Seminar celebrates the work of Wired Patron Saint Marshall McLuhan


By Katie Scott   –   04 October 11

The terms “Global Village” and the “Medium is the Message” have become part of the common lexicon for talking about these connected times, but the name of the person who created them isn’t perhaps as well known.

Named a Patron Saint by  Wired US magazine, media theorist and author Marshall McLuhan was born 100 years ago; and this anniversary is being marked by a series of film screenings, filmed interviews and talks by cross-artform venue and producer Watershed in Bristol.

Clare Reddington has been involved in  organising the events, which include a one-day seminar, taking place on 6 October. She is director of iShed and the Pervasive Media Studios and has also appeared in our  Wired 100 for the last two years running. Speaking to, she said: “McLuhan was predicting a lot of the shift that we’re now seeing in technology and, therefore culture, ahead of the game. As cloud computing and ubiquitous computing have come into their own, it’s worth re-examining some of his work. We are all aware of his work without possibly having delved into it.”

Born in 1911, McLuhan’s achievements include the books  The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962),  Understanding Media (1964), and  The Medium Is The Message (1967); and he was also cast by Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

Fundamental to McLuhan’s theories was the idea that technology is an extension of ourselves — that “a network infrastructure could become an extension of the nervous system”, says Reddington. She adds: “If you consider this in relation to the time that McLuhan was writing, in the 1960s, this seems crazy but it’s different now when our mobile phones are glued to our hands and we have cloud computing. In a way, these devices have become extensions of ourselves.”

And how we deliver our messages, whether via social networks, in print or via television, for example, is as important as the message itself, McLuhan argued. In Understanding Media, he writes: “The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.

“The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium.”

His son, Dr Eric McLuhan says that this statement is as relevant to “the media of print, television, computers and now the internet”. Quoting his father, he says: “The medium is the message” because it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”

For Reddington, it is the notion of the Global Village that she believes is most relevant to today’s society. In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes: “…since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear.” Adds Reddington: “…our tribal loyalties aren’t necessarily geographically based anymore.”

The one-day seminar will re-examine McLuhan’s work. Speakers include former BBC/Channel 4 commissioner Matt Locke, art curator and McLuhan peer Ihor Holubizky and cultural commentator Paul Morley. There will also be a screening of Bruce Bacon’s 1967 film,  Picnic in Space, starring McLuhan. There will also be screenings of films that relate to McLuhan’s work including David Cronenberg’sExistenZ;  The Social Network and the crowdsourced patchwork of YouTube clips  Life in a Day. As Reddington says: “We are all aware of McLuhan’s work without possibly having delved into it.”

Picnic in Space Trailer (1967)


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