Long before we started looking to our screens for all the answers, Marshall McLuhan saw the internet coming — and predicted just how much impact it would have. A Canadian philosopher and professor who specialized in media theory, McLuhan came to prominence in the 1960s, just as TV was becoming part of everyday life. At the center of his thinking was the idea that society is shaped by technology and the way information is shared.
Appearance in Annie Hall: McLuhan’s fourth-wall breaking appearance in Annie Hall has him dragged out from the edge of the scene by a frustrated Woody Allen to confront an annoying media professor.
His first major book, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), popularized the term “global village” — the idea that technology brings people together and allows everyone the same access to information. And, if this very premise doesn’t sound like a Greg and Kimberly lecture or perspective I don’t know what does…
The gist of McLuhan’s global village idea was that, with the rise of electronic media, the information system would become global, putting people in contact with information from everywhere. McLuhan said the emergence of the global village was already shifting behavior as he was writing about it.
And, in Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan further examined the transformative effects of technology and coined his famous phrase “The medium is the message.” He believed that the way in which someone receives information is more influential than the information itself.
With these lenses and frameworks, “computer as a research and communication instrument” has undeniably become a reality today, and I think this further emphasizes so much of what we’ve discussed this semester. Mobile and social both seamlessly fit into McLuhan’s “Global Village/Electronic Age” and as “research and communication instruments” frameworks. By using his theory, mobile and social mediums are indeed actively shaping the way information is shared and how we bring people together… how we “connect”.
When McLuhan spoke of the “global village,” in The Gutenberg Galaxy his point was not just that we’d be connected to one another; he was concerned that we’d all know each other’s business, that we’d lose a measure of privacy as a result of living in a world of such intimate awareness. McLuhan (1969) called this “retribalizing,” in the sense that modern media would lead us to mimic the behavior of tribal villages. For instance, we consciously manage ourselves as brands online; we are more concerned than ever with each other’s business; and we are more easily called out or shamed than in the bygone (and more anonymous) mass communication era. These effects help define the very media environment we are living in and shaping today.
“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 said. “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.”
It’s sort of jarring to realize that the implication of this “total media environment” was also anticipated more than 40 years ago by McLuhan.
Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together (2011), points out that at this time of maximum social connection, we may be experiencing fewer genuine connections than ever before. And Marshall McLuhan saw the potential for this more than 40 years ago when he observed that augmentation leads to amputation. In other words, in a car we don’t use our feet—we hit the road and our limbs go into limbo. With cell phones and social devices, we are connected to screens and virtually to friends worldwide, but we may forfeit an authentic connection to the world. Essentially, we arrive at Turkle’s “alone together” state.
At this time of maximum social connection, we may be experiencing fewer genuine connections than ever before.
As McLuhan predicted more than 40 years ago, we’ve arrived in full at an always-on, hyper-connected world. “A network that connects us together yet can disconnect us from our present reality. An Internet that grants us the ability to create and remix and express ourselves as never before. One that has conferred on us responsibilities and implications we are only beginning to understand. The most powerful tools in media history are not the province of gods, or moguls, but available to practically all mankind. The media has become a two-way contact sport that all of us play. And because the media is us, we share a vital interest and responsibility in the world we create with this, our extraordinary Internet.”