Marshall McLuhan Predicts That Electronic Media Will Displace the Book & Create Sweeping Changes in Our Everyday Lives (1960)

“The elec­tron­ic media haven’t wiped out the book: it’s read, used, and want­ed, per­haps more than ever. But the role of the book has changed. It’s no longer alone. It no longer has sole charge of our out­look, nor of our sen­si­bil­i­ties.” As famil­iar as those words may sound, they don’t come from one of the think pieces on the chang­ing media land­scape now pub­lished each and every day. They come from the mouth of mid­cen­tu­ry CBC tele­vi­sion host John O’Leary, intro­duc­ing an inter­view with Mar­shall McLuhan more than half a cen­tu­ry ago.

McLuhan, one of the most idio­syn­crat­ic and wide-rang­ing thinkers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, would go on to become world famous (to the point of mak­ing a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) as a prophet­ic media the­o­rist. He saw clear­er than many how the intro­duc­tion of mass media like radio and tele­vi­sion had changed us, and spoke with more con­fi­dence than most about how the media to come would change us. He under­stood what he under­stood about these process­es in no small part because he’d learned their his­to­ry, going all the way back to the devel­op­ment of writ­ing itself.

Writ­ing, in McLuhan’s telling, changed the way we thought, which changed the way we orga­nized our soci­eties, which changed the way we per­ceived things, which changed the way we inter­act. All of that holds truer for the print­ing press, and even truer still for tele­vi­sion. He told the sto­ry in his book The Guten­berg Galaxy, which he was work­ing on at the time of this inter­view in May of 1960, and which would intro­duce the term “glob­al vil­lage” to its read­ers, and which would crys­tal­lize much of what he talked about in this broad­cast. Elec­tron­ic media, in his view, “have made our world into a sin­gle unit.”

With this “con­tin­u­al­ly sound­ing trib­al drum” in place, “every­body gets the mes­sage all the time: a princess gets mar­ried in Eng­land, and ‘boom, boom, boom’ go the drums. We all hear about it. An earth­quake in North Africa, a Hol­ly­wood star gets drunk, away go the drums again.” The con­se­quence? “We’re re-trib­al­iz­ing. Invol­un­tar­i­ly, we’re get­ting rid of indi­vid­u­al­ism.” Where “just as books and their pri­vate point of view are being replaced by the new media, so the con­cepts which under­lie our actions, our social lives, are chang­ing.” No longer con­cerned with “find­ing our own indi­vid­ual way,” we instead obsess over “what the group knows, feel­ing as it does, act­ing ‘with it,’ not apart from it.”

Though McLuhan died in 1980, long before the appear­ance of the mod­ern inter­net, many of his read­ers have seen recent tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments val­i­date his notion of the glob­al vil­lage — and his view of its per­ils as well as its ben­e­fits — more and more with time. At this point in his­to­ry, mankind can seem less unit­ed than ever than ever, pos­si­bly because tech­nol­o­gy now allows us to join any num­ber of glob­al “tribes.” But don’t we feel more pres­sure than ever to know just what those tribes know and feel just what they feel?

No won­der so many of those pieces that cross our news feeds today still ref­er­ence McLuhan and his pre­dic­tions. Just this past week­end, Quartz’s Lila MacLel­lan did so in argu­ing that our media, “while glob­al in reach, has come to be essen­tial­ly con­trolled by busi­ness­es that use data and cog­ni­tive sci­ence to keep us spell­bound and loy­al based on our own tastes, fuel­ing the relent­less rise of hyper-per­son­al­iza­tion” as “deep-learn­ing pow­ered ser­vices promise to become even bet­ter cus­tom-con­tent tai­lors, lim­it­ing what indi­vid­u­als and groups are exposed to even as the uni­verse of prod­ucts and sources of infor­ma­tion expands.” Long live the indi­vid­ual, the indi­vid­ual is dead: step back, and it all looks like one of those con­tra­dic­tions McLuhan could have deliv­ered as a res­o­nant sound bite indeed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Has Tech­nol­o­gy Changed Us?: BBC Ani­ma­tions Answer the Ques­tion with the Help of Mar­shall McLuhan

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

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)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, 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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.