rMcLuhan Marshall photographed in 1974 by Yousef Karsh

McLuhan Marshall photographed in 1974 by Canadian photographer Yousef Karsh

The following article written (for the most part) by Allan Sheppard is reprised from the first issue of mediamag.ca published in October 2002. It’s re-appearance here is to offer a ‘mashup’ of Allan’s text and my additions as my birthday gift to Marshall McLuhan on his 100th birthday. It seems appropriate to reprise and revisit Allan’s still relevant, insightful and delightfully provocative article on McLuhan in celebration of birthdays, McLuhan’s and ours (next year I celebrate the 10th birthday as the first online magazine in Alberta with mediamag.ca). Without (yet) Allan’s permission, I have taken the liberty of adding photographs I shot at other McLuhan centenary celebrations: the June 23, 2011 in Edmonton at the opening reception of the 12th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association at the University of Alberta and the opening reception of Spaces + Places: Visioning McLuhan @ 100 at Latitude 53 later that evening, as well as embedding YouTube videos that I think illustrate important points Allan makes in his 2002 article. I have also added comments that support my and many other people’s claims that McLuhan’s ideas are as relevant in today’s digital world as they were in his lifetime, despite that these communication channels were not yet invented until long after his death thirty years ago on New Year’s Eve 1980 in Toronto.

The gallery installation at Latitude 53 and the scholarly convention at the University of Alberta are both in celebration of McLuhan’s Centenary in Edmonton, also the city of his birth (July 21, 1911) and mine (the year I was born which is also the year my parents brought home our first television set. Merely a coincidence, I’m sure.).  I have also taken liberty with Allan’s article by adding links to documents he refers to throughout his text which are now online, and I have embedded some of the videos in which Marshall McLuhan is interviewed from YouTube — a communication channel that now delivers 3 billion views a day, has 176 million viewers in the US alone and didn’t exist until three years after this article was published — in order to illuminate Allan’s text.

This mash-up of Allan’s text written and published in 2002, with more recently created documents and multimedia, is my birthday present to McLuhan who made some sense to me while I studied English literature at the University of Alberta (from 1991 to 1995) and completed a graduate degree in publishing at Simon Fraser University (from 1995 to 1997). You’re welcome to add your own comments, offer your own answer to Allan’s question, or critique my response to Allan’s comments about McLuhan’s pessimism for “new media” in the comment box below the article.

Allan Sheppard asks “Is the medium still the message?

Allan Sheppard Edmonton

Allan Sheppard 2002

Good question. If you are under 40, it may not resonate for you as it does for those of us who were alive and conscious in the 1960s. But the question is still important and relevant today.

Don’t take my word for it: ask any teacher or student of communications and the media. They will know the question recalls the words and writings of Herbert Marshall McLuhan, an obscure University of Toronto academic who took the media world like a welcome breath of fresh air in the ‘60s. They will also know that, along with the fresh air, there may have been a generous blast of hot air. Some of it from the great man himself. More from his (generally self-identified) disciples and followers. Many will also tell you that McLuhan’s insights and observations are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. They could be right. Or not.

McLuhan was often contradictory and confusing. Perhaps deliberately so: friends saw him as an iconoclast and a provocateur; skeptics said he was merely confused, a self-obsessed charlatan determined to get the most out of his fifteen minutes of fame. He was probably a bit of both, whether by choice or by chance is irrelevant.

Gary Wolf, in a landmark article in Wired magazine (January 1996), accounts for the Edmonton born and raised McLuhan’s belligerent ambiguity this way:

[He] had received his early education in North American public schools, which, then as now, offered few advantages to their most talented students. By the time he arrived at Cambridge [in 1934, with a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Manitoba], McLuhan had acquired what is perhaps the defining trait of autodidacts — a kernel of personal crankiness and a resistance to established authority.

In other words, a smart-ass with a chip on his shoulder. How could ‘60s pop culture not love him?

In his day McLuhan was to the academy what the Beatles were to pop music, Bob Dylan to folk music, Andy Warhol to visual art, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) to sports, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau to politics: a metaphor for his time. A mirror in which the hip could see themselves reflected, not as they were, but as they would like to be. To be With It and Bigger than life because that was what we wanted (or thought we did).

