Toronto Star Editorial: Media was his message

21Jul11

What we associate with famed media pundit Marshall McLuhan are scattered phrases: The medium is the message. The global village. And of course his visionary sense — 50 years ago — of the way future communications technology would alter our lives. Many think that McLuhan foresaw the Internet.

Today, the 100th anniversary of his birth, is a moment to ponder the impact this communications guru had on his era, and the world.

In the 1960s after the Beat generation had waned and counterculture icons such as Timothy Leary had emerged, McLuhan was a huge intellectual force, known well beyond Canada. A television generation tuned in to his reflections on the transformative power of the medium they called their own.

McLuhan’s most celebrated aphorism — The medium is the message — often puzzled people. Mark Feldman, chief strategist the U of T’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, says the phrase challenges us to look beyond the obvious.

“Thus, the message of theatrical production is not the musical or the play being produced, but perhaps the change in tourism that the production may encourage,” Feldman notes. “Similarly, the message of a newscast is not the news stories themselves, but a change in the public attitude toward crime, or the creation of a climate of fear.”

Makes sense? It did to McLuhan, and to those who studied him.

Students of media in the 1960s understood that McLuhan was focusing on the way society communicates, decades before room-sized early computers shrank to the size of a cellphone, and the World Wide Web linked us all. They felt that McLuhan’s brilliant, unorthodox, forward thinking offered insights into the future. And they celebrated him for it.

Famously, he made a cameo appearance in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall, where he berated a pompous pseudointellectual for not grasping the first thing about his theories. He was interviewed by Playboy. He appeared on the popular comedy Laugh-In. His books were translated into 20 different languages. Through it all, until his death in 1980, he sported a tie and suit, looking like a Dad of the 1950s, a kind of Marshall Knows Best, at a time when his students were smoking dope, painting daisies on their cheeks and having love-ins.

Decades later, when the Internet was created, he would be named Patron Saint of Wired Magazine.

Today he is hailed as a brilliant prognosticator. He encouraged intellectual growth in Canada. He changed a fast-changing world. http://tinyurl.com/3e3ogo5

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