Mark Federman on Marshall McLuhan


Did global message resonate at home?

MASSAGING THE MEDIA: Marshall McLuhan at the Centre for Culture and Technology. It was founded in 1963 by U of T as an incentive to keep McLuhan, who was being offered positions at other universities. (Photo courtesy McLuhan 100)

It’s been 100 years since the birth of Marshall McLuhan, some 60 years since his academia began catching on and about 30 since the founder of the phrase “global village” died.

But according to one McLuhan expert, most of us are still living in a world that existed about 200 years ago.

Mark Federman is the former chief strategist for the McLuhan Program, an educational curriculum at University of Toronto that focuses on McLuhan’s works in the study of media theory. Federman also holds a PhD in adult education and counselling psychology, and spends much of his time lecturing on McLuhan’s analytics around the world.

July 21 marked 100 years since the birth of McLuhan, who was head of University of Toronto’s Centre for Culture and Technology until a year before he died in 1980. A look back at not only how he has influenced the world, but how, and even if he has influenced Toronto — beyond living in Wychwood Park and having a school on Avenue Road named after him — is in order.

But therein lies the problem.

It is not possible simply to look at what McLuhan said, look at the world today and draw a conclusion, Federman says. Rather, it must first be understood how McLuhan thought.

“McLuhan is hellishly difficult to understand because you can’t understand McLuhan in the conventional, academic way,” he said over the phone just days before the centenary. “You cannot take his stuff and say ‘McLuhan said that and it looks like this.’ You can’t do that.”

But Federman says a lot of people do, and it’s an inapplicable way of trying to decipher what McLuhan was saying

“It’s not what McLuhan said or wrote that’s important for us today,” he said. “It’s the way he figured it out.

“We need to see a future that is already here, if we only know how to look at it right, and if we can do that we have a chance at navigating our world out of the chaos that it seems to have become. It is only chaotic because we are still living in the last cultural epoch.”

The cultural epoch Federman is referring to is one that he says began with the demonstration of the printing press in 1844. Prior to that, he claims there had only been two other cultural epochs in 3,000 years: one was the changeover of society being predominantly oral in its communication to gaining a written alphabet; the second with the invention of the printing press, allowing for movable type. The reason they are cultural epochs, Federman says, is their profound effect on how people communicated.

“Every time we change the dominant way in which we communicate with one another in society, we turn the entire society upside down, inside out — and all of its institutions change fundamentally and forever,” he said, citing education and governance as examples of the affected institutions.

These cultural epochs take about 300 years to transition completely into the new epoch, Federman says. That leaves us right smack in the middle of a transition period, where we are still seeing evolving technologies like TV and the Internet. And Federman says that by using McLuhan analytics, it leaves us unaware of the full impact of these technologies.

“What McLuhan taught us was that the effects precede causes,” Federman said. “We will notice the effect of our new technologies and won’t know how to understand them or make sense of them, and therefore we’ll mostly ignore them until long after they’ve already done their thing and moved on.”

Sounds a bit confusing, but that’s normal. Federman says he has educated professors who had been teaching about McLuhan for more than 20 years on McLuhan, only to realize they had completely misunderstood him for years. Again, it comes down to how McLuhan is interpreted.

“The best way to understand McLuhan is to use McLuhan’s techniques on himself, on his work and break down his work using his tools and then understand what’s actually going on,” he said.

Now that there’s an understanding of how to understand McLuhan, do we know how great his influence was? Federman says yes — but it’s almost negligible. He says that, aside from fans of McLuhan and a handful of media students, there is virtually no direct influence.

But that doesn’t mean he had no impact. Federman says emergent events are prime examples of McLuhan’s thinking at work.

“Whether it’s Tahrir Square or Old Spice Guy — it’s the same phenomenon,” he said. “It’s enabled by environments of complex influences and in that environment, somewhere, is Marshall McLuhan and his ideas that influenced people that influenced people that created what we have today.”

Of course, what we have today is different from what McLuhan saw in his time, but Federman says his thinking remains the same. Where McLuhan saw TV playing a tremendous global role in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, we now see today most recently through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in the Arab uprisings.

“What he saw was the ability for the world to enter our living rooms,” Federman said. “So he saw this idea that he expressed as the ‘global village’ — in other words the whole world is crammed into something the size of Leaside.”

What McLuhan spoke about 50 years ago is what we are seeing today, according to Federman. He described it as the ability to see a future that has already happened.

This means it is entirely fair to say McLuhan has had a global impact. But again, did McLuhan impact Toronto in any way?

“In McLuhan thinking, there’s no distinction between global and local,” Federman says. “We are all one tweet away from anybody else in the world.”

Federman used John F. Kennedy’s infamous grammatical gaffe of “Ich bin ein Berliner” as an example of something that is technically true in the global village. We are all Berliners. Likewise, we are all Torontonians.

And in that respect, Federman agreed it is fair to say that McLuhan has had an impact on Toronto.

He also cited McLuhan analytics as a major stepping stone in the transition between cultural epochs, saying the previous epoch is outdated and that McLuhan is the new era of thinking. And that difference in thinking presents a difference in whether it looks like McLuhan has had an impact.

“If you look at it in the old way, then (McLuhan’s impact) looks minimal,” he said. “If you see it from the new ground, then it’s obvious.”

Federman said the potential for the world in the new cultural epoch, employing McLuhan’s thinking, is limitless. He went so far as to say McLuhan analytics has the potential to change and transform the world entirely — sort of like what he said happens during the transition to the next cultural epoch.

“Imagine if I could wave a magic McLuhan wand and all of our politicians, CEOs, educators, workers, activists and everybody could see the world using these tools,” Federman said. “We would see our way to ending the major intractable problems with which we’re faced…

“We would see the dynamics that everybody else is missing because we are trained in a very old way of thinking.”

While Federman says much of the world is still thinking in the manner of a few centuries ago, there is one century we should be focusing on instead.

“If we can take any learning from his 100th anniversary it is precisely that,” he said. “We need to think as Marshall McLuhan did.”

Mark Federman


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