McLuhan, Medium, Rare

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Marshall McLuhan’s hundredth birth anniversary is July 21st, and, after a lull, his ideas seem provocative and relevant again. In an attempt to concoct a 7 minute “Fishko Files” radio piece about him, I found myself arguing with him all the way through his speeches and aphorisms. Whatever can be said about him, he made you think.  Thinking, pro or con, while listening to Dr M, was simply unavoidable.  Having finished the piece, I’m still thinking about him.

McLuhan, a Canadian professor of literature, was the first credible pop culture observer. He rose to national prominence in the 1960s on the basis of some bold and adventurous thinking, crystallized in his trademark phrases: The Medium Is the Message. The Global Village. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.  Many more.

McLuhan pointed out, long before anyone thought about such things, that the existence of TV was changing the human brain and the culture:  You may think you respond differently to a love story than you do to a game show, he argued, but the fact remains that the medium itself and its properties create a new “temperature” in civilization.  

It’s amazing to look back at this early 60s moment, and to see the furor created by television.  On one side, Newton Minow, JFK’s newly-appointed FCC commissioner, was taking TV producers to task for trivializing the powerful new medium with sitcoms and violence, for putting profit over public interest.  America nodded its collective head as Minow described television as a ‘vast wasteland.’ Broadcasters were feeling the pressure.

On the other hand, at exactly the same moment, Dr. McLuhan was arguing that content was not at all the issue: the issue was how our brains and our society were being changed dramatically by this new “cool” medium. Who is in power, how they get there, how wars are waged, how these images and audio signals land in our brains – that’s what television is about, he argued.

Minow and McLuhan were not in opposition in 1961-62, they were both looking at television in a powerfully human way.  At that moment, both seemed urgent and compelling.  McLuhan was right, the signals were changing us forever, no matter what we watched.  Minow was right, the public interest had been long overlooked in favor of the bottom line.

Both achieved some degree of TV stardom, telling us their messages -- right there on The Medium.  Their co-existence was enough to prove both their points: a mass medium could change us forever by its content and its form. 

Fifty years later, without benefit of a new Minow or a modern McLuhan, here we all sit, glued to our screens.