McLuhan burst on the scene when we were just beginning to realize we were living through dramatic changes in the way we saw the world and the world saw us. These changes (the most important ones, at least) seemed to come from television through its pervasive presence in our lives and times. McLuhan actually seemed to know what was going on, and he was able to talk (and talk, and talk) about it in ways that grabbed attention.

The medium, or process, of our time — electric technology — is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.

“The medium is the message,” he said. “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in an image of a global village.”“We now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening.” “Money is the poor man’s credit card.” “Politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions.” “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror.” “We march backwards into the future.” “Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.”

[Many of McLuhan’s quips are showcased and some are demonstrated in Latitude 53 ‘s  McLuhan’s Centenary Exhibit:]

[nggallery id=3]

It all made sense. Well, some of it did — especially if you didn’t wade too far into the often-ponderous prose. While many thought they knew what he was saying, few really understood what he meant (or do now). No problem. Never mind that McLuhan refused to explain his aphorisms or his texts. Never mind that he often seemed deliberately to complicate and obscure his meanings when challenged. Quips and questions were more likely to emerge in his conversation than facts or information; and confusion more likely than confirmation in his prose. But the medium is the message, right? Dig McLuhan and you dig his message.

McLuhan’s deadpan shoot-from-the-lip style played well on TV, and he was popular with the hip and flip.

[Here he is in various interviews in the 1960s and 1970s in a 4 minute clip from a full length documentary called “McLuhan’s Wake”:

McLuhan appears on the Today Show hosted then by Tom Brokaw on September 24, 1976, the day after the Nixon/Kennedy debates, on the Dick Cavett show also after the debates in which McLuhan explains why Nixon and Kennedy  came across so much differently on radio than they each did on television,  Marshall McLuhan and Tom Wolfe on TVO’s Brave New Words program discussing jazz, rock, the beat generation and religion and as himself in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” [1997]. The best collection of videos I have come across online are featured in the CBC TV archives. My personal favourite is of Peter Gzowski interviewing McLuhan in 1977. Runner up is Canadian actor Cedric Smith’s impersonation of McLuhan explaining the genesis of his notions that “the medium is the message”.

McLuhan didn’t seem to take himself or his theories too seriously either.  In the late 1960’s, he did interviews for Playboy Magazine in 1969, and with Goldie Hawn for the popular 60s Laugh In show. His theories are aging well. The July/August2011  issue of Canada’s Walrus Magazine features an article entitled “Divine Inspiration: How Catholicism made Marshall McLuhan one of the twentieth century’s freest and finest thinkers.”  In the article, the author writes: “McLuhan has strong claims to be the most important thinker that Canada has ever produced.” You might also want to see the Marshall McLuhan Speaks website, also built as a gift to celebrate his centenary.

My new favourite McLuhan video is Edmonton Journal columnist Todd Babiak’s “the newspaper is the message” he uploaded to YouTube on September 23, 2010, also offered as a gift to mark the occasion of McLuhan’s birth. In it, Babiak smartly satirizes McLuhan (and seemingly Edmonton?) but nevertheless well explains some of McLuhan’s messages about the media in a 2 minute YouTube video.

Babiak’s video dramatizes McLuhan’s assertion that the environment in which ‘the user who is using the media and/or being used by the media is also the one who is making the media’ (my words not McLuhan’s in case I’ve misunderstood Babiak’s video in which he demonstrates the validity/hilarity of McLuhan’s cryptic and oft repeated phrase — the media is the message. McLuhan would appreciate, I think, my all time favourite YouTube video: “The Machine is Us/ing Us”, below]

[Back to Allan’s original text:]

McLuhan was “cool” — in the sense of being hip, aware, in the know, with it, ahead of the learning curve in understanding and welcoming the influence of the media in contemporary life.

But hold on. Nothing, it seems, could have been further from the truth.

