5.2 Toronto School - Marshall McLuhan

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was writing what he called his footnote to the work of Harold Innis. Innis had focused on the impact of the second generation of print. His major books, published in 1950 and 1951, were too early to pick up on the impact of the third generation of television. McLuhan took up his theme of the profound impact of media on society, and extended it to include the impact of our third generation of media - telephone and television. He also shifted focus from the level of the institution to the level of the individual. The various media were viewed as extensions of the person, as indicated in the subtitle of his major book: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [MCLUHAN M].

The timing of a theory is very important. If it is presented too soon, it is greeted as preposterous; if it is presented too late, it is dismissed as obvious. People say What! when innovators first present their ideas and, then - when the passage of time reveals their ideas to be sound - the same people say So what?. You have to time your theory to appear between the What! and the So what?. McLuhan seems to have suffered the fate of many innovators - his theory has gone all the way from preposterous to obvious.

Why were the ideas of McLuhan once preposterous?
He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong message and the wrong medium.
Why are the ideas of McLuhan now obvious?
There is a new medium emerging and a new science evolving.

Although McLuhan gained some credibility in the public domain, his theories have tended to be dismissed within the academy as preposterous. Indeed, his public popularity tended to tarnish his academic respectability, as nicely encapsulated by his biographer:
"How often McLuhan's colleagues dismissed his work as merely 'interesting speculation or stimulating conversation' - in a tone that suggested that they, too, could be as interesting or as stimulating were it not for some vague moral principle." [MARCHAND, Page 268]

I will argue here that McLuhan's theories tend to be dismissed as preposterous because he is the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong message in the wrong medium.

He is the wrong person. An English professor is expected to concentrate on the specifics of a particular writer in a particular time at a particular place. Thus, having studied the novels of James Joyce in graduate school, he should have settled down to a lifetime devoted to identifying the Dublin landmarks described in the novel Ulysses or whatever. He is not supposed to expound general theories about writing in general, far less all media, and far far less all human artifacts. If he is also a devout Catholic, then he is doubly suspect. Science is the province of the science and not the arts faculty, of agnostics and not believers. McLuhan has ignored the trespassers will be persecuted signs on the academic lawn.

In the wrong place. Canadians have a delightful diffidence, which can be most politely described as an excess of democracy. See Figure 5-1 for a list of self-deprecating statements by Canadians about Canadians. The downside of this diffidence is that anyone who raises their head above the masses is in danger of having it chopped off. John Kenneth Galbraith and Marshall McLuhan, says Anthony Burgess, are the two greatest modern Canadians the United States has produced. Of the reviews of Laws of Media [MCLUHAN M & MCLUHAN E], co-authored and published posthumously by his son Eric, the gentlest, kindest review is from the New York Times Review of Books. Of the Canadian reviews, the only positive one is by Bill Kuhns, who is an immigrant from the United States.

At the wrong time. His theory is preposterous partly because it is premature. Theories are not supposed to predict the future but to postdict the past. McLuhan died in 1980 - that is, just before the explosion in multimedia and internet (our fourth generation of media) - which vindicated his theories. His genius was the recognition that the next step after the transmission of information electronically (third generation) was the storage of information electronically (fourth generation). He anticipated the dropping of the other shoe. It was only when we were startled by the sound of the second shoe dropping that we were able to be amazed that McLuhan anticipated it.

With the wrong message. In a lecture at McGill University, Bill Kuhns argued that the message of McLuhan is dismissed for the same reason as were those of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. Each of those innovators required us to break a discontinuity which we had erected to protect ourselves from a harsh reality. Copernicus broke the discontinuity between our planet and the rest of the universe. He tore us away from the center of the universe and placed us on a broken-off fragment of a suburban star. We tried to burn him. Darwin broke the discontinuity between our species and our furrier friends further down the phylogenetic scale. We burned his books. Freud argued further that we are not the rational animal but a creature propelled by unconscious mechanisms. We simply burned. Kuhns argues that McLuhan is destroying a fourth discontinuity between the person and the machine. By arguing that our machines are extensions of ourselves, he is requiring us to take responsibility for them. There is still a whiff of burning in the air.

