Marshall McLuhan: 1911 – 1980

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator and communications scholar, was born 100 years ago on July 21, 1911. McLuhan became a celebrity in the 1960s for his controversial media studies and peculiar perspective on television and its societal impact.

While you are likely familiar with McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message,” you might not know that he was an expert on printing. Much of his writing deals with print media technology, its history and significance as a cultural form, especially the book. One of his most important titles, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), examines prints’ contribution to the transformation of mankind’s self-image and consciousness during the Renaissance.

McLuhan was among the first to foresee the coming of electronic media. He had a prophetic view of the information age, one that anticipated the World Wide Web and digital publishing. His relevance to modern media studies is shown by the conferences being held worldwide on the centenary of his birth: http://marshallmcluhan.com/.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta. His family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba after World War I. In 1928, Marshall entered the University of Manitoba where earned an MA in English. He went on to the University of Cambridge where he earned a Ph.D. in 1943. Marshall married Corrine Lewis in 1939 and they had six children.

McLuhan and his family moved to Toronto in 1946 where he joined the faculty of St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto. In the 1950s he began the Communication and Culture seminars, gaining a reputation as a media expert and, in 1963, the university created with him the Centre for Culture and Technology.

McLuhan became internationally known with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). He advanced the profound idea that “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” He examined many forms of media: the written word, the printed word, the photograph, the telegraph, the typewriter, the telephone, the phonograph, movies, radio and television and showed how the content of one media is always another media form.

Marshall McLuhan suffered a stroke in 1979 that affected his speech. The University of Toronto attempted to close his research center shortly thereafter but was prevented by protests, most notably by Woody Allen. McLuhan never recovered and died on December 31, 1980.

Marshall McLuhan on the Today Show in September 1976.

Since McLuhan’s theoretical concepts are difficult to explain, I will let him do it himself. Below are quotations taken from TV interviews that can be viewed online.

On “hot” and “cold” media, 1964

“It has to do with the slang phrase ‘the hot and the cool’ … ‘Cool’ in the slang form has come to mean involved, deeply participative, deeply engaged; everything that we had formerly meant by heated … Though the idea that ‘cool’ has reversed its meaning I think has some bearing on the fact that our culture has shifted its stress on the demand that we become more committed, more involved.” http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/?video=SAY_001

On the future of publishing, 1966

“Instead of going out and buying a book of which there have been 5,000 copies printed, you will go to the telephone and describe your interests, your needs, your problems … They will at once Xerox—with the help of computers from the libraries of the world—all the latest material just for you, personally, not as something to be put out on the bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service.” http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/?video=PRO_004

On instantaneous, simultaneous information, 1976

“At the speed of light there is no sequence, everything happens at one instant … We live in a world where everything is supposed to be lineal, one thing at a time, connected and logical, goal oriented. We are now living in a world which pushes the right hemisphere (of the brain) way up … is making the old left hemisphere world—which is our educational establishment, our political establishment—look very foolish.” http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/?video=TEA_007

Admittedly, McLuhan’s academic style and references to historical and cultural artifacts make him difficult to read. However, McLuhan has made a unique contribution to an understanding of media and how they impact the cognitive functions and social organization of man. We should embrace and study Marshall McLuhan as the first philosopher of our multimedia world.

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