Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was an egghead from the 1960s who wrote and thought about media (letters, books, television, films, magazines and so on) and how it affects mankind. He is the one who coined “the medium is the message” and “global village”.
He had wit, a love of Shakespeare, and a lot of interesting ideas. But his opinions were not grounded in solid reasoning. He did not create a science that others could build on. He was more prophet than philosopher. Think John the Baptist, not Aristotle.
Yet because no one so far has come up with anything better, he is still read – at least by me. And Alan Kay. And the leading lights at WIRED magazine. He did not live to see the Internet, but he helps us to understand it.
The global village: Yes, he was the one who first saw it coming. The very fact that the idea now seems so self-evident shows how on mark he was.
He called media hot and cool: television is cool, the printed page is hot. I never understood this. I still do not. It is what put me off when I first attempted to read “Understanding Media” (1964) at age 19. Augustine was an easier read.
The chief point of that book, however, was not about hot and cold but that the medium is the message. Just as a hammer extends our hand so that it is almost a part of our body, so media – like books, television and the Internet – extend our brain and its senses. So much so that the effect that a medium has on us is not so much in the content but in the way the medium works on us.
So whether television gave us Shakespeare or games shows or long-winded government reports, the effect in the end would be the same. Whether television is a Vast Wasteland or not is beside the point: we are affected not so much by what is on television as by television itself! The same with the Internet and all the rest.
If that sounds like a stretch, think of it this way: To say that we are affected more by the fact of television (the medium) than by what is on television (the message) is like saying we are affected more by the fact of having eyes (the medium) than by what we see (the message). Ask any blind man.
We use our inventions to remake the world, but while we are busy doing that, they are busy remaking us – more than we know. That is what most people miss and that is what McLuhan is on about.
In his other famous book, “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), McLuhan takes the case of the printed word and how it has effected a sea change in the West. He says electric media (television, radio, Internet and so on) will bring another such sea change. Not because of what we see on television or on the Internet, but because it will change our style of thinking and our sense of ourselves – just as print did 500 years ago.