Marshall McLuhan envisioned the internet decades before it was invented — that’s the popular position, anyway.
He never witnessed the web, but McLuhan did anticipate its coming in a way few would, coining the now overused digital proverb, “the medium is the message,” in his bestselling 1964 book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.”
His theories sparked a debate about the narcotic effects of mass media, making him a pop culture fascination at the time and occasionally the focus of academic ridicule. Today would have marked his 106th birthday, which Google is celebrating on its homepage.
McLuhan’s point — that massively distributed networks, like TV and radio, were more crucial than the content they conveyed — inspired authors and engineers decades later. “Electric media” is an extension of ourselves, a communal act, he said, adding in a 1968 debate with Norman Mailer “an electronic world re-tribalizes men.”
Sound familiar? In that way, McLuhan presaged Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and their attendant miscues — the Trump presidency, Gamergate, the alt-right — by more than four decades.
During the ’60s and ’70s McLuhan was a regular presence on the talk show circuit, serving as an expert on the news media and its many failings. He warned of media’s all-consuming effect, of TV especially, how it bound people without real participation.
Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat today might seem the ideal corrective, but he’d probably be disappointed in what he’d find.
Early internet pioneers latched on to McLuhan, even as they distorted his theories. The founding of Wired magazine was inspired by his work; it even mimicked the experimental typography used in his book, “The Medium Is the Massage,” for its early editor’s letters.
But the best instance of McLuhanism involves McLuhan himself as he appeared in Woody Allen’s 1977 film “Annie Hall.”
In a fantasy showdown with a boisterously pompous academic waiting in line for a movie, Allen’s character, overhearing his jag, confronts him: “Aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is— Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan.”
“Oh really,” The academic responds, “well I happened to teach a class at Columbia called ‘TV, media and culture,’ so I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well have a great deal of validity.”
Allen then magically pulls McLuhan himself from offscreen, who addresses the offender:
“I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.”
The metatheatrics in the scene are clever and meaningless, just as McLuhan’s media theories had always proposed. It’s also one of movie’s greatest lines.
Happy birthday MM!