Thursday, July 21, 2011
The McLuhan Century
So, today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan, and the temptation is to say, Happy Birthday Marshall as if he were still alive, but that seems a bit odd to me in some ways, although it is certainly true that his ideas are very much alive, and well, and in some ways doing better than ever. Maybe not in regard to fame, he reached his peak around 1967 or so, the year he came to New York City, media capital of the world, for a one-year stint as Fordham University's Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, and the year his bestseller, The Medium is the Massage, was published.
So, Marshall the man isn't as well known today as he was some 45 years ago, but his ideas are better understood now than ever before, and better respected, with neurological studies of brain structure and function finally supporting the claims he made by way of pure intuition, and with the continuing series of innovations in communication keeping our awareness of media as media, as opposed to media content, fairly high.
His prescience, seemingly, concerning the evolution and impact of new media is easy enough to explain. He was studying, analyzing, and discussing the electronic media in general, based on the characteristics of electricity and electric technologies, and extrapolating from the basic characteristics to specific manifestations. So, for example, electrification meant that power need no longer be obtained from a central source, but could be distributed far and wide, and that was true as well of communications. Look closely at Morse's telegraph and Marconi's wireless and you can see all of the potential for today's world of wired connections and mobile devices. McLuhan saw it when most could not, and would not.
When he wrote about television as an electronic medium, many of the characteristics he attributed to the medium were still only beginning to manifest, or existing only in potential, and so many people had trouble understanding what he was talking about. So, for example, they saw television programs as still emanating from a centralized source, and said that McLuhan didn't know what he was talking about. They missed the point that the TV program was actually produced, as a product, on each person's TV set, locally, rather than a newspaper, magazine, or book being produced in a centralized factory, and then having to be distributed physically from there. And they missed the point that television would continue to evolve through the development of cable and satellite technology, and the convergence with telephony and computer networks. There is a direct evolutionary link between the broadcast and Google.
It is only in the 21st century that the world has finally caught up to McLuhan. So, while we are celebrating the centenary of his birth, we perhaps ought to be celebrating not the end of the first hundred years of Marshall McLuhan, but the beginning of what ought to be considered as The McLuhan Century, the next 100 years.
Happy Birthday, Happy day of birth!