Marshall McLuhan in Two Minutes: A Brief Animated Introduction to the 1960s Media Theorist Who Predicted Our Present

Mar­shall McLuhan, writes nov­el­ist and artist Dou­glas Cou­p­land, entered the zeit­geist in the 1960s as “a guru or as a vil­lain – as a har­bin­ger of the flow­er­ing of cul­ture, or of its death,” a “fud­dy-dud­dy fiftysome­thing Eng­lish lit pro­fes­sor from Toron­to” whose dis­tinc­tive research inter­ests and even more dis­tinc­tive habits of mind empow­ered him to come up with still-res­o­nant insights into the mod­ern media land­scape. He knew “that the point of much of tech­nol­o­gy, TV, for instance, was­n’t the con­tent of the shows you were watch­ing on it. Rather, what mat­tered was mere­ly the fact that you were watch­ing TV. The act of ana­lyz­ing the con­tent of TV – or of oth­er medi­ums – is either sen­ti­men­tal or it’s beside the point.” The medi­um, in oth­er words, is the mes­sage.

That best-known of McLuhan’s prophet­ic one-lin­ers (on which he expands in the ABC Radio Nation­al talk below) remains as true now as it was when it first appeared in his book Under­stand­ing Media: The Exten­sions of Man in 1964.

Cou­p­land empha­sizes that dif­fer­ent kinds of media, then as now, “force you to favor cer­tain parts of your brain over oth­ers,” which we denizens of the 21st cen­tu­ry know from inten­sive dai­ly expe­ri­ence: “that hour you spent on Face­book came at the expense of some oth­er way of using your brain, most like­ly TV view­ing or book-read­ing, though as books and TV recede, ever more web-medi­at­ed activ­i­ties will replace each oth­er to the point where we’ll have long for­got­ten what the pre-elec­tron­ic mind was to begin with.”

Cou­p­land once wrote a kind of biog­ra­phy of McLuhan that dis­tilled the thinker’s life, work, and cur­rent rel­e­vance into less than 250 pages, but the video at the top of the post, com­mis­sioned by Al Jazeera from ani­ma­tor Daniel Sav­age and nar­rat­ed by Hong Kong activist Alex Chow, does it in just over two min­utes. Chow reminds us that, even today, “if you don’t under­stand the medi­um, you don’t ful­ly under­stand the mes­sage,” look­ing back to the inven­tion of the print­ing press, and thus of mass media, and how its forms “changed our col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence. It informed our col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty, how we imag­ined our­selves.” In what McLuhan called the “elec­tric envi­ron­ment,” where “every­thing hap­pens at once. There’s no con­ti­nu­ity, there’s no con­nec­tion, there’s no fol­low-through. It’s just all now,” we will expe­ri­ence the end of secre­cy, and with it “the end of monop­o­lies of knowl­edge.”

55 years ago, 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. A com­put­er as a research and com­mu­ni­ca­tion instru­ment could enhance retrieval, obso­lesce mass library orga­ni­za­tion, retrieve the indi­vid­u­al’s ency­clo­pe­dic func­tion and flip it into a pri­vate line to speed­i­ly tai­lored data of a sal­able kind.” As we’ve since dis­cov­ered, these devel­op­ments have both their upsides and down­sides. But as Cou­p­land writes, con­sid­er that pas­sage seri­ous­ly and “see if it does­n’t give you a chill.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Vision­ary Thought of Mar­shall McLuhan, Intro­duced and Demys­ti­fied by Tom Wolfe

Mar­shall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buck­min­ster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Mod­ern Tech­nol­o­gy & Media (1971)

Mar­shall McLuhan on the Stu­pid­est Debate in the His­to­ry of Debat­ing (1976)

McLuhan Said “The Medi­um Is The Mes­sage”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

Hear Mar­shall McLuhan’s The Medi­um is the Mas­sage (1967)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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