Marshall McLuhan Did Predict the Internet!

05Jul17

A Visualization of the Internet

There has been a recent discussion on the MEA Page on Facebook about the authenticity of a quotation attributed to Marshall McLuhan in a 2013 article that was posted there by yours truly titled Marshall McLuhan Predicted the Internet. The author of that article, one Shane Ingram, wrote: “… it was in his ability to predict our current condition with regards to media convergence and the internet that has seen Mccluhan’s [sic] thoughts and theories remain so relevant and still essential reading.” Ingram then produced the following quotation attributed to Marshall McLuhan, which is not unfamiliar to readers sourcing McLuhan-related articles on the Internet, stating that it had first appeared in 1962:

“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 organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind”. (See the full article at https://goo.gl/n2FfY8 )

A vigorous objection was raised in the Facebook Group and a posting online on Medium.com, where the offending article had been published in 2013. That objection mentioned the inaccuracy of the quote, questioned its authenticity and insisted that the quote does not appear in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), as had been cited. I could agree with that, as I had checked. The published article of objection was titled Marshall McLuhan Predicted the Internet in 1962. [Actually, no, he didn’t]. See https://goo.gl/ZVCzKV .

But the assertion that Marshall McLuhan did not predict the Internet is not supported by the evidence presented in the objecting critical posting. The quotation as it stands and has had abundant circulation online is in reality comprised of two legitimate McLuhan quotations, neither of which were published in 1962, that have been extracted from two different sources and connected by someone – in other words, a textual mashup. Though the quote has not achieved viral or meme status, it has been republished in other online articles, that sometimes attribute it as a quote from The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). The first sentence of the quote is from a journal article written by McLuhan in 1967 and the second sentence appeared in a book written by Bruce Powers and McLuhan published in 1989, posthumously for the latter. The two separate quotes with source attributions are as follows:

“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.” – Marshall McLuhan, “The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion.” Perspecta, Vol. 11 (1967) pp. 162–167. Published by MIT Press.

“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.” – From a 1978 dialogue between Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers titled “Angels to Robots: From Euclidean Space to Einsteinian Space, in The  Global Village’ (1989) by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers, p. 143.

(Thanks to Paolo Granata and Amanda Sevilla for locating the correct sources of these two quotes and to Andrew McLuhan for seeking the provenance of the questionable quote.)

The assertion that Marshall McLuhan predicted the Internet is demonstrable from other valid McLuhan works in which he envisions an Internet-like technology that will act as a collective global consciousness, even though the specific technological details he offers are not correct. McLuhan was likely influenced in his thinking by the work of Teilhard de Chardin and his concept of “noosphere” (See https://goo.gl/6Xsxpf ). Even a visionary thinker can only go so far in trying to describe future technologies.

I will offer here two additional quotes from McLuhan that support the assertion that he predicted the Internet, noting that there are other quotes that could be used. The first quote is from his most important book, Understanding Media (1964)

  1. “Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language. Electric technology does not need words any more than the digital computer needs numbers. Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatever. Such a state of collective awareness may have been the preverbal condition of men. Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may have been the “Tower of Babel” by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson. The condition of “weightlessness,” that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.”Understanding Media (1964), p. 80, MIT Press ed.
  2. The second quote is from a CBC TV interview by the journalist Robert Fulford that was televised on Canadian television on May 8, 1966, the text of which is available in Understanding Me: Lectures & Interviews (2003), edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines:

“Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed, you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems, and say you’re working on a history of Egyptian arithmetic … they say it will be right over. And they at once Xerox, with the help of computers from the libraries of the world, all the latest material just for you personally, not as something to be put out on a bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service. This is where we’re heading under electronic information conditions.” (p. 101)  

A segment of that 1966 televised interview is available online as a video under the title Predicting Interactive Communication via the Internet in the McLuhan Speaks section of the Official Marshall McLuhan website hosted by the McLuhan Estate, as well as on YouTube. The link for the Estate site is https://goo.gl/ABtYfx . The specifics of the technology as described by McLuhan are wrong but his vision of the services offered by the future Internet are in broad strokes accurate.

Surely the conclusion must be that Marshall McLuhan did indeed predict the Internet, which, though inaccurate in the specifics of McLuhan’s predictions, nevertheless resembles what the Internet has become in its effects and functions.

Depiction of the Noosphere Surrounding the Earth

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6 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan Did Predict the Internet!”

  1. Alex,

    I confronted Derrick De Kerckhove about that quotation in May, 2014.

    He was pissed off at first but we became friends and when I visited him at his home in Nice, France, in mid-August, 2014, he gradually recalled how he got it from a Spanish translation and he hadn’t checked it closely enough.

    Derrick was amazed that it’s cited something like 15,000 times on the Web.

