McLuhan’s legacy is alive and tweeting

16Jul11

Out in the deepest reaches of the Twittosphere, they’ve been madly tapping out 140-character tributes this week, imagining what the man who predicted the World Wide Web 20 years before it happened would say today

Marshall McLuhan, who died in 1980, would have turned 100 next Thursday. As early as 1962, the Canadian media guru envisioned a computer as a research and communication device, perhaps even a tool that could act as a television, library, encyclopedia and personalized shopping plaza.

Marshall McLuhan, who died in 1980, would have turned 100 next Thursday. As early as 1962, the Canadian media guru envisioned a computer as a research and communication device, perhaps even a tool that could act as a television, library, encyclopedia and personalized shopping plaza. Photograph by: ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN REEVES AND ROBERT CROSS, The Gazette

Out in the deepest reaches of the Twittosphere, they’ve been madly tapping out 140-character tributes this week, imagining what the man who predicted the World Wide Web 20 years before it happened would say today.

“I #hacked the medium and made the message #opensource,” quipped one contributor to ABC Pool’s TweetLikeMcLuhan project, based in Australia.

“The global village has become the glocal village,” says another.

“Social media: instead of being with others, we are alone together,” says a third.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto English professor who coined the terms “global village” and “the medium is the message,” would have been 100 next Thursday.

What’s the legacy of the great Canadian media guru in the age of Facebook, MySpace and Kindle? Was he a futuristic soothsayer, an academic crank or a Cubist jazz poet inspired by mosaics and the avant-garde works of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso?

“I may be wrong, but I’m never in doubt,” said McLuhan – whose ground-breaking books on communication theory made him so famous he had a cameo appearance as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – in a typically self-confident rebuke to those who dared to question his futuristic theories and, at times, scattershot methodology.

McLuhan’s texts, such as Understanding Media, can seem dense and incomprehensible. Essentially, the communications pioneer argued that electronic technology was rapidly transforming not only how we lived, but how we learned, and even how our brains worked.

Back then, of course, the terrible, wonderful, things reportedly wreaking havoc with our synapses were still transistor radios and colour televisions with six channels. Texting motorists, cyclists with iPods and cyber-hacking reporters were still a distant galaxy away.

As early as 1962, McLuhan, who died in 1980, envisioned a computer as a research and communication device, perhaps even an “extension of consciousness” which would do the work of a television, library, encyclopedia and personalized shopping plaza.

But by the time Will Straw was a graduate student in the late 1970s, McLuhan’s ideas had largely fallen from grace.

“He seemed a kind of embarrassing holdover from 1960s hyped-up utopian thinking. In the 1980s, the cutting-edge of media studies for grad students involved thinking about identity (gender, race, etc.) and not much about media,” said Straw, a communication studies professor and director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada.

As new media forms emerged in the 1990s, McLuhan came back into fashion.

“There was no more significant sign that the attitude toward McLuhan was shifting than when he was depicted as the patron saint of Wired magazine, which brought him to the attention of a new generation,” says Charles

Acland, Concordia University research chair in communication studies.

For Straw, who – fittingly – answered questions for this article by email from Europe, “it’s less McLuhan’s ideas about the global village than his thoughts on media as extensions of our senses that make him relevant today.

“Media more and more require us to rethink what it means to be human. When we walk down the street with earplugs in our ears and Bluetooth receivers wrapped around our heads and other digital devices measuring our insulin levels or heart rhythms, who can say where the human body ends and what McLuhan called its ‘extensions’ begin? When we compulsively check incoming Twitter feeds or Facebook likes, who can say whether media are just providers of information (as pre-McLuhan thinkers might have) or, in fact, ways of re-organizing our nervous systems (as McLuhan would probably say)?

“The media is sometimes the message, but it’s more and more experienced as jolts or waves of stimulus and ways of expanding our senses – and these are ideas we would have difficulty formulating were it not for McLuhan.”

