Saturday, March 30, 2024

Media: "The Prophets - Marshall McLuhan"

A couple years ago I intro'd a post on McLuhan, "The Oracle of Mass Media: Remembering Marshall McLuhan", with:

Sometimes I think McLuhan could see the future:

“World War III is a guerrilla information war with no 
division between military and civilian participation.”
– Marshall McLuhan (1970), Culture is Our Business, p. 66 (HT: AZ Quotes)

And from The Free Press, the first of their Saturday series, The Prophets, March 2:

Introducing a New Saturday Series: The Prophets

Meet the messengers from the past who saw the future and explain our world today. First up: Marshall McLuhan. 

Emily Yoffe, senior editor at The Free Press, here. Last year while scrolling on X, I came across a post that caught my attention. It was a short clip of an interview with Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher and English professor. I had vague memories of McLuhan—who died in 1980—as a semi-famous intellectual of his day. The young writer who posted the clip, Benjamin Carlson, promised it was “one of the most mind-bending riffs on identity in the digital age I’ve ever heard.” 

As I listened, I got a rush from the prescience of McLuhan’s words. It was as if this man, now more than 40 years dead, was a messenger from the future who had been sent to our past, and now was explaining to us the world we live in today. 

I wanted to know more about what McLuhan foresaw, and the fascinating essay below from Benjamin Carlson is the result. 

Meanwhile, we at The Free Press started talking about whether there are other McLuhans from the past, people who predicted our current moment. That is, people whose words, work, and life illuminated something essential about the increasingly strange times we find ourselves in today. 

That’s how our new limited series, The Prophets, was born. Every Saturday for the next several weeks, we will bring to you an activist, scientist, writer, or thinker who somehow knew what would happen years or decades after their deaths. None of them were right about everything. Indeed, some were significantly wrong about significant things. But they all saw something important coming. 

And because every prophet deserves their own brilliant scribe, we asked some of our favorite writers to bring you the stories of our prophets. Many of these writers have been experiencing—and covering—the very issues the prophets predicted. 

We hope our new series delights, inspires, and occasionally even infuriates you. Ultimately, though, we think these essays make our times easier to understand—and will help you feel less alone in our crazy, fractured world.

You are reading this essay because Marshall McLuhan, in some sense, planned for it.

In the mid-1960s, when he exploded onto the American pop-cultural scene—which was also planned; more about this in a moment—he decided to embrace television.

This was not because he was born for TV. He was too “hot” for the medium (in the McLuhanesque sense of being uptight), as he famously said of Richard Nixon about his presidential debate loss to the “cool” John F. Kennedy.

Rather, McLuhan used TV because he, more than anyone of his time, understood how electric technology was transforming society and, even then, had already transformed it.

He knew that whether he liked it or not, TV was where he had to be. His mission was to wake people up—to “needle the somnambulists,” as he put it. (This one phrase gives you a flavor of his style: deadpan and unabashedly esoteric.) If TV was as revolutionary as he understood it to be, his message had to run on TV to have any chance of influencing the present—and being revisited in the future.

I first stumbled upon Marshall McLuhan a year ago on YouTube. Within a minute or two of watching a clip, I was amazed: here was a man who, in 1977, seemed to be describing the dislocating experience of living in 2023, and he did so with more insight than people living today. That the words were coming from a craggy, mustachioed man in a rumpled suit only enhanced the eerie feeling. Here was a professor-as-prophet. McLuhan says, in part, to his TV host: 

Everybody has become porous. They’ve got the light and the messages go right through us. By the way, at this moment we are on the air, and on the air we do not have any physical body. When you’re on the telephone, or on radio, or on TV, you don’t have a physical body. You’re just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body you’re a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. And this, I think, has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people, really, of their private identity. Everybody tends to merge his identity with other people at the speed of light. It’s called being mass man. 

I shared the clip on Twitter and it went viral with more than 6 million views —including both of Twitter’s father figures, Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk—suggesting I was not alone in my reaction. 

Something about Marshall McLuhan has struck a chord—has resonance, as he liked to say. (He believed the electric age was fundamentally acoustic; a confusing concept, but roughly meaning that everything occurs simultaneously.) The long-deceased Canadian scholar—he died in 1980—who first blew people’s minds in the mid-1960s, is blowing people’s minds again.

This is not because he predicted specific devices or apps, but because he understood, with a poet’s intuition, the effects of the electronic age on human psychology.

He did not get everything right. But those things he did get right stemmed from his deep insight into the shift from the mechanical age (of which print was a part) to the electronic era, whose implications are still unfolding....


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