Marshall McLuhan would have turned 100 today. Had he made it to the century mark, the Edmonton-born media and culture prophet would have celebrated the milestone in an age when digital technology has proven many of his boldest predictions to be accurate.
More than three decades after his death, the man who gave the world aphorisms such as “the medium is the message” and “the global village” continues to exert influence over academics, culture warriors and anyone trying to make sense of the interplay between society and technology.
McLuhan is of particular interest to the advertising community, having turned many an erudite phrase about the industry in books, lectures and interviews. He once declared that advertising was “the greatest art form of the 20th century,” but his views on the subject were more complex and critical than that oft-repeated quote would suggest. McLuhan did, after all, also describe advertising as “an environmental striptease for a world of abundance” and posited that the primary product advertising promoted was itself.
McLuhan chastened the ad world while acknowledging its increasingly important role in shaping society. It is partly for this reason that he remains such an influence for marketing, creative and media big thinkers around the world. More crucially, though, his striking ability to predict the future is what gives McLuhan such posthumous currency. Although he died long before the age of the internet, his theories are alive in the Web 2.0 world of social media and smartphones.
In honour of McLuhan’s centennial birthday, Marketing looks at five predictions that look especially prescient when viewed in 2011’s rear-view mirror.
•The medium is the message
The most famous and frequently misunderstood of McLuhanisms, it remains as true today as it was in the age of television. McLuhan’s point was that the impact of the medium itself is more significant than the content it carries; that each medium, from light bulbs to computers, conveys a message to its users. The internet, for example, isn’t important because of its endless supply of content, but because it has created a world where we expect content to be endlessly, immediately there.
•The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village
The term “global village” could reasonably apply to the way the internet has condensed a vast world, allowing for the immediate transmission of information from one side of the globe to the other, keeping people connected in spite of geographical distance. McLuhan was specifically referring to electronic media shaping collective, “tribe”-based identities. And today? Just look at the way Twitter and Facebook users organize themselves into groups of followers or how consumers receive messages from their daily deal tribe on their phones.
•We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us
Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook (or so one version of the story goes). But anyone who came of age or was born after his invention will be in some way “created” by it, or whatever social networking platform succeeds it. We now have meaningful interactions with people and brands online as well as in “reality.” Future generations won’t distinguish between the two.
•The age of automation is going to be the age of ‘do it yourself’
The truth of this prediction has been especially inconvenient for owners of traditional media, such as newspapers and magazines, as well as marketers who’ve had to adjust from typical “push”-style messaging. Blogging has made everyone a publisher, computer programs like ProTools allow regular citizens to produce professional-quality music and film, and message boards and social media mean consumers don’t just passively accept advertisements that tell them what they want.
•We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future
McLuhan was fascinated by the idea that humans essentially lived in the past, devising solutions for yesterday’s problems. This shadow-chasing certainly plays out in the house of advertising, which is built on the foundation of ever-shifting media ground. Think you’ve identified cool? That means it’s not cool anymore. Still wrapping your head around social media? By the time you do, it won’t be about Facebook and Twitter anymore.