Marshall McLuhan would have turned 100 years old last Thursday, July 21. What would he have made of a world of smartphones and Facebook and nanotechnology?

Many of us today associate McLuhan with a couple of catchphrases – “the global village” and “the medium is the message” – and not much else. Even though Wired referred to him as “Saint Marshall” back in 1996, McLuhan today is more talked about than read, but that was probably the case even at the height of his popularity in the 1960s. Northrop Frye, a fellow professor of English and contemporary of McLuhan at the University of Toronto, said in 1988, “McLuhan was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the 1960s and then neglected for the wrong reasons later.”

I don’t pretend to be an expert on McLuhan. Although I read his Understanding Media (1964) as an undergrad, it wasn’t until grad school that I came to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of him. Part of the reason for that was having a professor who was one of only a few people to have written a doctoral dissertation under McLuhan’s supervision. (Many professors warned their students away from McLuhan due either to jealousy or to a perception that he was an academic charlatan.) Part of my interest was simply a result of timing; with the rise of the Web and of globalization through the 1990s, suddenly McLuhan seemed to make more sense to people. And part of it was a kind of national pride in the global influence of a fellow Canadian.

McLuhan’s thought is subtle and complex and has been frequently misunderstood. It’s a risky venture to go into print talking about it – you don’t want to sound like the pompous prof in Annie Hall who, trying to impress his date with his deep knowledge of McLuhan’s concept of hot and cool media, gets everything wrong and then is scolded by the master himself. I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here

“We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

The central idea at the heart of McLuhan’s work is that, in his own words, “all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment.” McLuhan defines media broadly – you could in fact replace that term with “technology.” For example, wheels are extensions of our feet, clothes of our skin, the telescope of our eyes, the computer of our central nervous system, and so on. In extending our different senses in different ways, each medium, or technology, changes the balance of our sensorium. “Such an extension,” he said, “is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.” And so we are as unaware of the new environment created by media as is a fish of the water it swims in. (He once said, “I’m not sure who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”)

The three great disruptions

The first great disruption of the human sensorium, according to McLuhan, came with the introduction of the phonetic alphabet, which installed sight at the head of the hierarchy of senses. “Literacy propelled man from the tribe, gave him an eye for an ear and replaced his integral in-depth communal interplay with visual linear values and fragmented consciousness.”

The next great disruption came with the printing press:

If the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man, the printing press hit him like a 100-megaton H-bomb. The printing press was the ultimate extension of phonetic literacy… Type, the prototype of all machines, ensured the primacy of the visual bias and finally sealed the doom of tribal man. The new medium of linear, uniform, repeatable type reproduced information in unlimited quantities and at hitherto-impossible speeds, thus assuring the eye a position of total predominance in man’s sensorium. As a drastic extension of man, it shaped and transformed his entire environment, psychic and social, and was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution…

The third great disruption came with the introduction of electronic communications technology:

The electric media are the telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, all of which have not only extended a single sense or function as the old mechanical media did… but have enhanced and externalized our entire central nervous systems, thus transforming all aspects of our social and psychic existence. The use of the electronic media constitutes a break boundary between fragmented Gutenberg man and integral man, just as phonetic literacy was a break boundary between oral-tribal man and visual man.

The Global Village

In the 1960s, with the effects of electrification in general, and of television specifically, so widespread and rapid, he saw it as essential to try to understand them. Many people misunderstood McLuhan to be celebrating a new post-literate electronic age, and all of the social upheaval that came with it. This was not necessarily the case. He was not really celebrating or damning anything – he was simply trying to understand. Similarly, his concept of the “global village” was misunderstood by some as a celebration of a new electronic age in which the world would have a Coke and learn to sing in perfect harmony. But this was not at all what he meant:

“The more you create village conditions, the more discontinuity and division and diversity. The global village absolutely insures maximal disagreement on all points. It never occurred to me that uniformity and tranquility were the properties of the global village … The tribal-global village is far more divisive – full of fighting – than any nationalism ever was. Village is fission, not fusion, in depth … The village is not the place to find ideal peace and harmony. Exact opposite. Nationalism came out of print and provided an extraordinary relief from global village conditions. I don’t approve of the global village. I say we live in it.”

McLuhan saw it as his role as a teacher to make people aware of the environment they are swimming in, the extent to which that environment is created by technology, and the profound effects it has on our biases and modes of thought. If that idea no longer seems as radical or strange as it once did, McLuhan is largely to thank for that.

Read him… Or watch him on YouTube

Reading McLuhan today is as rewarding and fascinating as it ever was. He wasn’t right about everything (I’ve written “BS” in the margins a few times), and some of his ideas seem eccentric, but he was remarkably prescient about many things. For example, if you watch and listen to this RSA Animate video of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson on changing education paradigms, the ideas Robinson presents are very similar in many respects to ideas McLuhan proposed on education throughout the 1960s.

If you have a chance to dip into some McLuhan, you will have your own illuminating moments. A good starting point is an interview McLuhan did with Playboy, of all publications, in March 1969. I’ve quoted from it in this post because it presents an accessible summary of his thinking.

Another good entry point is the collection of essays he wrote with Edward Carpenter in Explorations in Communication: An Anthology, published in 1960 and available online. (You can get a free trial for a day from Questia.

If you really want to immerse yourself, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962 ) is probably his best work.

Then you can tell me what he would think of smartphones, Facebook, and nanotechnology.

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