    Here’s a brief excerpt of the details (the whole thing is on my older computer and I’m not near it now) when I archived some of it for myself:

    [[ Begin forwarded message:

    From: Bob Dobbs
    Subject: Famous De Kerckhove Blooper
    Date: January 5, 2017 at 3:20:05 AM HST
    To: Bob Dobbs

    In the latest issue of the JOURNAL OF VISUAL CULTURE (Vol.13, #1, April, 2014), Derrick recycles the following supposed quotation from THE GUTENBERG GALAXY, p.158, 1962:

    “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness (1) – will include television as its content, not as its environment (2), and will transform television into an art form (3). A computer as a research and communication instrument (4) could enhance retrieval (5), obsolesce mass library organization (6), retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function (7) and flip it into a private line (8) to speedily tailored data (9) of a saleable kind (10).”

    Derrick also used it in the May, 2011, edition of the Barcelona Proceedings of the UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, TODAY Conference, and before that in THE COLUMBIA HISTORY OF AMERICAN TELEVISION, 2007.

    And none of you supposed McLuhan scholars ever caught it… not even Doug Coupland who copies it in his 2009 book on MM (see p. 4). ]]

    The second half is from p.143 of THE GLOBAL VILLAGE by Powers and MM… and Powers was quoting from ETC. Journal, 1978 ( he says, but Zingrone and EM say 1979 in ESSENTIAL McLUHAN, pp.295-6).

    Andrew McLuhan is correct when he says: “Equally amazing is the number of people who have so cited it who should know better.”

    Derrick has deposited it in the heart of the Android Meme as you can see above.

    The first half comes from 1965 before PERSPECTA – I think it’s in the VISION ’65 talk (look in ESSENTIAL McLUHAN).

    Michael Edmunds and I tracked that down in that dark month of May, 2014.

    I’ll get the original discussion about it for you in about 3 weeks.

    Actually, you may have the original because remember when you were on a small list with Eric, Michael, me, and about 8 others back then (including Brian Cantwell-Smith).

    Look it up in your email archive – go into June, 2014, too.

    I cite the actual 1977/8 ETC. General Semantics journal in my older records.

    I also emailed or phoned the editor of the JOURNAL OF VISUAL CULTURE back then in 2014 and asked him to publish a retraction or correction, but no response of any kind.

    BUT, the important point McLuhan would want us to note regarding his predictive powers is that (and McLuhan said this in the March, 1967, NEWSWEEK article on him) FINNEGANS WAKE predicted the style and the effects of the Internet long before McLuhan said anything about our “future”.

    • I appreciate your note, Bob, and this is the kind of thing that you could really be helpful with, as I have never doubted that you know the MM texts probably better than anybody. You also probably have collected more source articles and relevant texts both by and about MM than anyone. My own collection is modest as I have only been an MM collector for about 15 years. But an important thing is that these kinds of correctives should be put forward without any motive of trying to embarrass the originator but in the interests of scholarship and McLuhan’s legacy. Thank you.

  2. 3 Terry Gordon

    You mention inaccuracies in the specifics of McLuhan’s predictions about the internet. He also predicted the end of the stock market by 2000 and travel in edible spaceships. There may be other predictions as outrageous as the latter, and I have long suspected that they are all to be explained as throwaways provoked by journalists endlessly, earnestly, and eagerly asking him what the future holds.

    • Thanks, Terry. 1970 was the year when Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock was a huge bestseller and the whole field of futurism really took off. That might have primed journalists to ask McLuhan more futuristic questions, especially as he had by then developed a bit of a reputation as a sage prognosticator. By the way, I still have every intention of publishing a note about your Critical Edition of UM but I have been very busy co-editing a special issue of Explorations in Media Ecology on the Toronto School. I’ll be in touch. Thank you. Your comments are always appreciated….Alex

  3. The following post is from Michael Edmunds who was unable to get it posted here for some reason. Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your interest. By the way, I happen to own a copy of that particular issue of The American Scholar, probably bought on eBay or the like, and read the Vision 65 article some years ago. So, I recognized that part of the quote but could not recall or immediately find where I had read it.

    The original source of
    “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; but this process whereby every new technology creates an environment that translates the old or preceding technology into an art form, or into something exceedingly noticeable, affords so many fascinating examples I can only mention a few.”

    is from a presentation at a conference caller Vision 65. This was then printed in The American Scholar
    Vol. 35, No. 2 (Spring, 1966), pp. 196-205 (on line JSTOR)
    Address at Vision 65 HERBERT MARSHALL McLUHAN

    Address at Vision 65 was again reprinted in the Essential McLuhan ed Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, 1995; quote p 221

    Address at Vision 65 was published again on Saturday, June 18, 2011 on MOM http://www.mcluhanonmaui.com/2011/06/address-at-vision-65-by-marshall.html
    By Andrew Chrystall

    And this was taken up in May 2014 by those cc’d above being alerted by Bob Dobbs who was the first to see the incongruity in the hodgepodge.

    The MIT source shows how McLuhan recycled his material….


  1. 1 Marshall McLuhan and how he predicted the internet 30 years before its ‘birth’ | Geeks District

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