Four Visionaries Who Saw the Future: Vannevar Bush, Marshall McLuhan, Richard Feynman, Tim Berners-Lee,

27Sep15

4 visionaries

By Greg Satell

Successful people solve problems.  Look at any great fortune, whether it be Carnegie, Ford or Gates and you find that the source of their vast accomplishment was a problem solved.  Even more prosaic executives spend most of their time solving one problem or another, with greater or lesser skill.

The difference, of course, can be attributed to the scale and difficulty of the problems.  All too often, we get so mired down in day-to-day challenges that the bigger issues fall by the wayside, being left for another day which never seems to come.  That, in the final analysis, is the difference between the mundane and the sublime.

With that in mind, we must pay special attention to those whose ideas had impact far beyond their own lifespan.  It is they who were able to see not only the problems of their day, but ones that, although they seemed minor or trivial at the time, would become consequential—even determinant—in years to come.  Here are four such men and what we can learn from them.

Marshall McLuhan And The Global Village

Where Vannevar Bush saw the transformative potential of science, Marshal McLuhan was one of the first to see the subtle, but undeniable influence of popular culture.  While many at the time thought of mass media as merely the flotsam and jetsam of the modern age, McLuhan saw that the study of things like newspapers, radio and TV could yield important insights.

Central to his ideas about culture was his concept of media as “extensions of man.”  Following this line of thought, he argued that Gutenberg’s printing press not only played a role in spreading information, but also in shaping human thought. Essentially, the medium is the message.  Interestingly, these ideas led him to very much the same place as Bush.

As he wrote in 1962, nearly 30 years before the invention of the World Wide Web:

The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness—will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.

McLuhan argued further that the new age of electronic media would disrupt the private experience and specialization that the dominance of printed media brought about and usher in a new era of collective, transnational experience that he called the global village.  Anybody who watches global news networks or surfs the Web can see what he meant.

Importantly, however, he did not see the global village as a peaceful place.  Rather than promoting widespread harmony and understanding, he predicted that the ability to share experiences across vast chasms of time and space would lead to a new form of tribalism, a result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in history.

It has become all to clear what he meant by that as well. (Read about the other 3 visionaries here: http://tinyurl.com/puym5sq )

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