Marshall McLuhan was a visionary, far ahead of his time. The Canadian was a philosopher and professor but could perhaps be best described as a communications theorist.
The book is actually called “The Medium is the Massage” due to a mistake from the typesetters, but when McLuhan saw the error, he loved it and kept it as it was. Perhaps this was because McLuhan thought media “massage” the brain to behave in particular ways.
So, the medium is the message – what does it mean? Quite simply, it means that the way that we send and receive information is more important than the information itself. Where we were once consumers, consuming information by watching television or listening to the radio, in the 21st century we have now also become producers, creating our own information as well. For example, after watching the latest episode of a television series, we can now instantly connect with anyone, anywhere in the world who also watched the programme and communicate with them.
The mediums have changed the way we behave. Studies have shown that our memory spans have reduced due to digital technology. News stories have been replaced with 140 character tweets. Conversations have been replaced with emojis.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard of young children trying to turn the noise of their parents arguing down with a remote control. When reading a book I’ve had to stop myself moving my hand to press on a word to get the dictionary definition, after becoming familiar with the kindle’s user interface.
For McLuhan watching television changed the way we looked at the world. He said “It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.”
This has developed in the modern world with social media playing an important part in various civil and cultural events. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was a successful uprising in part due to the extensive use of Facebook and other social media. Online activism helped to organise and publicise demonstrations and acts of non-violent civil disobedience which resulted in the eventual overthrow of the government.
McLuhan prophesied that “Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community's need to know.” Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing revelations in 2013 exposed the 24/7 global surveillance intelligence agencies and governments undertake on their citizens. The public opinion of Snowden ranges from hero to traitor and underlines the dilemma that affects our society.
In McLuhan’s world, he refers to “One big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption”. We can see present day examples of this where tweets and comments posted online have resulted in job dismissals, arrests and online abuse. The deleting of these tweets or comments has minimal effect – anything posted on the internet potentially could last forever.
“Real, total war has become information war. It is being fought by subtle electric informational media —under cold conditions, and constantly.” This quote from McLuhan in his book has been proven true multiple times in the past, most recently with the 2016 United States presidential election. The battle for the White House was multi-faceted and complex, but information and propaganda was key, with both sides working hard to broadcast their views. The two protagonists, Trump and Clinton tried to influence the public, with information from WikiLeaks and alleged actions from Russia taking centre stage.
Marshall McLuhan was seen as an odd character by many. He claimed to only read the right hand page of serious books as he found books have huge redundancy. By reading only the right-hand pages he stays wide awake, filling in the other page with his own thoughts.
The most incredible aspect of McLuhan’s claims was that they were made nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, before social media, the world-wide web or the internet even existed. His prediction of an international, interconnected, interactive global village is now an actuality.