McLuhan

Signs abound indicating that Marshall McLuhan lives again in the 21st Century, as the media and cultural transformations that he diagnosed continue to unfold. Lewis Lapham writes that McLuhan makes more sense now than ever in his introduction to the republished Understanding Media. TV and radio shows mention McLuhan. Plays are written, and performed in San Francisco and Ottawa. In Toronto, the McLuhan family prevents a Jason Sherman play from being performed, as it takes liberties with McLuhan’s persona. A CD-ROM appears in the 1990s, and many now have trouble running it, thus showing the obsolescence of the once new medium, while brilliantly showing how his ideas hold up in new media formats. The Economist and other magazines that once disdained Canada’s intellectual comet now routinely refer to McLuhan in discussions of the meaning of new media.

McLuhan as intellectual and pop icon has survived the millenium, and become part of the invisible background to our thought. A computer-weaned generation turns to McLuhan as it explores the invention and habitation of new media environments. An interdiscipline emerges, called Media Ecology, deeply inspired by McLuhan, Innis and their heirs including the late Neil Postman. Baby boomers watch in amazement as the once revolutionary impacts of television collide with the subversive effects of inter-networked digital media. The Oxford English Dictionary listed 346 references to McLuhan in 1997. His phrases now turn up constantly, and in surprising places. Take for example the U.S. federal court decision to overturn the Communications Decency Act: “Any content-based regulation of the Internet, no matter how benign the purpose, could burn the global village to roast the pig.” Time Magazine (June 24, 1996). Everywhere his metaphors have new currency, as his cliches have become archetypes. [LJ]

“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”

Marshall McLuhan – Understanding Media (1964)

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