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The 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth is on July 21, 2011. (Photo illustration by David Woodside/Photo illustration by David Woodside)
The 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth is on July 21, 2011. (Photo illustration by David Woodside/Photo illustration by David Woodside)

The return of Marshall McLuhan Add to ...

McLuhan believed that each new technology created a new human environment and thus a new way of thinking. The medium-is-the-message meant that the content of electronic media is insignificant; it is the medium itself that has the greater impact on the environment. In other words, it wasn't what we were seeing on TV that was important; it was the fact that we were watching TV (and not doing other things) that altered our brains.

And because, as Prof. Francis points out, McLuhan saw humans as essentially communicative animals, he believed it was the technologies of communication that were primary in shaping who we were, what we thought, and how we acted, with effects that often were subliminal and therefore not recognized.

He saw three great changes in human history related to communications technology, each one having an exponentially greater effect on humanity, each one externalizing, or "outing," one or more of the senses.

The first was the introduction of the phonetic alphabet that changed the culture of humanity from aural to written or visual. The second was the introduction of the printing press and moveable type that, in McLuhan's thought, distorted the balance between the sensuous and the intellectual, between image and sound, between the concrete and the abstract.

"If the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man," he said, "the printing press hit him like 100-megaton H-bomb."

Then came the advent of electronic communications technology, beginning with the telegraph, that "outed" all the senses at once, becoming an extension of the human nervous system. It is this period we are still going through, even those of us who aren't on Facebook, Twitter or whatever's next in the pipeline.

That was the kind of thinking that took him to the first mountain peak.

His first books, The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), were required reading for members of the global information class. Talk shows, writes Mr. Coupland, were incomplete without him. He made the cover of Time magazine's U.S. edition ("Canada's intellectual comet"). Tom Wolfe wrote a profile article ("What if he's right?") that cemented his stardom.

To be in McLuhan's presence in the early years, wrote Philip Marchand in a superb 1989 biography, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, was to experience "a stream of brilliant conversation, dizzying its listeners with insights that, when grasped, opened up worlds to them." Then came the slide toward the valley floor.

It was largely biologically initiated. A tumour growing in McLuhan's brain, eventually reaching the size of a lemon, underlay growing eccentricities (in the mid-60s he gave a speech blaming fire trucks for creating ghettoes).

The complex surgery to remove the tumour was successful but it resulted in significant memory loss. It also marked the high-water mark of his fame, his vitality, his ability to soak up information and locate patterns.

His intellectual reputation suffered with the production of what Mr. Marchand calls non-books: War and Peace in the Global Village, Counterblast, From Cliché to Archetype, The Medium is the Massage, Culture Is Our Business and Take Today (which sold just 4,000 copies and sank like a stone without reviews).

Magazines were no longer interested in interviewing him because he had been "done." Talk shows no longer wanted him. Critics became bolder in savaging him, and he, for his part, lacked the robust health to riposte. Editors began demanding he write more clearly. Over-blown advertisements for a newsletter he wrote fuelled suspicions of charlatanism.

Proposals were made for new books that never materialized and, by 1978, U.S. publishers were asking for the return of advances. Colleagues at the University of Toronto advised their students not to take his courses. In the fall of 1979 he arrived to teach his first class and found only six students enrolled.

In late September of that year he suffered a catastrophic stroke that left him unable to speak - a man, wrote Mr. Coupland, "[whose]life's core themes revolved around how we communicate from person to person, from generation to generation and from one century to the next."

He died on the last day of 1980.

. . . and rise

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