Herbert M. McLuhan, Creator of The Global Village
On the 21st of July 1911, Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is considered one of the foremost theorists on the subject of mass media, including television and computer technology. He coined the expressions ‘the medium in the message’ and ‘the global village’, and predicted the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented. McLuhan attended the University of Monitoba and taught at St. Louis University in the United States, while completing a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University. Following WWII, he joined the University of Toronto in 1946. His final position was as director for the Center for Culture and Technology, a position he held until just prior to his death in 1980.
In his early days at Toronto, McLuhan became friends with and was greatly influenced by Harold Adam Innis, who had studied communication. With McLuhan, Innis furthered the importance of communication technology in determining the social, as well as economic impact on new technologies. In his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan stated: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” Later on, he extended his idea saying, “We have become like the most primitive Palaeolithic man, once more global wanderers, but information gatherers rather than food gatherers. From now on the source of food, wealth and life itself will be information.” (The Agenbite of Outwit, published posthumously in McLuhan Studies, Volume 1 Issue 2, January 1998).
At the beginning of the 1960s, Mc Luhan spent a year at the University of Wisconsin where he began exploring media technology in greater depth, resulting in the publication of Understanding Media (1964). In it he talked, amongst other issues, about ignoring the effects of technology on society: “It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent functions, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions. The history of radio is instructive as an indicator of the bias and blindness induced in any society by its pre-existent […]” (p.265) “ …misunderstanding of the nature of the medium rendered the restraining policies [the press criticising radio and TV] quite futile. Such has always been the case, most notoriously in government censorship of the press and of the movies. Although the medium is the message, the controls go beyond programming. The restraints are always directed to the “content,” which is always another medium. The content of the press is literary statement, as the content of the book is speech, and the content of the movie is the novel. So the effects of radio are quite independent of its programming.” (p. 267).
The book quickly became influential across North America and in Europe. In his writings from that time, McLuhan refused to use traditional research methods. He promoted the idea of technological determinism in which the media was the primary determinant of culture – much more important than any messages it may convey. He described each type of communication technology as a force of change based on the senses individuals had to perceive messages. McLehan became the guru of pop culture and demonstrated that he understood the global effect of television decades before others understood him or his ideas.
During the 1970s, McLuhan became some sort of a celebrity icon. He was the subject of network documentaries, his writing appeared in the New York Times, and he even made an appearance in one of Woody Allen’s films. In a Playboy interview of March 1969, he prophetically stated: “The more data banks record about us, the less we exist.” During his career, McLuhan went from an obscure academic to one of the most influential writers to have affected North American popular culture. Most of his fame came from becoming a celebrity himself, suitably anointed in this position by the media itself.