celebrity status was always directly dependent upon the degree to which he was systematically misunderstood, especially by the media. ‘I have no theories whatever about anything,’ he wrote to a detractor. ‘I make observations by way of discovering contours, lines of force and pressures. I satirize at all times, and my hyperboles are as nothing compared to the events to which they refer.’
Ultimately an exercise in repetition, prediction works well on TV, organizing words and concepts into rhythms. All of human history is composed of reruns. In 1968 McLuhan had to be constantly nudged awake during a special advance screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. ‘It’s nice to have the avant-garde behind you,‘ he observed afterwards.
When it comes to the future, expectations change.
Back in the 1950s, when McLuhan was first formulating his ideas on the media, the future was written about, discussed and analysed with such confidence that it took on an almost tangible presence, especially in the United States, where an unprecedented economic boom, coupled with a growing sense of its own importance on the international stage, prompted Henry R. Luce, founding father of Time Life Inc, to speak with increasing vigour of an ‘American Century’. ‘Why should we make a five-year plan,‘ the Partisan Review was wondering aloud by mid-decade, ‘when God seems to have had a thousand-year plan ready-made for us?’
How many consumer goods and technological innovations were summed up in that word, ‘ready-made’? How many indicators of prosperity and aids to gracious living? The future was no longer some vague and distant prospect. It was happening right in front of people’s eyes. ‘Progress is our most important product,’ future president Ronald Reagan announced in a black-and-white television pitch for General Electric as the company’s profits reached an all-time high. ‘If you’re sitting back at General Electric, you’re probably falling behind.’
McLuhan was less concerned with understanding the future than in anticipating it. To define media in terms of their content was to ignore their influence upon the human environment, their agency as means of perception. With content scrambling at us from interactive videogames, live videophone transmissions via satellite from Baghdad, globally networked stock markets feeding back into themselves, this is a good time to consider the applications of a simple observation from McLuhan’s Understanding Media, published in 1964:
‘The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no ‘content’. And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all.’
When it comes to the future, sincerity becomes a new form of irony. The advent of ‘reality television’ has seen to that. Meanwhile the light bulb has entered the toolbar of modern consciousness as an icon for creative thought – the ‘idea’ that flashes on over our heads, or at the top of our screens, alerting us to the arrival of something new and unforeseen. Or to put it another way, how many media analysts does it take to screw in a light bulb? Don’t wait too long for an answer.
Read the rest here: http://goo.gl/XxJNrJ
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