Marshall McLuhan, the famous professor and philosopher who predicted the Internet 30 years before it was invented, is the subject of the July 21 Google Doodle. McLuhan would have celebrated his 106th birthday today.
McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on July 21, 1911 and died on December 31, 1980 in Toronto, a little over a year after suffering a stroke. He never got to experience the World Wide Web he predicted.
McLuhan was a rare public intellectual, whose work reached beyond academia and into popular culture. He developed unique philosophies on media and how humans interact with it, popularizing the phrases “The medium is the message” and “Global Village.”
“Long before we started looking to our screens for all the answers, Marshall McLuhan saw the internet coming — and predicted just how much impact it would have,” Google notes. “A Canadian philosopher and professor who specialized in media theory, McLuhan came to prominence in the 1960s, just as TV was becoming part of everyday life. At the center of his thinking was the idea that society is shaped by technology and the way information is shared.”
Here’s a look at McLuhan’s life and career.
1. McLuhan Predicted the Internet in his 1962 Book ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’
McLuhan’s second book was 1962’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of the Typographic Man. McLuhan viewed human history through four periods based on the media that dominated the era – the acoustic age, the literary age, the print age and the electronic age. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan predicted the Internet, notes The McLuhan Galaxy. He wrote:
The next medium, whatever it is — it may be the extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, named after Johannes Gutenberg, also popularized the term “global village.” It’s the idea that technology has the power to bring people together because everyone will have access to the same information. That’s how the Internet works today, as long as you have access to it.
Although McLuhan popularized the term “Global Village,” he didn’t invent it. As McLuhan’s eldest son, Dr. Eric McLuhan, wrote on the website of his father’s estate, Teilhard de Chardin is credited with coming up with the term. However, Eric suggests that his father heard of the term from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or P. Wydham Lewis’ America and Cosmic Man.
2. McLuhan Coined the Phrase ‘The Medium Is The Message’
In McLuhan’s third book, 1964’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan introduced his most famous phrase – “The medium is the message.” McLuhan theorized that the medium that carries a message becomes a part of the message itself and influences how people perceive it. For example, compare how one judges a message in a tweet to how one judges the same message from a speech or television program.
As McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media:
The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium.
McLuhan’s other books include The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967); War and Peace In the Global Village (1968); and From Cliche to Archetype (1970). There have been two posthumous publications of his work, Laws of Media (1988) and The Future of the Library (2016).
3. McLuhan Also Divided Media as ‘Hot’ & ‘Cool’ to Differentiate Between Media That Required More or Less Participation from the Audience
Another idea in Understanding Media was McLuhan’s definition of “hot” and “cold” media.
As Oxford Reference explains, McLuhan determined that print, photographs, radio and movies are “hot media” because they were “high definition.” No, that doesn’t mean that they looked great on a big screen television, but rather that the audience doesn’t have many blanks to fill in with their own details. These media enhance a single sense – like vision for the movies.
In 1964, McLuhan believed that television was a “cool” medium, along with cartoons, telephones and speech, because it was “low definition.” At the time, television didn’t look as great as it does today, so its quality has made it a “hotter” medium since McLuhan wrote Understanding Media.
While many of McLuhan’s ideas have become part of popular culture thanks to his prediction of the Internet, his work became historical footnotes in the late 1980s and 1990s. At the turn of the 21st Century, he experienced a revival.
“When I first came on the scene, in 1990, no one talked about McLuhan — it was as if he had never existed, and when I spoke about him there was no traction,” Camille Paglia, professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, told the New York Times in 2000. “Now his name is mentioned everywhere. Now that all these young people are spending time on the Internet, there is a real ferment of interest in him.”
4. McLuhan Was Religious & Had a Fascination With the Number 3
While studying at the University of Cambridge in England in the late 1930s, McLuhan began developing an interest in converting to Roman Catholicism. In the years before 1937, he was agnostic. But he encountered the work of G.K. Chesterton and this inspired his decision to convert. By 1937, McLuhan completed his conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Throughout the rest of his life, McLuhan had an interest in the Holy Trinity, as well as the Trivium, which is made up of grammar, logic and rhetoric. His 1942 Cambridge doctoral dissertation was on the history of the trivium.
The dissertation was published and edited by McLuhan For Beginners author W. Terrence Gordon. In it, a young McLuhan explored the work of Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe.
“In this previously unpublished work, a young Marshall McLuhan, as cultural historian, illuminates the complexities of the classical trivium, provides the first ever close reading of the enigmatic Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, and implicitly challenges the reader to accept a new blueprint for literary education,” reads the Ginko Press description of the work.
McLuhan earned his B.A. from the University of Manitoba in 1932 and an M.A. in 1934. He longed to study in England, and was finally accepted by Cambridge University. He was still required to complete another B.A., which he did in 1936. He was finally awarded a Ph.D. in 1942.
McLuhan was a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, St. Louis University, Assumption University in Ontario and at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1964. He received nine honorary degrees in his life.
5. McLuhan Starred in a Famous Scene in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’
McLuhan appeared in a famous scene in Woody Allen’s Anne Hall. In the winner of the 1977 Oscar for Best Picture, Allen’s character argues with a pretentious professor who claims to teach a class about media. Allen then pulls the real McLuhan into the frame. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan famously says.
In a 2017 interview with Entertainment Weekly, actor Russell Horton, who played that annoying character, said McLuhan couldn’t remember his line on the set.
“I guess he didn’t take it terribly seriously because he couldn’t remember his line,” Horton told EW. “He had one line and he kept blowing it. It was a two-and-a-half-minute take. It was one of the longest, uncut, comedy sequences, up to that time, and Woody wanted it that way because when he pulled [McLuhan] out, he wanted it to be a total shock.”
McLuhan, whose name has appeared on buildings and signs in Toronto, had six children with his wife, the late Corrinne McLuhan. One of his sons, Eric McLuhan, is an author and media theorist himself. His estate also has an official website.