Remembering McLuhan

In Culture, Personal on July 21, 2011 at 8:44 AM

Plenty has been said about Marshall McLuhan this week. He would have been 100 today. The Globe had a nice summary of his life. The Walrus has an interesting angle on religion affected his outlook.

But no article depicts the spirit of Marshall McLuhan better than this article by Wired Magazine. Like many Canadians, McLuhan enriched my mind with his thought-provoking probes.

He wasn’t trying to predict the future. He just wanted to explain what was already happening. I think that goal remains just as valid today. Too often, we’re worried about whether something new is good or bad, rather than trying to understand it.

In explaining media, McLuhan knew that the speed of light is constant. Rapidly changing technology simply reflects how fast humanity is changing.

Below are some quotes from the Wired article. His ideas never fail to inspire:

1.  “There are many people for whom ‘thinking’ necessarily means identifying with existing trends,” he wrote in a 1974 missive to the The Toronto Star.

2.  In a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, with whom he had a long friendship, McLuhan argued that in the modern electronic environment, it is inadvisable to be coherent. “Any moment of arrest or stasis permits the public to shoot you down.”

3.  But when information travels at electronic speeds, the linear clarity of the print age is replaced by a feeling of “all-at-onceness.” Everything everywhere happens simultaneously. There is no clear order or sequence. This sudden collapse of space into a single unified field “dethrones the visual sense.” This is what the global village means: we are all within reach of a single voice or the sound of tribal drums. For McLuhan, this future held a profound risk of mass terror and sudden panic.

4.  “On a moving highway, the vehicle that backs up is accelerating in relation to the highway situation,” he wrote. “Such would be the ironical status of the cultural reactionary. When the trend is one way, his resistance insures a greater speed of change.”

5.  “One can stop anywhere after the first few sentences and have the full message, if one is prepared to ‘dig’ it,” wrote McLuhan, who was fond of repeating a slogan he claimed to have gotten from IBM: “Information overload = pattern recognition.”

6.  “Value judgments create smog in our culture and distract attention from processes,” he wrote to another detractor. In place of moralistic hand-wringing, McLuhan urged his listeners to take a stance of awareness and responsibility. “There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved,” he complained. “Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions.”

7.  “…a princess gets married in England, and boom-boom-boom go the drums.”

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