Marshall McLuhan Can Save Humans From Destroying Ourselves With Technology
Marshall McLuhan is still the most penetrating Christian humanist to grasp that technology has forced us to rediscover how humans can use it to advance our species and preserve its humanity.
It’s time—again—for a resurgence of interest in Marshall McLuhan. After a posthumous revival in the 1970s and ‘80s, McLuhan fans renovated his legacy again in the mid-‘90s, as Muhlenberg professor of media Jefferson Pooley notes in a new appraisal at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Just last year, Pooley observes, Tom Wolfe, who helped make McLuhan famous way back when, gave tribute in a taped appearance to his enduring relevance. “Today thousands of young Internet apostles are familiar with Marshall McLuhan,” the old New Journalist said, “and are convinced that his light shines round about them.”
To be sure, the visionary theorist, famous for buzz phrases like “the global village” and “the medium is the message,” was primed for importance in the Internet era back when the most even he could divine was a coming “electric age.” But were McLuhan merely a cross between David Riesman and Shingy, his voluminous pop prophesies would be plowed under by the very deluge of content and change-ology that he predicted would come to define our immersive media experience.
McLuhan is far more than an egghead or a guru—and, in a subtler way, beautifully less than either. He is, still, the most prolific and penetrating Christian humanist to grasp that technology has forced us to rediscover how humans can use it to advance our species and preserve its humanity. The time has come to care about McLuhan again because the time has come to pull off that rediscovery before it’s too late.
McLuhan Knew Internet Would Change Our Workplaces
But how? The key is found in the gap between the McLuhan of the elite imagination and the real McLuhan, the man of faith whose existence is a muted but open secret. The first McLuhan was already in place when Wolfe first profiled him—the McLuhan who foretold how the future us will act.
“They will work at home, connected to the corporation, the boss, not by roads or railroads, but by television,” Wolfe summed it up. “They will relay information by closed-circuit two-way TV and by computer systems. The great massive American rush-hour flow over all that asphalt surface, going to and from work every day, will be over. The hell with all that driving. Even shopping will be done via TV. All those grinding work-a-daddy cars will disappear. The only cars left will be playthings, sports cars. They’ll be just like horses are today, a sport. Somebody over at General Motors is saying—What if he is right?”
Well, he wasn’t all right. But in our ongoing headlong retreat from the collective effort of civil society, with the biggest of marketplaces moving out of the open air and the big box store and into the cloud, he could still be more right.
“Whole cities, and especially New York, will end too just like cars, no longer vital to the nation but…just playthings,” Wolfe marveled at the McLuhan whose prognostications captivated the elite mind. “People will come to New York solely to amuse themselves, do things, not marvel at the magnitude of the city or its riches, but just eat in the restaurants, go to the discotheques, browse through the galleries.”
Horrible! Or wonderful? From the age of “Mad Men” to the age of “Sex in the City” and the terminal (?) age of “Girls,” this titillating ambivalence has fueled our content-choked culture of work, play, communications, and commerce. Try as we might to keep up, we’ve felt increasingly uncertain about our command of the technology that lurches us ever faster into a future so heavy on the activity and light on the agency. Read the rest of this essay at https://goo.gl/tJ0KiE .
James Poulos is the author of “The Art of Being Free, out January 17 from St. Martin’s
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