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Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhanAKA Herbert Marshall McLuhan

Born: 21-Jul-1911
Birthplace: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Died: 31-Dec-1980
Location of death: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Buried, Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Author

Nationality: Canada
Executive summary: Understanding Media

Author and media pundit Marshall McLuhan is best known for coining the term "Global Village" and such catch phrases as such catch phrases as "The media is the message". McLuhan originated he idea that human beings can extend their nervous system via a global neural net through the use of electronic media and devices, and he described many of the changes that could be wrought by such a network. Mcluhan's prescience regarding these changes, as embodied in the later created World Wide Web, and his (initial) glowing praise of them, made him very popular with 1990's cyberpunk culture and earned him the title "Patron Saint of Wired Magazine". Advertising and business pundits revere McLuhan for his "4 Laws of Media", which they consider a touchstone for evaluating and predicting change sparked by new media developments and use.

Marshall McLuhan was born in Canada’s Edmonton, Alberta on July 21, 1911. Although he was a poor student as a youngster (he was admitted to grade seven only after considerable efforts of his mother on his behalf), he later completed a five-year honors program at the University of Manitoba in English and Philosophy. He emerged in 1935 with an M.A., and then went on to Cambridge where he earned a Ph.D. in Literature.

McLuhan then taught English in various American Universities. Along the way he married Corinne Keller Lewis (a drama student at the University of St. Louis) and converted to Catholicism. He eventually settled at the University of Toronto where he would later establish his Centre for Culture and Technology (a think tank studying the psychological and social consequences of technologies and media). It was here that he met political economist Harold Innis and Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter who would both (along with James Joyce’s Finnegan's Wake and Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) influence him to formulate a concept of media as a primary shaper of civilization. This stood in marked contrast to the philosophy of Karl Marx, who held that the means of production were the primary shaper of society.

While Marxism encouraged intellectuals to focus on the ways economics shaped human destiny, McLuhan emphasized the way in which media molds our psyches to interact with the environment and with each other. Note that for McLuhan "media" did not merely include printed matter or electronic media or even artwork, but also tools and artifacts. ("We shape our tools and they in turn shape us.")

In his 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy he explained how the invention of the printing press had revolutionized Western Society in more ways, and to a far greater depth, than was previously imagined. He claimed that print had transformed Western Civilization into a fragmented collective of alienated individuals, disassociated from the (deeper) consequences of their actions. In his earlier work The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) he hd taken a satirical look at modern pop culture through its representations in advertising and media. In Understanding The Media (1964), The Media is the Massage (1967) he went farther, expounding his pivotal theory which stated that the ways in which we are affected by the media itself is more significant that the content which the media carries.

That is, how are way of looking at ourselves and our world is shaped not just by ideas, but by the way we are habituated to perceive. According to McLuhan's theory, technologies alter the manner in which we habitually process information, inclining us more toward some learning styles than others (depending on the technology). Thus print encourages us to become visual and linear in our thinking. By contrast, music is auditory, spatial, and even kinesthetic. Cultures which pass their knowledge through storytelling encourage auditory learning which, in the era before audio tapes and radio, required the transmission of knowledge to be a social event (even if limited to two).

McLuhan’s message about media conditioning would find a later echo by parents and educators concerned that too much television viewing conditioned children to become passive observers. (Ironically, McLuhan viewed TV as a "cold" media, that discouraged passivity, claiming that the "little dots" that filled the screen forced the brain to "interpret" the image beamed onto the screen.)

Although he was largely cold-shouldered by academia, McLuhan found his work rapidly embraced by the counter culture of the 1960's. Obsessed with expanding it’s consciousness, and tweaking The Establishment, the counter culture answered McLuhan’s radical call to re-evaluate the mental conditioning imposed on us by our technology and media. To them it seemed to go hand in hand with Timothy Leary's mandate to "Turn on, tune in, drop out."

As McLuhan’s popularity increased (his work was translated into more than 20 languages and his name or image was plastered across a host of magazines across the world), it expanded into pop culture and then mainstream as he landed an hour-long spot on NBC (1967), an interview with Playboy magazine, an appearance on the hip TV comedy Laugh-In, and even a cameo appearance in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977).

