Celebrating 100 years of Marshall McLuhan

by Andrew Moir

Marshall McLuhan was a man ahead of his time. The academic demonstrated an extraordinary foresight, able to predict the age of information in a time when computers filled a room. His ideas created controversy but also international recognition.

His influence waned in the years following his death but in recent years the rapid rise of the internet brought about renewed interest in his ideas.

It is unlikely that the current world of wireless internet, smart phones and social networks would surprise the University of Toronto English professor. After all he did create the term “global village.” McLuhan believed that through electronic communications a single collective mind could form, separate from the thoughts of the individuals. The world would become the a computer

“The medium is the message” is his most quoted hypothesis. This idea states that it not the content which should be the focus of study but the medium that delivers it. The content is simply a distraction but the medium has a social effect, changing how we learn and how we live. He, controversially, believed that it did not matter whether a television showed violent images or children’s programmes – it was the medium that would modify behaviour.

He conceived the idea that the media was an extension of the senses. Now, as we are constantly wired up to headsets and networked through our phones, who can argue that each one of our cognitive functions isn’t affected by the technology on which we depend.

Born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21 1911, McLuhan gained an MA and BA from the University of Manitoba. He later moved to England to gain his PhD at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. His first teaching job was at the University of Saint Louis in 1937 but it was at the University of Toronto where he spent the majority of his career where the Centre for Culture and Technology was created to stave off the approaches of other institutions.

His best known book titled “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” was published in 1964. This ground-breaking work forms much of the basis of media and communications studies. It received an astonishing amount of publicity and gave McLuhan a level of celebrity few academics could boast. He became a media figure featuring in comic strips in the New Yorker, was interviewed by Playboy and had a brief cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

His sometimes cryptic ideas remain often debated by students and academics alike and it’s a trend that will continue while more of his ideas come into being. Ironically McLuhan had little use for technology, never owning a car and keeping his television in his basement.

He died on December 31 1980 at aged 69 having never fully recovered from a stroke a year earlier. While he didn’t live to see his vision of the future, his thinking is now more significant than ever.

Today, July 21st 2011, would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday – do you think McLuhan would have approved of the digital workd we now live that he foresaw? What would he predict is the future for us now?

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