By Lynn Ginsburg
Marshall McLuhan had both the fortune and misfortune of being born 40 years too early—he never got to surf the Web he predicted 30 years before its creation. McLuhan was once a controversial figure for his writings and predictions about the future of communications. But he is now fairly widely acknowledged as a prescient genius, who among other things accurately predicted the rise of what would become the Internet, and the effect that media would have on globalization.
And most importantly, he predicted that the effect of the technology itself—not the content the medium carried—would have the greater impact on worldwide society. His most famous saying was “The Medium is the Message,” which to many of his contemporaries sounded like a catchy meaningless jingle. Whereas to anyone living in the modern world, and familiar with the rise of the Internet and its constantly evolving iterations, it sounds like a prophecy continuing to unfold before us.
McLuhan’s many “prophecies” of this sort were always difficult to unravel–even among his contemporary peers–more like Zen koans than a widely accessible theory. So for insight into McLuhan’s almost eerie prediction of the future—today, and yet to come–we spoke with one of the foremost experts on McLuhan and his works, Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and author of several books on McLuhan’s theories,as well as co-editor of several anthologies, including The Legacy of McLuhan and (Media Ecology) andCommunication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment.
PP: I’d like to start off just by talking about who McLuhan was–a bit about his background, and what led him to form his notions. It seems important to understand the historical context from which he was forecasting the future–his first published works were in the early days of television, and while computers existed, certainly at the time the concept that they’d ever become the “PC”–personal computer was extraordinarily visionary.
Strate: McLuhan was a Canadian, who went to study English literature at Cambridge in 1934 and earned his doctorate there. He also converted to Catholicism at Cambridge. This was at a time, in the early 20th century, where there was a very vibrant English milieu of Catholic intellectuals: T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, James Joyce, he became very enamored of their ideas. It may surprise people to know that a lot of his religious and political beliefs were very conservative, but he clearly separated those as his private views, and never took a stand on issues, or questions of morality. But part of what it did do though is to help ground him in a tradition–most major religions are grounded in theories developed in ancient or medieval times. It helps give you a different view on the modern world, which is helpful because it gets you thinking about the big picture. And if anything can be said of McLuhan, he was a very big picture kind of guy.
Part of why was he so prescient in talking about the potential for computers, television and the electronic media was the influence of Lewis Mumford on his thinking. Mumford was a philosopher of technology and science, and in his 1934 work, Technics and Civilization, Mumford provided McLuhan with a fertile source. Mumford’s work was very focused on electricity: in Mumford’s world view there was something more organic and democratic about electricity. The basis of electricity is interactivity, which introduces feedback–which is the basis of cybernetics. With cyber interactivity, it’s electricity–it’s on and off, positive or negative. What activities do light bulbs enable us to do? Looking at its role in the contemporary world, in an office with no windows, with the light bulb we can work 24/7. The light bulb enables us to read our computer screens, which again brings about to cyber interactivity. Electricity is. Mumford was accurate in his prediction that electricity was the real revolution, everything else was a secondary effect of electricity, all of which had an enormous impact on McLuhan’s thinking.
The Global Village
PP: One of the first terms he coined–which most people would mistakenly credit Hillary Clinton with—was the “global village.” If you could, help us to understand what McLuhan meant by this phrase.
Strate: McLuhan had a very poetic side, and often liked to talk about things using poetic images. The term and concept of “global village” came from that poetic side. It was an oxymoron—the village is the smallest unit of human settlement, the globe is the largest–a contradiction in terms he uses to get at the idea that all of us scattered across the globe in our individual settlements were becoming one world. It’s a phrase that’s used frequently now, and one that never gets properly attributed to McLuhan. That’s partly because people took that idea to mean globalism, but then they miss the village part. His usage of “village” is not a romantic idyllic cottage situation—he’s talking about a return to a kind of situation that existed before the modern world, a kind of tribalism.
“McLuhan’s vision was hardly limited to seeing the future as some kind of blissful utopia—“better living through technology.”
Built into that concept of the “global village” was the idea that nationalism was largely a product of printing–that nation states came into being with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1436. When you have printed communications, that creates a homogenizing force in government, law, bureaucracy–the coming together of many local areas to be governed by a central bureaucracy. Before printing, communications were spread orally, and people from village to village couldn’t understand each other. But as the printed King James Bible mostly spread, it helped give words to language, and so communication became standardized. With printing, every nation came to have foundational literary figures like Shakespeare for the English language, and that led to the development of national literature, national religions, national cultures. Print was what defined the differences between nations, and it remained that way until it was undermined by electricity, which superseded the nation state with larger, more global kinds of institutions. But when people feel their former identity as a nation being questioned by a global vision, in some ways the natural reaction is to devolve into smaller and smaller units, back to villages and tribes. People who feel they are losing their identity can become violent in a need to assert that identity. They tend to be more xenophobic, more so than when under cities or nations.
Any time of transition–as we’re going through now with what the Internet has evolved into–is going to be difficult. Lots of people and institutions have a great deal of vested interest in the status quo. When that status quo is challenged or undermined, it’s not like nation states are going to go “gently into that good night.” The United Nations was founded as the harbinger of globalism. But in the modern world, with the medium of the Internet making globalization de facto, I see it turning into a sort of rearguard effort to defend the nation state. The idealists who founded it envisioned just the opposite–creating the global state. But in these times, it’s become about defending the nation as an institution. When you take McLuhan’s ideas about the new technology enabling globalization, it makes sense to see that people identify with new orientations–multiple citizenships, multiple allegiances. It’s not going to be an easy process, and I don’t see us happily turning into the Star Trek future into the peaceful Federation without undergoing some major tribulations first.