Marshall McLuhan

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Marshall McLuhan : biography

July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980

The moral valence of technology’s effects on cognition is, for McLuhan, a matter of perspective. For instance, McLuhan contrasts the considerable alarm and revulsion that the growing quantity of books aroused in the latter seventeenth century with the modern concern for the "end of the book". If there can be no universal moral sentence passed on technology, McLuhan believes that "there can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies".Gutenberg Galaxy p. 254.

Though the World Wide Web was invented almost thirty years after The Gutenberg Galaxy, and ten years after his death, McLuhan prophesied the web technology seen today as early as 1962:

The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness—will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind. (1962)http://www.wnyc.org/articles/features/2011/jul/15/celebrating-marshall-mcluhans-legacy/

Furthermore, McLuhan coined and certainly popularized the usage of the term "surfing" to refer to rapid, irregular and multidirectional movement through a heterogeneous body of documents or knowledge, e.g., statements like "Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave." Paul Levinson’s 1999 book Digital McLuhan explores the ways that McLuhan’s work can be better understood through the lens of the digital revolution.

McLuhan frequently quoted Walter Ong’s Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958), which evidently had prompted McLuhan to write The Gutenberg Galaxy. Ong wrote a highly favorable review of this new book in America.America 107 (Sept. 15, 1962): 743, 747. However, Ong later tempered his praise, by describing McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy as "a racy survey, indifferent to some scholarly detail, but uniquely valuable in suggesting the sweep and depth of the cultural and psychological changes entailed in the passage from illiteracy to print and beyond."New Catholic Encyclopedia 8 (1967): 838. McLuhan himself said of the book, "I’m not concerned to get any kudos out of [The Gutenberg Galaxy]. It seems to me a book that somebody should have written a century ago. I wish somebody else had written it. It will be a useful prelude to the rewrite of Understanding Media [the 1960 NAEB report] that I’m doing now."

McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy won Canada’s highest literary award, the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction, in 1962. The chairman of the selection committee was McLuhan’s colleague at the University of Toronto and oftentime intellectual sparring partner, Northrop Frye.Gordon, p. 109.

Understanding Media (1964)

McLuhan’s most widely known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is a pioneering study in media theory. Dismayed by the way people approached and used new media such as television, McLuhan famously argued that in the modern world "we live mythically and integrally … but continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age."Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), 4

McLuhan proposed that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study—popularly quoted as "the medium is the message". McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence."Understanding Media, p. 8. More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society—in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example—the effect of television on society would be identical.McLuhan, Understanding Media, 18, 20 He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.