‘March Backwards Into the Future’ — Marshall McLuhan’s Century


By Tim Carmody – July 21, 2011

Thursday is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the literary scholar, media theorist and intellectual icon Marshall McLuhan.

In his books The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962),Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), War and Peace in the Global Village (1968) and From Cliché to Archetype (1970), McLuhan analyzed the effect of a wide range of media on individual psychology and common culture.

This essay examines McLuhan’s legacy by reading one of his rare experiments in new media, The Medium is the Massage, a collaboration with designer Quentin Fiore that remains McLuhan’s best-selling work.

The Medium Is the Massage, pp. 34-35

I take the book out of its envelope and open it at random. My thumbs cover perfectly two black-and-white photographs of thumbs. I laugh, nervously, and reach for my phone to take a photo. I have to remove one of my thumbs to hold the camera.

I am holding a book in one hand (that is no ordinary book) and a camera in the other (that is no ordinary camera). I can see the shadow of my thumb and the shadow of my hand holding the camera.

Later, I read the next page and discover that this spread is part of a larger argument (such as it is). The next two pages continue the text beginning “The book,” adding “is an extension of the eye…” overlaid against a photo of an eye. But for the moment, holding book and camera, I am both self-conscious and entirely immersed.

Immediately, McLuhan and Fiore want you to understand — you are not merely taking in information: it is information in a highly particular form, positioned in a definite relationship to your body. Every word and image in the book is aimed at disrupting the phony transparency of media.

Look! it demands. Look, right now, at what you are doing!

It is only an historical accident of our hyperliterate typographic culture that allows us to ignore the printed page as a particular and definite media form at all, just as the technology we have always known for generations ceases to be “technology” and becomes something else: “tools,” or “language,” or “furniture.”


pp. 40-41

I am typing this on what McLuhan would recognize as a flattened electric typewriter, powered by a tiny microcomputer, attached by a hinge to an impossibly thin television screen. Attached to the typewriter are headphones, through which I am listening to (but not watching) a digital video of author Tom Wolfe discussing McLuhan’s work. I do not look at my typing fingers, but at the text on the screen.

I have just installed a new software update on my microcomputer that will give me new tactile control over its actions, but will change what I have learned as Up to Down instead. This new motion control is called “natural.” My friends and other technology writers accustomed to using tablets assure me that I will quickly adjust myself to it.

On the screen, too, is a digital photograph of two pages from The Medium is the Massage. The text calls electric circuitry “an extension of the nervous system.” Media, it says,

by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world.

“When these ratios change,” the text now booms, “men change.”

At least while I am typing this, I believe it.


pp. 74-75

Image: A car in traffic. In the rear-view mirror, a superimposed silhouette of a horse-drawn buggy, as in a wagon train. The text below begins, “The past went that-a-way.”

McLuhan is, I think, too often hailed as a futurist. He was a futurist, perhaps but a most peculiar, maybe entirely idiosyncratic kind.

McLuhan’s most powerful contributions were of this sort: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand — including quite possibly McLuhan himself.

His best book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, digs into this past, showing how the advent of print — not a 20th-century invention, but a 15th-century one — helped make 20th-century human beings what they are: visual, fragmented, individual, hyperspecialized. It took five centuries for our art and politics to even begin to recognize the changes wrought by technical media.

We still experience our future by way of our past whenever we turn to McLuhan in order to understand what will happen next. We still think in categories half a century old that he generated to try to understand media that in some cases were older than he was.

*** Read the rest here: http://tinyurl.com/3h2gn2q ,

Tim is a technology and media writer for Wired. Among his interest are e-readers, Westerns, media theory, modernist poetry, sports and technology journalism, print culture, higher education, cartoons, European philosophy, pop music and TV remotes.

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