Using the wrong medium. If you proclaim the end of the medium, it is probably not a good strategy to use the doomed medium to do so. It is too easy to dismiss a book proclaiming the death of the book.50 Nor is it a good strategy to use language in that book which is not appreciated as scientific. McLuhan's puns and probes were too playful for an academic public which is serious about science. McLuhan did not understand the importance of being earnest.

The theory of Marshall McLuhan has become obvious, because of the emergence of a new medium and the evolution of a new science.

After a lull in interest in the work of McLuhan during the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a resurgence of interest in the late 1980s, which persists till now. There has been a biography [MARCHAND], a collection of letters by his widow Corinne and others [MOLINARO ET AL], a book which groups him with two other Canadians, Pierre Trudeau and Glenn Gould, as a solitary outlaw [POWE 1987], and a book which places him with yet two more Canadians, Harold Innis and George Grant, as an influence on the Canadian mind with respect to technology [KROKER 1984]. Perhaps, most important, there has been an updating of his most central book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [McLUHAN M] , by his son Eric [McLUHAN M & McLUHAN E]. Judging by the reviews of this last book, he is still considered to be preposterous.

For a time, I considered using Understanding Multimedia: Further Extensions of the Person as a title for this book. This title - which is (with a small adjustment for political correctness) an exact parallel to Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man - was designed as a homage to McLuhan. It concedes that all I am doing is updating the basic thesis of McLuhan that the media are best considered as extensions of the person, and that the best way to understand the fourth generation of media is to trace its history. However, the structure of the book continues the McLuhan tradition. It is not only about multimedia, it is in multimedia. It is designed so that, in its electronic version (see www.siliclone.com), you can click on buttons to go to the various features - footnotes, figures, references - which complement the text. It demonstrates as it describes. The medium is (at least part of) the message.

Homage to McLuhan is contained in Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge [RUCKER ET AL]. Of the 51 concepts listed as characteristic of the new edge , the only name is Marshall McLuhan. Those concepts are organized within the Triad Model (see Figure 3-2) in Figure 5-2, demonstrating that the technosphere is where the current action is, and that the basic discipline is now not physics but biology. Further homage is paid by Wired magazine, which lists him in their masthead as their Patron Saint and includes a quotation which demonstrates that an obscure English professor from Toronto who died two decades ago best exemplifies the leading edge of technology and culture today.

McLuhan anticipated multimedia, which is clearly an extension of the person. Since it is integrative and interactive, it simulates the function of the corpus callosum, which integrates the left and right hemispheres and enables the interaction between the cortex and the rest of the body.51 It enables intelligence amplification, since it is finally a positive prosthetic which fits perfectly. He also anticipated the internet - the network of computer nodes interlinked by telecommunications. This infrastructure is the nervous system of the planet and thus the foundation of the global village. It is the means by which each person can extend him/herself around the globe.

When I took a sabbatical in the 1970s, it seemed obvious to go to California. This was, to use William Irwin Thompson's phrase, the edge of history [THOMPSON]. That was where one went to see the future now, and smile at some coming attractions and shudder at others. When I took a sabbatical in the 1990s, I gravitated through force of habit to California. However, it is no longer the edge of history. Because of multimedia and the internet, we have indeed moved into the global village, where, according to Marshall McLuhan, the center is everywhere and the periphery is nowhere. Sitting here in the Smart Room of my Electronic Cottage in the village of Hudson, with my computer potentially linked to millions of other computers around the globe, I am as central as anyone in New York or London or Cupertino, California.

Kristina Hooper-Woolsey was showing me around the Apple Multimedia Lab. One of her colleagues, on hearing I was from Montreal, embarked on an enthusiastic exposition on a project on Glenn Gould he had just seen there. It was by Henry See, who had started by working on my 128K Macintosh during the night when I was not using it. At a conference on Virtual Reality, Ted Nelson suggested I go to Glasgow to meet Liz Davenport, the European representative of his Xanadu Project. She introduced me to two colleagues at the University of Strathclyde who were publishing Hypermedia, the first academic journal in the area. They in turn suggested I go to Copenhagen to visit Jakob Nielsen who had just published his book in the area, Hypertext and Hypermedia [NIELSEN]. Despite the ironic fact that he, alas, was in California, it became clear that the global village had arrived.

