As a teenager, I first encountered the writings of Marshal McLuhan. His books took me on an adventure…, imagining that society was formed by its mediums of expression. People didn’t use a typewriter, they were typed. Like Joyce in Ulysses, he invented a new language to address the phenomena. Some of his language is mainstream today, although no one seems to remember where “The Global Village”, and “information surfing” came from.

McLuhan was a Canadian Professor of English Literature and communications theorist whose ideas about media and communication were innovative and controversial. A core premise was that our technology was both means and molder of communication, and accordingly shaped our culture. The content of a medium is less important that the medium itself. It is the medium that shapes us. Geronimo may have “heard” his world…, but literate man “saw” the world because typography shaped his world perception and cognition. Henry Ford could only exist because of Gutenberg.

In 1962, McLuhan wrote that “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”. Sounds a little bit like the world web doesn’t it?

The web is indeed a new medium…, non-linear…, and hugely disruptive to a generation that has been taught to think within an obsolescent Gutenberg Factory School, but learned to perceive within an MTV world. (Remember when they played music?)

Twitter and Facebook are the first faltering steps in the creation of a global theater, and the natural cousins to reality television. We’re now inside the viewscreen of Fahrenheit 451 and everyone would like a lead role. Our brains are being shaped by the use of digital media. As our brains are shaped, so too is our culture. With each new baby Chang we move inexorably towards a world that will be unintelligible to our grandparents. The global theater runs 24×7, and it molds the participant. We are hyper-stimulated from birth, and our culture requires that stimulation as the norm. The written word organized us by index, table of contents, and annotation. The digital experience repatterns humanity as a download device.

We’re running through a crossroads. Web designers design the way they learned…  for linear print and linear culture. Corporations are determined to put a Keynesian smokestack on their websites.  Search experts tout the advantages of the newest flavor of “you need more of X”… and the users blissfully respond by ignoring the road and following the spider web.

I suspect that the new search engine is incomprehensible to most “professionals” working on the web today. Google never promised to deliver the most accurate or authoritative information, and they certainly never promised to value your originality. All they have ever done, and what they are becoming better at doing, is delivering links that will likely satisfy and result in your return to Google. If the village takes to painting their faces blue, then we expect your face is blue also.  The tribe has spoken.

Marshal McLuhan was born 100 years ago today. In later life, he fell out of favour, but it seems his relevance is being re-understood as our digital world expands. I remain in his debt for sending me down a lifelong path of questioning…, always conscious that “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

Thank you Dr. McLuhan

Recommended Reading

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man
The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
From Cliché to Archetype

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