The McLuhan is the Message – 100 years on.


This week marks exactly a century since Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan was born.

In the 1960s, this Canadian intellectual revolutionised our way of thinking about the then-new medium of TV, by outsmarting the elitist and conservative presumptions of a great “dumbing down” that would follow the abandonment of books as the primary tool for passing on human experience of a worthwhile kind.

So how would McLuhan feel today about Kindle — the TV that’s a book? Or iPad, the book that’s a TV? Or youTube, or Facebook?

He would take everything in his stride because he predicted them all with as much clarity as Leonardo da Vinci conceived the helicopter, space travel, and a myriad of innovations that came in the centuries after his death.

Consider McLuhan’s 1962 — yes, 1962, ruminations on new media:

“The next medium, whatever it is — it may be an extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment. 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 taylored data of a saleable kind.”

Wow. Exactly 30 years before I started using something called GreenNet — a 1992 alliance of  online bulletins boards and newsgroups  financed by NGOs which in itself preceded the internet by five years — McLuhan had nailed the whole thing! He foresaw Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, the rise of Amazon, Kindle, even the monetization of personal data through behavioural mapping that’s going on behind the scenes at Facebook.

McLuhan’s immediate heir was Andy Warhol, the artist whose most famous legacy was the bon mot that in a TV age, everyone is entitled to five minutes of fame. Fast forward to today, and the same thought made it possible for the man who tried to throw a foam custard pie in the face of NewsCorp boss Rupert Murdoch, to announce his plan to more than 10,000 people via Twitter. Considering the  gambit failed, the gesture was as pure a piece of McLuhanism as you can find.

The truth is that McLuhan’s thought created the fertile California media savannah on which today’s big beasts — Page, Brin, Zuckerberg, Jobs — graze without fear of predation. They did the hardware and the software and the private equity and the IPOs and the marketing blah, but conceptually, they really just stood upon the shoulders of this particular giant. As “Blink” author Malcolm Gladwell rightly avers, every self-made genius built his success on some other unrecognised self-made genius.

What would happen if we could dig up McLuhan and bring him back to comment today? There’s an engaging little book that fits the scene perfectly. It’s called  ‘Everything Bad is Good for You‘ by Steve Johnson. And its proposition and set-up is perfectly MacLuhanesque.

First, Johnson avers that  modern media — especially TV, has ADVANCED human consciousness and intelligence. So have video games.  In terms of TV drama, he points out that the ability to follow mutliple plotlines in an HBO series, The West Wing, Sopranos or Wired,  demands far greater cognitive awareness than sitting through Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle.

Anyway, the book begins with a comic reference to Woody Allen’s comic 1973 film Sleeper, in which  Allen (perhaps a McLuhan-like figure) is himself projected into a bizarre  distopian future where in the year 2173 a team of scientists examine the pop-eyed comic. (Incidentally, this film also stars the semi-fictional ‘orgasmatron‘ sexual gratification device based on  the work of Wilhelm Reich, another future visionary who’s been in the news lately because of  a new book about the sexual revolution he unleashed in parallel with McLuhan’s media revolution.) Allen doesn’t name-check either Reich or McLuhan, but these two were the grand-daddies of the world we now inhabit.

Raise a glass, and tip your mouse to them. Looking into the past and noting how change has accelerated to warp-speed is something we all do. It’s called aging. But looking into the future and noting how some stuff hasn’t changed at all, is the prerogative of artists and behavioural seers.

And yet …  was Mcluhan who opened the way for today’s transition of the “medium is the message” mantra in which it’s acknowledged that content is no longer king.

Once it was the message. Then it was the medium. Today it’s all about Contact. CONTACT is king. (Logically: you can’t do much content in 140 characters, can you?)

Nowadays we measure influence not by quality of thought but by NUMBER (check out the celebrity battle on Twitter to hit the largest number of planetary followers). Communication is turning into a kind of Nuremberg Rally in which “boots on the ground” outrank everything. Sieg Heil to Lady Gaga’s 11.7 million followers! Hail Britney’s 8.5 million!

Facebook hit 750 million. Google Plus hit 10 million in a fortnight. Twitter has 250 million. Marshall, you really started something. And now, I’m going back to my book, where I’m the only follower.

Richard House

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