Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Marshall McLuhan: Dead for 31 years and still relevant.

Marshall McLuhan 1911-1980

Celebrating Marshall McLuhan on his Centenary 1911-2011

by Tom Thorne
Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911. He died in 1980 after a stroke took away his ability to speak.  This year is his centenary year and in light of developments at our current stage of the “Electric Age” it is appropriate to celebrate this famous Canadian who in many ways saw our culture as it is now long before it happened.  You can take a look at the Marshall McLuhan website This site offers video clips of many interviews and speeches.
In addition, Penguin Books published a new biography in 2009 in their Extraordinary Canadians series edited by John Ralston Saul. The writer of this small but intriguing volume is Generation X author Douglas Coupland.
Learning our living at the coach house
As a Ryerson University student in the mid 1960’s studying broadcasting and journalism I often attended Marshall McLuhan “probe nights” at the coach house on the University of Toronto campus. The coach house had a fancy name, The Centre for Culture and Technology, but it was an informal place to meet and discuss media matters.
McLuhan would throw out “probes” to see where they led. One night his probes were directed at the cadre of attending Ryerson students who he saw as “media practitioners” albeit still in training. He considered us to be masters of technique and technical aspects especially of television. Questions like “had we noticed how television is an involving cool medium” as we produced programs and did we see the difference between radio’s “hot nature” and television’s “coolness” in our practical work?
The story I told that night to indicate the cool nature of television concerned sitting in a chair so my colleagues could set the studio lights for a two seat interview.  A classmate, sitting in the other chair, and I were having a heated discussion about Richard Nixon who that point had lost to President Kennedy in 1960 a few years before and it looked as if he had ambitions to run again for President which in did in 1968.  
Hot and cool media
As we sat in the chairs my classmate was heatedly going after some fatuous point I had made and losing his temper in the process. Other classmates in the control room recorded our argument which they found amusing. 
On the tape I was sitting back appearing relaxed as my classmate’s heated barbs and excellent debating points bounced off me. Throughout I looked really good and very relaxed, while my classmate looked hot and bothered.  I was stuffing a pipe with tobacco and then I lit it and I instantly became involving for the viewer. As a result I was unscathed by his excellent points and I had really said nothing of consequence.
On tape I was the winner because I was “cool” and he was “hot”. Content had nothing to do with it. It was clearly evidence for another McLuhan aphorism “the medium is the message”. McLuhan loved this story and we dubbed a copy of the tape for the Centre.

Marshall McLuhan is one of Canada’s greatest thinkers about our present times and yet he has been dead for 31 years. Here is a quote from Douglas Coupland’s book that drives this point home. It dates from 1962 and of course predates any notions of personal computing or the Internet by almost 20 years.
“The next medium, whatever it is--it may be an 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 communications 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.”
Now that is prophetic since it is almost 50 years old.
© Copyright 2011, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment