How the man who coined the global village became the first seer of cyberspace and digital empowerment.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, one of my great heroes and a Brain Pickingsrepeatoffender. Marshall McLuhan Speaks is a fantastic, beautifully designed site commemorating the centennial with a treasure trove of McLuhan video appearances and interviews. Chief among them is this excellent biographical segment by equally iconic writer Tom Wolfe from 1984, produced and directed by Marshall’s daughter, Stephanie McLuhan-Ortved. (With bonus points for the Woody Allen cameo in the beginning, where you might also recognize the origin of the title of Douglas Coupland’s must-read McLuhan almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.)
Today, on the eve of the 21st century, with hot speculation about the coming digital civilization, in which all humanity will be wired up and online so that geographic locations and national boundaries, or so it’s predicted, will become irrelevant, McLuhan is very much in the center of the screen again, nearly two decades after his death, this time as the first seer of cyberspace.” ~ Tom Wolfe
Wolfe, of course, is best known in relation to McLuhan by way of his 1965 essay, “What If He’s Right?”. (“Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov… What if he is right?”)
For the ultimate lens on McLuhan’s thought and legacy, I can’t recommend Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! enough — a compelling celebration of what I consider to be McLuhan’s greatest talent: his penchant for pattern-recognition and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting.
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Presaging the digital revolution by a half century, or what Telstar has to do with global wisdom.
I have a longstandingobsession with iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and I love equally iconic graffiti artist Shepard Fairy, so I was instantly in love with The Medium is the Massage — a phenomenal little book by McLuhan and designer Quentin Fiore, synthesizing McLuhan’s meatiest ideas in a powerful combination of words and images, with a stunning new cover by Shepard Fairey. The original book was published in 1967, but the remarkable art direction and distinct style are equal parts timeless and timely — so much so, some say, that Wired appropriated stylistic elements from the book in its acclaimed editorial design.
(I have no idea why the image on Amazon is not of the Fairey cover, but I did just order the book from that same link last week and got the Shepard original. Somewhere, McLuhan is laughing at these digital disconnects.)
When information is brushed against information… the results are startling and effective. The perennial quest for involvement, fill-in, takes many forms.”
The book is divided into several sections, each exploring a different facet of how “electric media” are changing everyday life, from self to family to education to government.
The family circle has widened. The worldpool of information fathered by electric media — movies, Telstar, flight — far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.”
McLuhan explores the big-picture significance of worldwide connectivity, best articulated in his concept of the global village, presages today’s discussions about the death of books by a half-century, and blends information theory and existential philosophy with such poetic grace it’s hard not to surrender to his words with full transcendence.
The stars are so big,
The Earth is so small,
Stay as you are.
Perhaps most notably, reading McLuhan’s observations from 1967 feels eerily like reading the latest intellectual debate on media theory today, bespeaking our culture’s chronic and patterned conditioned response to new technology: resistance, subversion and, eventually, surrender.
These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for in stance, we saw the fear of the new print technology expressed in the theme The Dance of Death. Today, similar fears are expressed in the Theater of the Absurd. Both represent a common failure: the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.”
The Medium is the Massage is a pocket-sized cultural treasure, the kind you’d want to share with all your friends and keep by your side at all times as a timeless lens on the evolution of contemporary culture.
From retrofuturist media prophecies to the cognitive consequences of mobile-everything.
We’re deeply fascinated by the evolution of media and the sociocognitive adaptations that go along with it, but perhaps even more so by the intellectual debates surrounding this ever-swelling topic of increasing urgency and controversy. The past year has been particularly prolific in varied takes on our shared digital future, contextualizing our current concerns in fascinating media history and exploring the potential consequences of our modern media diets. Collected here are 7 of our favorite books investigating the subject from dramatically different yet equally important angles.
I LIVE IN THE FUTURE & HERE’S HOW IT WORKS
From our good friend and New York Times writer Nick Bilton comes I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted — a provocative look at how new media models are shaping the future of cross-platform storytelling. From the next chapter in journalism to the porn industry’s legacy of technological innovation to the sociocultural power of video games, Bilton examines the future from the lens of the past to deliver an intelligent, layered and — perhaps most importantly — optimistic blueprint for the where our digital universe is going.
Though we don’t agree with many of Nicholas Carr‘s arguments in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — redundant and reductionist, his view is the contemporary equivalent of Futureshock, the techno-paranoid vintage series narrated by Orson Welles — we recognize the book as an important read, if only as a way to understand and contextualize these all-too-common fears that many seem to share with Carr.
My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” ~ Nicholas Carr
Even if Carr is right and the Internet is taking a toll on our brains, it doesn’t have to. In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers offers a toolkit of refreshing remedies for our chronically multitasking, digitally distracted selves, collected from historical figures that lived long before the digital age. From Thoreau’s “Internet Sabbaths” to productivity apps from Shakespeare, Powers blends the advantages of constant connectivity with the caution we need to exercise as we engage with the world in these new ways, extending an invitation to subvert our media routines in a way that prioritizes happiness over blind efficiency.
During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts, facilitated by the use of paper, accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic contexts. ~ Ann Blair
YOU KNOW NOTHING OF MY WORK!
No biography of iconic media futurist Marshall McLuhan could possibly be about the future of the internet per se — he lived, after all, a good half-century before the web as we know it existed. But Douglas Coupland’s excellent new almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, which we reviewed last week, is full of insights on the evolution of media that presage many of our modern concerns. From information overload to the rise of what McLuhan calls “electronic inter-dependence,” the book offers a fascinating lens not only on the technological revolution of the past century, but also on the complex shifts in social cognition that it continues to beget.
One must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or I.B.M., but rather by studying arcane 16th-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.” ~ Douglas Coupland
IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK
Last month, we looked at the annual questions by iconic sci-tech futurism journal EDGE, which has been asking contemporary luminaries to answer one big question every year since 1998, then publishing the responses in a book the following year to serve up a fascinating and illuminating timecapsule of the intelligencia’s collective conscience. This year’s edition, Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future, offers a fantastic compendium of responses by iconic contemporary thinkers like Chris Anderson, Esther Dyson, Howard Gardner, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno and 167 more.
You can also read the answers online, but whatever your chosen medium, we highly recommend you take a look.
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