Newspaper article International New York Times

What Would McLuhan Think of the Internet?

Newspaper article International New York Times

What Would McLuhan Think of the Internet?

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan suggested that the electronic image had supplanted the written word. Are we living in a new age?

Dana Stevens

Upon its publication in 1964, "Understanding Media" -- the elliptical, prophetic, wildly successful third book by Marshall McLuhan -- turned its author, then an English professor at the University of Toronto, into one of the world's most prominent public intellectuals, a pop shaman of the dawning television age. (It didn't hurt that McLuhan, whose skill at coining catchphrases eventually gave him a second career as a business and advertising consultant, was the shrewdest self-promoter since P. T. Barnum.) McLuhan quickly became the thinker anyone aspiring to hipness had better at least pretend to have read and -- here things got trickier -- understood. Thirteen years later, McLuhan's influence was still widespread enough to inspire the "Annie Hall" scene in which Woody Allen's Alvy Singer, overhearing yet another pretentious McLuhan conversation in a movie line, produces the scholar himself from behind a sign to disabuse the academic speaker of his misperceptions: "You know nothing of my work ... How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."

To read "Understanding Media" in 2014 is to wish McLuhan, who died in 1980 at the age of 69, were still available in theater lobbies for consultation. The book is a structural maze whose repetitiveness, rhetorical vagueness and propensity for brazen self- contradiction will drive your inner editor to contemplate rash acts. But flashing out of the murk at regular intervals are aphoristic bursts of uncannily prescient wisdom about the history and future of the various technologies of human communication -- what McLuhan refers to in the book's subtitle as "the extensions of man." After a while you get accustomed to the terrain of McLuhan's mind -- a place of dizzying shifts and precipitous drops, crammed to bursting with false etymologies and weirdly inapposite literary references, where making sense is less important than making big, bold connections. "The electric light is pure information." "Print technology transformed the medieval zero into the Renaissance infinity. …

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