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Marshall McLuhan's message - the media is you

By Malcolm King - posted Monday, 25 July 2011

What would Canadian philosopher and media guru Marshall McLuhan, - who predicted the World Wide Web 20 years before it happened – make of the twittersphere, Facebook and blogs?

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto English professor who coined the terms "global village" and "the medium is the message," would have turned 100 last week. He died in 1980.

In the mid-sixties, with the publication of such books as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan caught the attention of intellectuals in North America and Europe.


In Understanding The Media (1964) and The Media is the Massage (1967) he expounded his pivotal theory which said that the ways in which we are affected by the media itself is more significant that the content which the media carries.

McLuhan said technologies alter the manner in which we habitually process information, inclining us more toward some learning styles than others (depending on the technology). Print encourages us to become visual and linear in our thinking. By contrast, music is auditory, spatial, and even kinesthetic.

McLuhan was deeply suspicious of the effects of television, but he realized it did no good simply to express disgust. Perception and not moralizing was the key. As McLuhan noted, in one of his great sayings, "With understanding, there is no such thing as inevitability."

I remember taking McLuhan's tome Understanding Media as a post graduate student at RMIT to Kangaroo Island when I was looking after my ageing Mum. I would read loud to the penguins and seals hoping for some marine inspiration or rather, translation. His writing was often baffling and obscure. He wrote and used metaphors like a modernist poet.

When I was undertaking post graduate media studies at RMIT in the early 1990s, McLuhan's ideas had largely fallen from grace. In fact there were only two members of staff who discussed his theories. The majority of the staff had 'converted' to Cultural Studies. McLuhan was not considered 'hip'.

I travelled back in time and I read all the great research (mainly American) on the role of perception in mass communication, problems of encoding, analysis of propaganda, theories of persuasion and effects, knowledge gap theories, famous mass communication experiments, problems of methodology and measurement and much more.


I was hooked and read anything I could find on Harold Innes, Joshua Meyrowitz, Neil Postman, Walter Ong who in may ways, carried on McLuhan's deterministic vision of a future mediated and manufactured by communication technology.

I figured if I was going to work in the media – I worked in politics and PR – then I needed to know this stuff. I never regretted it. It led me to anthropology and linguistics. And at the centre of much of this early thinking about media forms stood Marshall McLuhan.

As new media forms emerged in the late 1990s, McLuhan came back into fashion. His insights about the effect of electronic technology in particular - the re-tribalization of the young, the vanishing of such concepts as privacy, the weakening of personal identity are more pertinent than ever in the world of Facebook and iPhones.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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