100 Years of McLuhan, Medium and Message


© Estate of Yousuf Karsh, California


THE CREATION ALWAYS SEEMS somehow destined to become better-known than its creator. 

For example, while innumerable people will have heard or spoken of “the global village”, few know who coined that catchphrase. It might seem to make no difference if one knows of the originator or not. But taking a closer look at the creator could help one better understand the creation.

Marshall McLuhan is commonly credited with both coining and popularizing the notion of “the global village” and anticipating the era of the Internet. In the 1960s, American journalist Tom Wolfe regarded McLuhan as a thinker on a par with Newton, Darwin, Einstein or Pavlov.  The relentlessly creative Wired magazine even adopted McLuhan as its patron saint in its debut 1993 issue,13 years after the Canadian media theorist died of a stroke in 1980.

As early as 1959, in a letter to a magazine editor, McLuhan used the term “the global village” to describe a pattern of the world that “is caused by the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time.” In the same letter, McLuhan also wrote, “The globe becomes a very small village-like affair, under electronic conditions, in which whatever happens to anybody, happens to everybody”.

According to McLuhan’s son, Eric McLuhanJames Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake (1939) and P. Wyndham Lewis‘ America and Cosmic Man (1948) may have played a role in inspiring his father about conceptualizing “the global village”.

But it was in 1962 that Marshall McLuhan elaborated on the global phenomenon in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, a book that immediately won Canada’s highest literary award, the Governor General’s Award for English-language non-fiction.

Another well-known aphorism attributed to McLuhan is “The medium is the message”. It was first introduced in his most popular book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which came out in 1964. What makes the idea different from the conventional wisdom is that for McLuhan, “it is the medium as an environment of services that produces the effects. The ‘message’ is the total happening, as it were, and not a special bit of data or a special point of view.”

And the medium McLuhan refers to is not only that of communication but also any technological extension of the human body, which includes language, number, clothing, housing, money, means of transportation, weapons and automation.

What might have made an impact on McLuhan’s understanding of medium and message? Two quotations that have not received widespread attention could provide a surprising clue to the mind of McLuhan.

One is, “In Christ, Medium becomes message. Christ came to demonstrate God’s love for man and to call all men to Him through himself as Mediator, as Medium. And in so doing he became the proclamation of his Church, the message of God to man. God’s medium became God’s message.”

The other, “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same…In fact, it is only at the level of a lived Christianity that the medium really is the message.”

The rest of this essay can ne read at http://www.themediaproject.org/article/medium-and-message .

Promise Hsu is a Beijing-based writer and editor. Since September 2008, he has been writing a column about the spiritual and intellectual foundations of a free and responsible society by focusing on factors that shape social institutions including church, company, university and political party. Hsu helped launch the Asian Business Leaders monthly, Fortune Times weekly and CCTV-9, China’s first 24-hour global news channel.

 Promise Hsu

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