– Marshall McLuhan, Understanding
Marshall McLuhan predicted the global village, one world interconnected by an electronic nervous system, making it part of our popular culture before it actually happened.
Marshall McLuhan was the first person to popularize the concept
of a global village and to consider its social effects. His insights were revolutionary at the time, and fundamentally changed how everyone has thought about media, technology, and communications ever
since. McLuhan chose the insightful phrase “global village” to highlight
observation that an electronic nervous system (the media) was rapidly integrating
— events in one part of the world could be experienced from
other parts in real-time, which is what human experience was like when we lived
While McLuhan popularized this concept, he was not the first to think about the unifying effects of communication technology. One of the earliest thinkers along this line was Nicolas Tesla, who in an interview with Colliers magazine in 1926 stated: “When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.“
McLuhan’s second best known insight is summarized in the expression “the
medium is the message”, which means that the qualities of a medium have as much effect as the information it transmits. For example, reading a description of
in a newspaper has
very different effect on someone than hearing about it, or seeing a picture of it, or watching a black and white video, or watching a colour video. McLuhan
particularly fascinated by the medium of television, calling it a “cool” medium, noting its soporific effect on viewers. He took great satisfaction years later
when medical studies showed that TV does in fact cause people to settle into
brain wave patterns. One wonders what McLuhan would make of the Internet, the most powerful medium we have yet invented, driving integration of the global village he foresaw?
LikeNorbert Wiener and J.C.R.
Licklider, McLuhan made a study of the extrapolation of current trends
in technology, and specialized in the effects on human communications. He generally
felt that the developments he described would be positive, but particularly worried
about the potential for very sophisticated, manipulative advertising.
McLuhan’s ideas have permeated the way we in the global village think about technology and media to such an extent we are generally no longer aware of the revolutionary effect his concepts had when first introduced. McLuhan made the idea of an integrated planetary nervous system a part of our popular culture, so that when the Internet finally arrived in the global village it seemed no less
amazing, but still somehow in the natural order of things.
Resources. Two of McLuhan’s
best known books are The
Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, and Understanding
Media, published in 1964. The following references provide more information
about Marshall McLuhan the man and his work: