Thursday, July 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Marshall McLuhan!

poster by D. Kuropatwa (
Marshall McLuhan was born 100 years ago on July 21st. McLuhan, of course, is the famous Canadian media guru from the sixties. McLuhan pioneered the study of media and its effects on society and was famous for his aphorisms and use of metaphor. Who has not heard the phrase 'the global village', 'the medium is the message', 'we shape our tools, then they shape us' and others? McLuhan was called 'the oracle of the information age' for his commentary about media and its effects on society. He was sought after by media and celebrities, and looked down on by many in academia (after all, he dared to be popular, to use dialogue and not lecture, to examine areas outside of his own).  In the latter part of his life, his star faded. In the past decade or so, however, he has come alive again, his words seem prophetic now in our digital age. McLuhan was born in Edmonton, did undergraduate at the University of Manitoba (where I am attending now), finished his education at Cambridge, worked at Assumption University in Windsor (where I was born & grew up) and finished his career at the University of Toronto. He was one  of the first to write about advertising (The Mechanical Bride) and teach courses that foreshadowed the current emphasis on media literacy. His third book, Understanding Media was perhaps the biggest one, in it he stated the famous "the medium is the message" and discussed media as an extension of man. People misunderstood what he was saying at the time, thinking he was implying that content was unimportant, but he was trying to point out that, regardless of the actual message, the medium itself has effects on individuals and society. His book, "The Medium is the Massage" with Fiore, was remarkable in its design, with short blurbs and accompanying images. His last book, written with his son, Eric, published posthumously, was "The Laws of Media" (I recently bought a copy). In it the McLuhans lay out four 'laws', really four questions, to guide our examination of technology and its effects;
  • What does the medium enhance?
  • What does the medium make obsolete?
  • What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  • What does the medium flip into (reverse) when pushed to extremes?
It is remarkable that when you listen to people talk and write about technology, how much is what McLuhan said over 30 years ago. Although he claimed he was not predicting the future, he certainly seemed to do just that. McLuhan was really trying to provoke and prod people to think about technology and media, to not let the tools shape them.

Some websites about Marshall McLuhan;
Spark (CBC) podcast series in May 2011 on McLuhan's laws (also a 'tour' of locations he frequented in Toronto).
Marshall McLuhan (official site)
McLuhan Galaxy
Marshall McLuhan Speaks (lots of video clips)
McLuhan Archives on CBC
Video McLuhan
McLuhan 100 (University of Toronto)
The McLuhan Project (ABC Radio)

A few good books about McLuhan;
Digital McLuhan by P. Levinson
Marshall McLuhan (Biography) by Douglas Coupland
and many more ... and be sure to watch the NFB documentary McLuhan's Wake

Thanks to Dr. D. Hlynka, a McLuhan scholar at U of M who made me more aware of McLuhan and his importance.


  1. Mike, how's it going? I was browsing my blog archive and saw this blog of yours was updated about a month ago, so I had a look. You made a Marshall McLuhan entry. How good of you!! The effects of communications media on social development and progress is central to all time periods, as you know. But, one needs to be literate in the speak of the day to move forward. Literacy is subjective (as I start to regress to our Seminar course). Do the means of communication have to matter? At the time of Gutenberg, society went crazy over print. What did that do to oral culture? Were the same fears had by the people of the day about the loss of orality as people seemingly have today about the loss of reading books due to the electronic modes and short prose and image exchanges? In 100 years, I don't think we'll have the same seemingly difficult problems as we do today.

    A good book I am just finishing is by Karen Ferneding, Questioning Technology: Electronic Technologies and Educational Reform. Denis mentioned Ferneding to me as a philosophical author, so I got the book. Have you read it? If not, it's worth a look.

    Have a good year there at the U!

  2. Hey Gary, nice to hear from you. I will have to find that book, sounds interesting. Have you completed your M.Ed.? Have a good year.