Hardly mentioned today, there was a time when the cultural theorist Marshall Herbert McLuhan (1911-80) was a big deal among academics and savvy media pundits. One could say he was the Jordan Peterson of the 60s, 70s and early 80s.
Born in Edmonton, Alberta, McLuhan founded the University of Toronto‘s Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963 and soon after became something of an international icon.
His phrase “The medium is the message” is still heard but few seem to understand what it means. Most who have studied McLuhan say that, for him, a media’s form is more telling than its content.¹
McLuhan argued that the medium of television, for instance, involves the viewer in an entirely different way than the medium of a light bulb, a printed book, a photograph, a telephone or a radio. Some media are “hot” and others “cool.” Most fall somewhere along a continuum between hot and cool.
For McLuhan, technology is an extension of the body and whole communities are shaped by the media. This seems far more obvious today but in the 20th century, his ideas were new and exciting.²
Perhaps McLuhan’s greatest insight was his belief that, due to technology, we live in a “Global Village.” He presented this idea well before email, the internet and all the social media we now take for granted.
McLuhan has been criticized for minimizing the importance of media content and choice (e.g. channels) at the expense of its means of transmission. And I’m not sure if he emphasized the role of social power in creating popular media. But his vision has proved, for the most part, visionary.
¹ Back in the 80s, one of my better professors, the late Alexander Wilson, pointed out that we had the technology to vote on every issue raised in parliament, but this tech was not implemented. Back then, technology was even more one-way than it is now. Those with social power created content from the “top” and it trickled down to the consuming masses, who generally enjoyed less social power.¹ This was the theory, at any rate. Michel Foucault nuanced this neo-Marxist ‘top to bottom’ view with his idea of discourse and counter-discourses of power.
² Major works at Wikipedia.