Marshall McLuhan — Brilliant Analyst, Prophet and Gravedigger?

As we are about to enter the second decade of this brave new millennium, what could be more appropriate than to remember with affection, and pride, Marshall McLuhan, the only major prophet the human race has ever produced with a sense of humour? He taught us, among other things, by telling jokes. And how right he was most of the time, and how modest his unscholarly “probes.” He certainly never made any extravagant, boastful claims. He occasionally said that he was horrified by the implications of some of his observations. But he never said it with any emphasis.

Therefore, the world must be excused for remembering him as the man who proclaimed that the medium was as important as the message. But surely for all those interested in conveying matters of significance, that is a bad thing, not a good thing. Also, his interest, for example, in advertising as a form of communications no more and no less significant than other literary forms, and his jokes such as his quip that one could easily survive by reading only the left page in any book, quite naturally led the humourless world to believe that he actually believed that the ways things were said were as important as the content of what was being said.

Was his very considerable influence on the media in the last half century one of the factors responsible for the almost universal dumbing down that has occurred?

A story written in 2008 by Eric Koch that relates directly to understanding McLuhan has been posted on the Stories page.


8 responses to “Marshall McLuhan — Brilliant Analyst, Prophet and Gravedigger?

  1. How would The Weimar Triangle hold up under a reading of left-hand pages only?
    Ch.S. / proud pagan anti-rationalist pre-Enlighenment gnome

  2. In answer to your final question: the medium is the message. I guess Twitter is the latest, most ubiquitous means of mass communication (too modern for me; I do not tweet). Its criteria (e.g., maximum length of message) necessarily shape the content of messages transmitted in this way (just like the rules of a sonnet). The corollary is that these criteria feed back to earlier communication technologies still in use, e.g., email, TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, if the latter are going to withstand the competition. So dumbing down is necessary to fit the the most advanced medium extant – and less dumb media must adapt to survive. On TV, the 30-second clip became the 20-second clip, which became the 8-second sound bite. There is a strict limit to how much information can be crammed into a 13-word sentence using Grade 8 language (which is the last criterion for PR releases that I seem to recall).
    Nevertheless, there are some people whose thoughts require more intense and extensive expression – and some (fewer and fewer, I suspect) whose minds crave depth and complexity in the messages they receive. For these the old, slow, dull media will continue to serve a purpose. But the disciplines of the new media will have driven authors to use whatever medium they employ in its richest form (e.g., in text: clearer prose, shorter paragraphs, easier and more unambiguous to grasp). BTW it’s 2 l8 4 me.

  3. David Schatzky

    McLuhan was not a McLuhanite. He would have been distressed and disheartened to know that his observations might be seen by some as guidelines. I certainly misread him in the mid to late 60’s, and tried to integrate what I took as instructions into my own undertakings. He would have taken no pleasure, despite his wit, in describing the future that has actually emerged not from his remarkable intuition and scholarship, but from globalization, digitalization, and devaluation of classic values.

  4. I am less pessimistic than David (who is usually less pessimistic than I) at least in this instance. When McLuhan proclaimed that the medium is the message, he was being puckish, prescient AND provocative – all at once. My students understand his aphorisms instinctively especially when they tweet ideas where an older generation of journalists would have written a headline. I asked my students to write 140 words as a comment on “the internet is to news as car horns are to music.” My students from China got the implication, the content and the media implications instantly.

  5. Some of us think that McLuhan’s best book was “The Mechanical Bride”.

  6. He was quite correct.

  7. Without taking anything away from McLuhan, we should not overlook the fact that the real, original Canadian thinker and true pioneer about communication was Professor Harold A. Innis. See, for example, his “Empire and Communication”. To his credit, McLuhan acknowledged his great debt to Innis.

  8. Those who have commented on this post and on the subsequent “counter-post” on McLuhan, may like to read the NYTimes book review of Douglas Coupland’s new book on McLuhan, “You Know Nothing of My Work!” Then, of course, they may like to read the book itself.