As the media popularized his ideas, McLuhan continued his work at the Centre for Culture and Technology, collaborating with eldest son Eric McLuhan to develop a synthesis of his ideas. Together they published a number of articles and books and attempted to articulate what they had began to refer to as the "4 Laws of Media": every technology (1) amplifies part of our culture, (2) obsolesces aspects previously amplified, (3) retrieves elements previously obsolesced, and (4) eventually reverses or "flips" into something else entirely.

Although these ideas would later be much discussed by business people looking for clues to a more successful interface with technology, McLuhan was beginning to slip from popular awareness even as he had (fleetingly) achieved icon status. Meanwhile he was suffering the results of a 1967 surgery. The operation, which removed a "tennis ball" sized tumor from his brain left him "hypersensitive" and he discovered that "several years of reading got rubbed out". Then, in 1979, he suffered a severe stroke, which affected his ability to read and write, forcing him to retire from teaching. On New Year’s Eve, 1980, he died in his sleep.

After his death, the one-time celebrity was all but forgotten by the mass culture that had once adored him. But he gained renewed interest in the 1990s, when the World Wide Web (invented by Tim Berners-Lee and made more accessible by Marc Andreessen's Netscape Navigator) began skyrocketing to popularity. Suddenly "net culture" -- with its emphasis on the free sharing of information and with a status system based on the intelligent use of skill, rather than wealth, age, or social connections -- seemed about to become mainstream culture. Simultaneously, readers fresh from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and other cyberpunk classics pondered the darker turns the Web’s "cyber culture" might take as mainstream corruption and greed infused the Net.

Enter the works of Marshall McLuhan, the man who’d prophesied that printed books would become obsolete, killed off by television and by other electronic information technology. In The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan had stated, "Print is the technology of individualism." In War and Peace in the Global Village, he predicted that the newly emerging electronic network (i.e. extended neural net) would recreate "the world in the image of a global village", in which people understood instantly the impact of their actions and shared knowledge about possible solutions.

This utopian prediction was wholly in keeping with the original intent behind the development of the web, leading web heads to veritably glow with joy. Still it is worth noting that Saint Marshall (Patron Saint of Wired Magazine) knew little of the personal computer. Ironically, he had shown little interest in the 1970s Microchip computer developments that led to Apple Computers and pc clones, etc. In later life his early enthusiasm for the global network of electric media had so erode that he referred to it as "an unholy impostor... 'a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ'". Still, this view was voiced before the reign of personal computers, or the web. Ultimately, it was McLuhan himself who also predicted that technology "eventually reverses or flips into something else entirely". What exactly this means for the Web, if true, remains to be seen. However one of the main challenges it already faces is keeping desired information accessible as the total quantity of information available increases almost exponentially.

As an interesting side note, McLuhan’s gravestone is inscribed with a message that reads, "The truth shall set you free", in a font variously described as "digital analogue" or the "Future Shock computer typeface popular in the '60s".

During his life McLuhan was the recipient of numerous awards and prestigious appointments including an appointment to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at Fordham University (1967-68), the Molson Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Social Sciences (1967), Companion of the Order of Canada (1970), a Gold Medal Award from President of the Italian Republic (in recognition of original work as philosopher of the mass media, 1971), and Vatican appointment as Consultor of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications (1973). The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) won McLuhan the prestigious Governor General's Award for critical prose.

In 1988 McLuhan’s The Laws of Media were published posthumously. His eldest son, Eric McLuhan continues work into the laws of media. The Centre for Culture and Technology now carries on its research into new media under the leadership of Derrick de Kerckhove.

Father: Herbert Marshall McLuhan (real estate salesman)
Mother: Elsie Hall (actress)
Wife: Corinne Keller (drama teacher, m. 4-Aug-1939, two sons, four daughters)
Son: Eric
Daughter: Mary
Daughter: Theresa
Daughter: Stephanie
Daughter: Elizabeth
Son: Michael

    University: BA, University of Manitoba (1933)
    University: MA, University of Manitoba (1935)
    University: PhD, Cambridge University (1942)
    Professor: English, University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto (1946-80)

    Annie Hall (20-Apr-1977) · Himself

Official Website:

Author of books:
The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951, social studies)
The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Topographic Man (1962, media studies)
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964, media studies)
The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967, media studies)
War and Peace in the Global Village (1968, social studies)
Culture Is Our Business (1970, social studies)
From Cliché to Archetype (1970, social studies)

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