The idea of media as extensions of the person reveals the falseness of the question Is the body obsolete?. It is not meaningful to talk about media without the body. This is like publishing an appendix without a book. Indeed, data can be stored in a computer and transmitted over telecommunications, but it does not become information until someone uses it to extend themselves. Thus a computer transmitted data over a modem to another computer is not a medium. It only becomes a medium when someone reads it and gives it meaning. -- information is data which reduces entropy for a given individual. Marshall McLuhan anticipated the impact of electronic technology as (quoting McLuhan) the final phase of the extensions of man - (to) the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society [HELSEL & ROTH, Page 15].

Far from the obsolescence of the body, McLuhan envisioned the extension of all our bodies into a social body. As we moved from the first generation of speech which is entirely within our individual bodies to a fourth generation of multimedia which is entirely outside our bodies, we have shifted emphasis from our individual memories as our private writing spaces to our collective memory as a public writing space [BOLTER].

McLuhan was criticized for being unscientific. There was no coherent theoretical framework but simply a series of probes. Now that his son, Eric, has published Laws of Media, which started out as a revision with his father of Understanding Media, he has presented a coherent theoretical structure. Now, it is dismissed as not a conventionally correct theory.

However, it is a theory designed not for the sociosphere or the ecosphere, the domains respectively of the social and natural sciences, but for the technosphere. This domain, which Herbert Simon calls the sciences of the artificial [SIMON], has been relatively neglected by philosophers and practitioners of science.

One principle that is clear, however, is that this is the domain of tools rather than of theories. This is what is implied by the statement that, in the MIT Media Lab, the motto is Demo or Die rather than Publish or Perish [BRAND]. You do not ask of tools if they are true but if they are useful. The tetrad (The major focus of Laws of Media) is a tool rather than a theory. This system of four questions requires us to think about the structural shift in the media system required by the assimilation of each medium. (By way of example, Figure 5-3 contains a tetrad for the medium of radio.) Is it useful? Emphatically yes. It permits us to consider systematically the complex structural shift produced by the introduction of a new medium on the system of media which precedes it. Each shift in our four generations of media is such a paradigmatic shift, yielding qualitatively different systems - from speech to speech-print to speech-print-video to speech-print-video-multimedia. This structural shift, rather than a sectorial shift, is the basic characteristic of organic systems.

To understand such a shift, we need a tool such as the tetrad. The ubiquitous is paradoxically elusive. The fish will be last to discover water. The tetrad introduces the fish to water, the person to the media in which we are immersed. Media may not be as broad as Eric McLuhan suggests (the over-generalization to all artifacts may be one reason why Laws of Media has been dismissed by critics), but it is broader than we tend to think. We tend to lose sight of media which is too close or too far. Thus, the first generation of speaking is so close that we see it as a part of ourselves rather than an extension of ourselves. Thus, the fourth generation of multimedia is so far, for those who are not yet familiar with it, that they see it as separate from themselves.

This brings us to a second distinguishing characteristic of the technosphere. Whereas the sociosphere has observer effects, the technosphere has participant effects. Those who view multimedia as a tool to extend themselves see it as a means of liberation, those who view it as a constraining environment see it as a means of oppression. The debate continues because self-fulfilling prophecies provide both sides with evidence for their position. A medium only becomes an extension of those who use it. If you do not use it, it becomes an environment. Those who do not grasp it as a tool, and thereby extend themselves, are victims of it because its use by other people creates the environment in which they are living. If it is not part of your solution, then it is part of your problem. Or, as the cyberpunks more rudely phrase it, if you are not part of the steam-roller, then you're part of the road.

50   While author-in-residence at Wadsworth Publishing Company in Belmont, California, I once poked my head into the office of the president, Jim Leisy, and declared "The book is dead". This was not good news for someone who earned his living building books. Who said that?" I showed him the book by Marshall McLuhan that I was currently reading. "Ah, but he wrote it in a book" said Jim, clinching the argument.

51   Michael Snow, a Toronto artist who integrates art and science in his work, entitled a recent exhibit Corpus Callosum.