Acland, the editor of the book Residual Media, still has trouble with what he sees as McLuhan’s shoddy scholarship – a bad habit of making blanket statements that weren’t actually proven and didn’t hold up under intense scrutiny.

With “the medium is the message,” for instance, McLuhan suggested that all you needed to know was what the media was to understand its complexities. “He often relied on sketchy psychological and sociological research about neurological shifts. It was for this that he was thoroughly trounced, because he was wrong,” Acland said. “You have to take so many factors into consideration when doing any kind of sociological studies of people’s behaviour. It requires delicate study with a high degree of nuance. Human society is so complex.”

Acland considers McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride – an exploration of culture and social roles, as seen through advertisements – his best work.

“Perhaps the most significant aspect of McLuhan’s legacy was his willingness to explore what were then new areas of study,” Acland said. “The notion that a professor of English literature was interested in popular culture – in advertising, movies and television, in how computers worked – shifted peoples’ ideas of what needed to be taken seriously if you were going to try to understand the contemporary world.”

Acland wonders whether McLuhan, who was embraced by advertising and marketing types and mimicked by such pop culture figures as Andy Warhol and Timothy Leary (“Turn in, tune in, drop out”), may have been dazzled by fame.

“He was very interested in his own celebrity. A lot of what he said was nonsensical. He came up with these catchy aphorisms that he then used for the next 20 years, much as contemporary ‘futurologists’ do,” Acland said. “Still, he continues to be inspiring to artists for his non-linear ways to represent ideas and thinking.”

Those inspired include Darren Wershler, Concordia University research chair in Media and Contemporary Literature, author of The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, and Christian Bök, an avant-garde poet from Toronto whose Xenotext Experiment aspires to encode a poem into the DNA of the bacteria Deinoccus radiodurans.

Last year, Wershler delivered the inaugural address at the FutureEverything conference in Manchester, setting up the McLuhan in Europe centenary happening in Berlin.

Wershler contends that those who focus on McLuhan as a technological fortune-teller are missing the point. McLuhan, he says, was really a poet who was at his best conjuring up those “philosophical bumper stickers” for which he is best remembered.

“McLuhan was not a futurist. In fact, the later you get in his work, the crappier it is.” He argues that McLuhan, who had studied at Cambridge University before returning to work at U of T, was probably more familiar than anyone else in Canada at the time with what was happening among modernist writers and artists in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. It was with thoughts of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the poetry of Ezra Pound and the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, says Wershler, that McLuhan concocted his phrase ‘poems’ and envisioned the newspaper as a mosaic, where a reader could absorb the world’s events in any particular order or disorder.

(It’s worth noting that in a portrait by meticulous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, McLuhan is seen leafing through an art book, open to an iconic mosaic of Queen Theodora.)

“McLuhan writes like a poet, and if you read it like a poem, it makes sense,” said Wershler, who uses McLuhan’s “Laws of Media” as brainstorming tools in his writing classes.

In recent years, Straw said there has been a growing recognition of McLuhan’s media musings as “characteristically (if not uniquely) Canadian. That is, media help us to locate ourselves in the world and in relation to other people and places, and this has been a long-standing concern of other Canadian thinkers like the historian Harold Innis, now considered a key founder of media thinking.”

You can check out the McLuhan buzz yourself at Twitter.com/FauxMcLuhan

Read more: http://tinyurl.com/5sxvgwp

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2 Responses to “McLuhan’s legacy is alive and tweeting”

  1. Mr. McLuchan was an intellectual thug.

    • I don’t think you’d be saying that, except for the fact that McLuhan [please mind the spelling] said it himself and you read it somewhere. However, McLuhan also said, “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say”. And what precisely do you suppose an “intellectual thug” is? Sounds like hyperbole to me. Nothing in McLuhan’s life that I’m aware of suggests thuggishness, but maybe you know something I don’t……..AlexK


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