Marshall McLuhan, the visionary media theorist who gave us the phrases “global village” and “the medium is the message,” was born a century ago this month. I first came across his ideas while finishing up graduate school and working as a TV producer in the 1960s. At the time, McLuhan’s journey from obscure Canadian English professor to world famous sage was almost complete. To me, most of what he said sounded like nonsense, because I had not yet realized that he wasn’t offering description, but prophecy.
He was the first to tell IBM, for example, that they were not in the machine business, but the information business. Today, the term “information technology” is commonplace, but fifty years ago it was a revolutionary idea.
It is no exaggeration to say that McLuhan also predicted the internet. While other futurists declared that computers could lead to either utopia or Big Brother, McLuhan quietly anticipated Facebook and Twitter. Writing in 1967, thirteen years before the first Web site even went live, McLuhan got the trivial, distracting qualities of our digital life just right. He told us there would someday be “one big gossip column,” powered by an “electronically computerized dossier bank,” that would keep an uneraseable record of our tiniest actions. This would be the background noise against which our lives would play out.
McLuhan also saw that our participation in this collective gossip column would be voluntary. He claimed we would all become not the unwilling but rather the “unwitting workforce for social change.” In McLuhan’s world, change does not announce itself or even arrive by ambush, but instead creeps up on us. After every advent in media technology, we wake up to an invisibly but fundamentally altered world.
How did McLuhan attain such foresight? Through “pattern recognition,” yet another phrase we owe to him. As a way of thinking, it is an excellent tool for survival in a world of information overload. In pattern recognition, facts are less important than the patterns they reveal, and comprehension takes a back seat to intuition. It is a skill we have all had to learn just to keep pace in our jobs and our lives, though not everybody can apply it as widely and effortlessly as McLuhan did.
For a thinker of such wide sweep, it is no surprise that McLuhan’s scholarship has sometimes been called sloppy. One of his most famous books, The Gutenberg Galaxy, contains numerous factual errors, but still feels fresh fifty years after being published, something few academic works can claim. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan documents the effects the printing press had on European civilization. He argues that books changed much more than just how people got their information. Unlike listening or talking, reading is done alone, and isolates what we see at the expense of all the other senses. The outcome of a conversation is determined by at least two people, while in a book thoughts are dictated by a single author. Printed books, McLuhan argued, became the first industrial commodity, and united peoples around standardized languages into large communities that came to be called nations. The mere fact of printed words on the page, regardless of what they said, created a whole different type of person. The medium, in other words, was the message.
The Gutenberg Galaxy also contains the first printed use of the phrase “global village,” which has gone so deep into the language that it is hard to believe we know who said it first. But, as with Shakespeare, Marx, and Freud, McLuhan is one of those thinkers everybody quotes all the time without knowing it.
When used today, “global village” usually has positive connotations. As media and commerce make us more interconnected, the argument goes, the world shrinks into a peaceful, prosperous, global village. But McLuhan did not think of the global village as a happy place at all. He saw it as a place of terror, the home we would all have to move to when electronic media had finished re-tribalizing us.
Tribal society and digital society are similar for McLuhan because both are in a state of ceaseless change, where everybody is constantly affecting everybody else. In a re-tribalized society, the orderly thought patterns of reading and writing are eroded by the constant flow of new information, and a paralyzing uncertainty about the future remains behind. Tribal societies and digital societies also lack privacy. When the whole world moves in next door, everyone becomes everyone else’s nosy neighbor.
The last ten years conform painfully with McLuhan’s predictions. High hopes for globalization have given way to what seems now like permanent economic uncertainty. Privacy has become harder to manage in the age of social media, and may even seem old-fashioned to the rising generation. The War on Terror is still officially being waged, and is perhaps the most McLuhan-esque feature of the present. Since it began in 2001, the War on Terror has slowly become one of those assumptions behind every news story — part of the media environment that we step into every day, as McLuhan once famously said, “like a warm bath.” The News of the World hacking scandal, with its terrible crime, invasion of privacy, global scope, and empowered popular outcry could be the perfect illustration of all of McLuhan’s ideas operating at once.