A guest post from Peter Lunenfeld, whose latest book from the MIT Press is The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine, on Marshall McLuhan's influence. Happy 100th Birthday, Professor McLuhan!
I’m a media theorist, and I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be without the redoubtable Marshall McLuhan, who would have been 100 today. Not only wouldn’t I be, but perhaps no else would be either. That’s not to say that people wouldn’t be thinking about radio dramas and television sitcoms, classic books and pulp magazine, the postal service and the Internet, movies in theaters and movies on video and movies on YouTube, just that they might not think of them in that peculiarly synthetic, dare we say Catholic (in the comprehensive rather than doctrinal) sense that McLuhan bequeathed to us with his seminal work of the 1960s. Trained as a Medievalist at Cambridge, this son of the Canadian West forever after looked the part of the tweedy don, which paradoxically lent his pronouncements on the newest communications technologies a gravitas that his black clad, architect-glasses sporting descendents (myself included) may lack.
It was in the 1950s that McLuhan started change his focus from literary criticism to the idea of “media,” publishing his thoughts on advertising in a quirky little book called The Mechanical Bride. This was followed in 1962 by The Gutenberg Galaxy, which examined the impact of print on the entirety of culture, and then, in 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. With pithy insights like "we change our tools and then our tools change us," invertable probes like “the medium is the message,” and frankly gnomic statements like “the electric light is pure information,” Understanding Media was a watershed book that ignited a firestorm of support, derision, controversy and publicity the likes of which we really haven’t seen since. I like to tell myself that in 1968, at six years old, I saw a very young Goldie Hawn in a bikini on the TV show Laugh-In gyrating and giggling “Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin’?” but I’m probably projecting backwards.
McLuhan’s fortunes rose and fell with the 1960s and by the time I started grad school in the 1980s, he was out of favor with all but a tiny coterie that looked past his outrageousness to unearth the truly radical thoughts he had about the intersections of communications, technologies and cultures. By the 1990s, and the digitization of everything, the World Wide Web seemed more a “global village” than television ever did, Wired proclaimed him the magazine’s patron saint, and Understanding Media was more relevant than ever. So, on this specific day, in this centennial year of tribute conferences around the world, twitter feeds, and biographies, I suggest we raise a glass of white Bordeaux--one of his favorite drinks--to Herbert Marshall McLuhan, who’s still (as per Goldie) “doin’” in the most influential way.