Marshall McLuhan, born 100 years ago this week, became an academic celebrity by examining our relationship with media. He argued “that we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” WNYC’s Sara Fishko looks back at the hugely influential ideas of an enigmatic man.
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BOB GARFIELD: Exactly fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan published his first book, The Mechanical Bride, a series of essays devoted to ads. He believed that ads might, quote, “ultimately prove more interesting to future readers than other forms of contemporary literature.” The book was a stunner. In 1964, he published Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Within a matter of months, recalled author and critic Lewis Lapham, quote, “The book acquired the standing of holy scripture,” and made McLuhan, quote, “the foremost oracle of the age.” Assessing all media that came before television and predicting all that would come after, he argued that we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. Someday, he saw, we would all think differently. Marshall McLuhan was born a hundred years ago this week; WNYC’s Sara Fishko offers us a quick glimpse of the enigmatic ideas of the enigmatic man.
SARA FISHKO: Marshall McLuhan’s way of thinking took the culture by storm in the 1960s. Television had just become a fixture in American living rooms. And McLuhan analyzed TV with strange forward-looking aphorisms, like ‘The Medium is the Message.’
REPORTER: Mr. McLuhan, if you’ll be good enough, let’s start there with the heart of your doctrine itself – the now-famous sentence, “The medium is the message…”
MCLUHAN: The medium is a happening, it creates an environment…
He spoke of how TV unified and tribalized humans, creating a global village. He was a great formulator around 50 years ago.
MCLUHAN: But a medium is the message in the sense that it creates a totally new world and a totally new psychic outlook for populations.
SARA FISHKO: Not that he owned a TV himself – McLuhan wasn’t ranting about the content of I Love Lucy or the dangers of The Untouchables, but of how the medium itself was affecting society.
MCLUHAN: Media are like that, they just alter the total social temperature. Since TV the whole American political atmosphere has cooled down, down, down until the political process is almost approaching rigor mortis…
SARA FISHKO: In the 60s, kids on campuses, who had grown up with TV, were ready for it, says author and Vanderbilt University Professor Cecilia Tichi…
CECILIA TICHI: We were transfixed, we were embracing his position, talking about it late-night over red wine in cafés in our ratty little graduate-student apartments …
RICHARD KOSTELANETZ: A lot of people felt at the time that he understood the new world as nobody else understood it.
SARA FISHKO: At the height of it all, author and critic Richard Kostelanetz interviewed McLuhan, who was in his 50s – a graying gentleman in a sport jacket.
RICHARD KOSTELANETZ: I remember visiting his house. And he would lie on his living room couch and there’d be a whole bunch of books stacked on the top of his couch. That was how he understood things – by reading books and by extending perceptions from the books he read.
SARA FISHKO: How did a book smart, avuncular Canadian professor tap into the zeitgeist of the American 60s? McLuhan himself would have said it was his distance.
MCLUHAN: Canadians have tremendous opportunity to see what’s really happening in the world. I think we’re very lucky to be a backward country.
RICHARD KOSTELANETZ: He was very Canadian. And one of his ideas was he thought he could see the US better from Canada. He wasn’t immersed in the new world, but he thought about it.
DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Back in the 1950s Canada was basically just a refrigerator and a hardware shop for Great Britain. It really didn’t have much of its own identity.
SARA FISHKO: Douglas Coupland’s book on McLuhan, You Know Nothing of my Work, was published last year.
DOUGLAS COUPLAND: And with that disengagement or freedom came a sense of like, what is this TV thing here? Let’s try to figure out what it’s all about.
SARA FISHKO: Marshall McLuhan, born in 1911, was not only a Canadian – he was also a devout practicing Catholic. Not necessarily the predictable resumé for a hip media guru. And there were other factors that created his high degree of remove…including what Coupland describes as an Asperger’s-like tendency in McLuhan’s family background…
DOUGLAS COUPLAND: He and his mother were both perfect mimics. And they had these amazing memories where they could read something once and then they just repeat if for the rest of their life. And their brains were just wired very differently than most people’s – then and now. And so it’s not surprising he went on to have a different life, a different way of thinking…
MCLUHAN: It’s impossible to have a point of view in the electric age—and have any meaning at all. You’ve got to be everywhere at once, whether you like it or not and that is not a point of view…
SARA FISHKO: One by one, as he emerged, McLuhan revealed fairly breathtaking, if borderline incomprehensible formulations. Seeing how Joe McCarthy had been demolished in a televised hearing a few years before, McLuhan called McCarthy too hot for TV. Hitler, he concluded, would never have risen to power in the TV era. Nor any similarly over the top personality or event -- such as the first television war, for example.
MCLUHAN: Like the Vietnam war is a hot war, it won’t go on TV -- it’s the first war ever, a hot shooting war, ever shown on a cool medium. The cool medium involves the whole audience so deeply they find war unbearable. Show the same war on movie – on press photography and so on, people won’t feel too badly about it. But on TV they really feel it. And so LBJ is making a great big mistake in trying to have a hot war on a cool medium.
SARA FISHKO: It’s hard to imagine now how quickly but during the swinging 60s there was no more visible public intellectual than Marshall McLuhan. Later Woody Allen immortalized him in Annie Hall…
(Clip Annie Hall): Now Marshall McLuhan deals with it in terms of being a high intensity – a hot medium? As opposed to…
SARA FISHKO: It was the realization of a brainy dream: show up the pretentious fool who think he understands McLuhan, by producing McLuhan himself to take him down. And there was the guru, in his trademark jacket and white shirt…
(Clip Annie Hall): You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.
SARA FISHKO: The fact is, that was quite right. Many people did and still do know nothing of his work….
DOUGLAS COUPLAND: His books are really dense, they’re opaque, almost. It takes a, half-hour to read four pages. And you have to put it down and really think. He is not an easy read. He never was.
SARA FISHKO: But he was tuned in, McLuhan. He was the first to use the word “surfing” for the way we move through media and information. And he even predicted some form of our life with computers. All this 35 years before the fact.
MCLUHAN: But we are hurrying back and forth across town at morning and night to situations which we could quite easily encompass by closed-circuit. Documents, contracts, data. All of these materials actually could be just as available on closed-circuit, at home…
SARA FISHKO: You have to remember, says Cecelia Tichi, that in the early days of TV in the 50s people were terrified that television might replace the book.
CECELIA TICHI: Here came McLuhan 10 years later to say, in effect, get over it. We’re in a new era: Let’s embrace it, let’s acknowledge it. Let’s explore its values, its traits.
SARA FISHKO: And explore its values he most heatedly and coolly did, among citizens of the global village.
DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I mean we’ve all been on a plane and the moment the wheels hit the ground, every single person on the plane reaches into their pocket for their Blackberry or their iPhone, or what have you. And they want that sort of sense of connection. And I think when he talks about the Global Village, what he’s really talking about is that innate need for everyone to feel far more connected than they were back in 1962. And now with Facebook, etc., it seems like there’s no limit to how connected we want to be with each other as a species.
SARA FISHKO: Do those things connect us or separate us? Welcome us or alienate us. Has Google made us dumber or smarter? Those are questions Marshall McLuhan would’ve loved. No doubt, he’d have had emphatic answers for them all – in crisp and complex and very McLuhan-eque formulations – in 140 characters.
For On the Media, I’m Sara Fishko.