100 Years of McLuhan









Marshall McLuhanIt's difficult for me to think about the impact of 'new media' or 'influence' without thinking about Marshall McLuhan. I must have taken at least three different courses in college where his contributions kept popping up. And even though it's been 100 years since he was born, on July 21, 1911, his relevance in today's digital age is more obvious than ever.

Best known for coining the phrase, "the medium is the message", McLuhan was a thinker - a theorist - on the ways in which media and society interact and influence each other. He explored mass media, both new and old, trying to find the sparks that would ignite our imagination and lead us down a responsible path to innovation. He believed in an ecosystem of stimulus and response, that required balance. And my guess is that if he were alive today, he would have much to discuss with another great thinker, E.O. Wilson, who famously studies ants - most recently as a type of superorganism. Check out this archived ABC footage where McLuhan shares some interesting thoughts on advertising and education.

The problem - as with most visionaries - is that McLuhan was widely misunderstood. Take his most famous phrase for example, and the following excerpt in which he expounds upon it (hat tip to Peter Jones):

"When I say the medium is the message, I'm saying that the motor car is not a medium. The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil companies. That is the medium. In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car. When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone. The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects. The car is a FIGURE in a GROUND of services. It's when you change the GROUND that you change the car. The car does not operate as the medium, but rather as one of the major effects of the medium.


So 'the medium is the message' is not a simple remark, and I've always hesitated to explain it. It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people. *It is the environment that changes people, not the technology*."
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (2003).

Marshall McLuhan's influence on new media is so pervasive because the ideas that he perpetuated were both simple and novel, yet deep and complex in their nuances. And he was willing to take risks with the ideas that he submitted for public dissection (Even McLuhan himself didn't always agree with everything he said - by his own admission). But it was this boldness in the face of controversy that endears him to everyone from philosophers and anthropologists, to technologists and journalists.

In 1964, McLuhan published a book called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which explained "the medium is the message" along with his theory of "hot" and "cool" mediums, and helped establish his legacy. 100 years later, a new book has been published called Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan, by Robert K. Logan, who collaborated with McLuhan over six years. In this new book, Logan attempts to put today's new media into context using the ideas and methodologies of McLuhan. The 2011 updates look very compelling. I can't wait to read it, myself.

I see no reason to give a full dissertation on the influence of McLuhan - his work was too vast, and I don't believe I could do him justice. You'll just have to read it for yourself. But I will leave you with some choice quotes that he gave in a 1969 Playboy interview (hat tip to Kevin Kelly):

"Personal diversity is encouraged while at the same time everybody reacts and interacts simultaneously to every stimulus."


"Today the computer could program the media to determine the given messages a people should hear in terms of their over-all needs, creating a total media experience absorbed and patterned by all the senses."

"I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress."
-Marshall McLuhan

For more excellent quotes check out Kevin Kelly's post, Proverbs of St. McLuhan.

What is your favorite McLuhan quote?

image by Abode of Chaos


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About Chris

Chris Collins My name is Chris Collins. I'm an artist, designer and marketer, specializing in new media.
The opinions shared on this blog are my own, and do not represent the opinions of my employers or clients, past, present or future.

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