In the ’60s, McLuhan was hobnobbing with celebrities, advising politicians and forever changing how we think about mass media. A hundred years after his birth, the world has finally caught up with his theories
Nineteen sixty-five was the turning point of Marshall McLuhan’s career—the Annus McLuhanis, the Year of Marshall Law, the heady, vertiginous breakout of McLuhan-mania. It was the year the irreverent journalist Tom Wolfe published a star-making profile of the Canadian media guru in the New York Herald Tribune that repeatedly asked, in Wolfe’s typically antic, hyperbolic way: what if he is right? “Suppose he is what he sounds like,” Wolfe wrote, “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov, studs of the intelligentsia game—suppose he is the oracle of the modern times?”
In the 40-odd years since Wolfe first posed this question, many others have asked it again and again. McLuhan was right about so many things. Browse his books, dip into any of the interviews he gave, and almost every probing, aphoristic utterance feels preternaturally prescient. Decades before doomsayers decried the Internet’s negative rewiring of the brain, he dramatically outlined the psychic, physical and social consequences: “One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.” He predicted the slow death of magazines and newspapers: “The monarchy of print has ended and an oligarchy of new media has usurped most of the power of that 500-year-old monarchy.” And he foresaw the rise of crowd-sourced news: “If we pay careful attention to the fact that the press is a mosaic, participant kind of organization and a do-it-yourself kind of world, we can see why it is so necessary to democratic government.” McLuhan anticipated reality TV long before it was a glimmer in the Survivor producer Mark Burnett’s eye: “I used to talk about the global village; I now speak of it more properly as the global theatre. Every kid is now concerned with acting. Doing his thing outside and raising a ruckus in a quest for identity.” When, in his bestselling book The Medium is the Massage, he wrote, “Wars, revolutions, civil uprisings are interfaces within the new environments created by electric informational media,” he could have been writing about how Twitter and Facebook shaped the Arab Spring. The world that McLuhan conjured is a world that now looks an awful lot like ours.
Okay, maybe McLuhan isn’t the most important thinker since Newton, but he’s certainly the most important—and most influential—thinker Canada has ever produced. There has never been anyone, before or since, as monumentally significant as McLuhan.