The Toronto Star: Marshall McLuhan is ‘still ahead of us’


A century after his birth, Marshall McLuhan is ‘still ahead of us’

Marshall McLuhan.


Published On Fri Jul 15 2011

By Oakland Ross Feature Writer
If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, there isn’t much that would surprise him — not the Internet, or Google, or Twitter, or WikiLeaks, or even the phone-hacking scandal now transfixing much of the U.K.

In broad outline, if not in precise detail, he predicted all of these and more.

“Rereading him, I still get new insights,” says Robert Logan, a former colleague of the Canadian media guru some now call The First Seer of Cyberspace. “The man was a total genius. If he came back today, on his 100th anniversary, he would say, ‘Yeah, that’s about what I expected — and people haven’t learned a thing.”

Possibly, they never will.

Or maybe the heightened popular interest and critical attention being accorded McLuhan during this, the centenary of his birth, may yet help us fumble toward a clearer understanding of the parlous digital world that he anticipated and whose name he coined — the global village.

“McLuhan’s value today lies in applying his methods,” says Mark Federman, former chief strategist at the McLuhan Centre in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. “It’s cool that he predicted the future, but what we should do is learn from his methods.”

Those methods aren’t easy to summarize, much less emulate, and there is considerable disagreement among academics about the meaning of McLuhan’s often cryptic or even oxymoronic pronouncements — “the future of the future is the present,” for example, or “the effects come first; the causes, later” — but there is no doubt the man’s stature and influence are firmly in the ascendant once again, after a long period of decline.

More than anything else, it’s the frenetic expansion of the Internet in recent years that has renewed international fascination with the Canadian communications visionary who was born in Edmonton in 1911 and died in Toronto in 1980 at the age of 69. He would have turned 100 this coming Thursday.

“In North America, for quite a long time, he was considered the most overrated media guru of all time,” says B.W. Powe, a former student of McLuhan’s and now a professor of English at York University. Powe recently returned from a European speaking tour that included talks on McLuhan’s work in Naples, Bologna and Barcelona, among other cities.

“McLuhan is still ahead of us,” he says.

McLuhan’s hotly debated star is likely as high now as it was during his glory years at the University of Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was busily charting the topography of an electronically connected world that was a looming reality then and seems nearly all-pervasive now.

Wired magazine recently proclaimed McLuhan as its “patron saint,” marking his posthumous return to the kind of celebrity he enjoyed three or four decades ago when he was a cult figure in Canada, the United States and much of the world — a dapper, erudite visionary who spoke in a Delphic, aphoristic style that seemed to owe as much to poetry as science.

The most influential publications in the world — NewsweekTimeThe New York Times,among others — clamoured to promote his ideas and to parse his aphorisms in their pages.

Then, as now, it often seemed his words could mean almost anything or, perhaps, almost everything.

“With any profound thinker who is ahead of us, there will be as many interpretations as there are people wandering in the desert,” says Powe. “People forget his roots are in poetry, literature, the artifact of the word. He spoke poetically and aphoristically, and that leads to interpretation.”

McLuhan’s best-known book — with the seemingly prosaic title Understanding Media — appeared in 1964 and soon gave birth to an intellectual cottage industry that brought together pipe-smoking professors and leather-jacketed students in university common rooms and lecture halls around the world: Understanding (or Misunderstanding) McLuhan.

The debate goes on.

This year, and especially this month, a new generation of scholars is joining its counterparts from generations past, as McLuhanites around the world mark the century that has clocked past since his birth. They are holding discussions, listening to lectures, attending multimedia displays and generally reconsidering the theories of the man who became famous for proposing — among much else — that the medium is the message and the content is us.

Born into a middle-class Alberta household, McLuhan was educated in Canada and later in Britain, where he studied at Cambridge University. He returned to North America in 1936.

A decade later, he took up a faculty position at St. Michael’s College, a Catholic enclave at the University of Toronto. By then he was married — to Corinne Lewis, originally from Texas — and had converted to Roman Catholicism. The couple would eventually have six children.

“He was a mystic Catholic humanist,” says Powe. “He was not an optimist but a man of hope.”

He was also fated to be a target of misunderstanding.

As McLuhan’s fame and influence grew, it became common in the public mind to perceive him as a champion of the phenomena he studied — as an advocate of the digital revolution, for example, or a devoted citizen of the global village, or an ardent proponent of any medium that manages to be its own message.

It wasn’t so.

McLuhan rarely, if ever, advocated anything.

“He wasn’t a champion of technology or opposed to technology,” says Logan. “He was neither a technophile nor a Luddite. All he wanted to do was make people aware of both sides of the coin.”

McLuhan himself went further.

“I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change,” he once said in a television interview, speaking with a characteristically inscrutable tone. (Was he serious? Or merely teasing?) “Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I’m resolutely against.”

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