Friday, 22 July 2011

On Marshall McLuhan

Yesterday – 21 July 2011 – was the centenary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan.

I’ve stumbled across two pieces on him so far: this short one in The Guardian by Douglas Coupland, and a much longer one in The New Atlantis by Alan Jacobs (also available as a pdf).

Coupland includes this prescient-sounding quote from McLuhan in 1962:

‘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 organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.’

Jacobs notes that there are several ways to read McLuhan badly, and that he is ‘tempted to suggest that McLuhan now be ignored – to argue that his greatest long-term value has been his ability to provoke people who are, if not simply smarter than he was, then more patient, methodical, and scholarly’ (referring to Neil Postman, Hugh Kenner, and Walter Ong). Even so, according to Jacobs, in spite of his overblown international celebrity status, ‘it is not likely that Postman, Kenner, Ong, and many others would have achieved anything like what they did had it not been for the example and the provocation of McLuhan’.

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