Marshall McLuhan and how he predicted the internet 30 years before its ‘birth’

On what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 106th birthday, Google is honouring the philosopher with an animated Google Doodle.

McLuhan was renowned for his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, in it McLuhan studies how the rise of mass media and the Gutenberg printing press impacted culture and our consciousness. Today, these themes have been well discussed but at the time they would have been seen as pioneering.

Today’s Google Doodle is made up of six animations. Five of them represent the four eras of human history, as McLuhan described it – acoustic age, when our ancestors couldn’t write but would communicate through voice; the written age; mass production, referred as Fordism as it was typified by the development of the Ford car in America; and the final two represent McLuhan’s ideas of the global village, or the idea of mass communication and technology bringing people together, with the electronic age as the internet straddles these two ideas. The sixth illustration represents McLuhan’s TV appearance in 1962 to suggest his work plays a significant part in human history.

As a result, McLuhan is often credited with predicting the internet more than 30 years before it was conceived at CERN. This stems from a quote in McLuhan’s book. The quote, as it’s often repeated, is:

 “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the 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 communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

However, there is some disagreement about the source and accuracy of this quote because it doesn’t appear exactly as above anywhere in the Gutenberg Galaxy. Instead, the above quote is seemingly an amalgamation of two separate quotes that have been linked, according to McLuhan Galaxy, namely:

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form,” found in Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 book The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion,“ and “a computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind,” taken from a 1978 dialogue between Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers called Angels to Robots: From Euclidean Space to Einsteinian Space in their 1989 book The Global Village.

In Understanding Media from 1964, McLuhan coined his famous phrase: “The medium is the message” which suggests the way in which someone receives information is more influential than the information itself.

“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,” said Google. “Today’s Doodle, which celebrates the visionary’s 106th birthday, illustrates this theory by showing how McLuhan viewed human history.”

Images: Google

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