McLuhan was, in fact, a deeply religious, conservative man who, according to his biographers and associates, was disturbed by what he saw in the world.  [See my response to Allan’s conclusions about McLuhan’s perceived pessimism below.] The global village that he spoke of with such energy was, in fact, a dystopia — a consequence of the worst, not the best, attributes of modern media, which include all technology. “A Carnegie or a Ford, like a bureaucracy, moulds the lives of millions without taking any responsibility.”

Ideally,” he said,“advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavours. …[I]t stretches out toward the ultimate goal of a collective consciousness.

So much for the great art form of the 20th century — and the century that could not rise above it. But the communications/industrial/ media/military complex was, and still is, impervious to such criticism [at least until Julian Assange and Wikileaks came on the scene]. McLuhan surely knew that. If so,  there may have been some method in his apparent madness: Always present a moving target. Never give the enemy anything to shoot at. Confuse them with bafflegab. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. All of which, when practiced by a pompous, tweedy, pipe-smoking specialist in medieval literature made him seem slightly ridiculous —  “almost” to quote the poet T.S. Eliot, whom he admired,“at times, the fool.” But certainly not a dumb fool. A wise fool.“A holy fool” as Gary Wolf called him.

Frustratingly to some folks, McLuhan seems never to have a point of view. Wasted energy:

A point of view can be a dangerous luxury,”he said,“when substituted for insight and understanding

Insight, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, all trump information and facts, which were and even more so now are the debased currency of everyday discourse and commerce — commodities to be traded, not mysteries to be discovered and explored.

Yet in the information age, technology (the media in all their myriad forms) is more and more at the service of information and facts as commodities. It isn’t what you understand that matters. It’s what you know. But what you know is always history: information and facts discovered in a rear-view mirror.

The youth of today are not permitted to approach the traditional heritage of mankind through the door of technological awareness,” McLuhan said. “This only possible door for them is slammed in their faces by a rear-view mirror society.

Rather than understand technology in order to use it; we let technology use us for its, or rather its owners’, purposes — happy in our ignorance.

Mcluhan deplored the impact of technology, not technology itself. There is no other way to minimize its impact, except to understand it.

Think of McLuhan (as he himself seemed to) as a prophet or oracle: a latter-day Diogenes, who carried a lantern by night and day, the better to light the way to wisdom for his contemporaries. But if he was determined to light the way, McLuhan was too much the teacher to show and tell the route or even the destination, except in general terms:

Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up — that is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice.

Perhaps the most challenging and least understood of McLuhan’s themes is the notion of “hot” and “cool” media. The concept is open to many interpretations, but the simplest may be the best: hot media are those (like movies, radio and prose) that invite passive responses by focusing on one sense and flooding it with input; cool media are those that (like television, the telephone and poetry) provide only enough input to invite active participation leading in the best of worlds to self-initiated and –directed learning and knowledge. But the terms are not value judgments. Each type of medium is effective in its place, once we understand its properties.

Not surprisingly in a classical scholar, McLuhan uses the Socratic method, asking hard questions, offering answers only if they contain the seeds of new questions.

But we live in a time when it seems the only questions allowed are those that contain the seeds of an answer, and the tolerable answers are those that draw clear lines — in the sand or at the bottom of a balance sheet. A world where globalization (fuelled and greased by the media) is turning the global village into a company town. No room there for a Don Quixote tilting at antennas or satellite dishes.

Critics complain that people who write or talk about McLuhan seldom read his books. That’s probably true. But how many (if nowadays any) who write or preach about heavy hitters like Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud bother to read their books?

And does it matter? Pattern recognition is the key to survival in an electric culture characterized by constant repetition. Gary Wolf quotes a remarkable McLuhanism in his Wired article. One does not have to read everything to understand what is being said, McLuhan asserted: “One can stop anywhere after the first sentences and have the full message, if one is prepared to ‘dig’ it.”

So, what does that say about the message? Is the medium more important than the message? And while you are pondering that question, consider these: Is the process more important than the product? The means than the ends? How she says or does it than what she says or does? As McLuhan would (and did) say: “Think about it.”

Thought, after all, is the only thing faster than the speed of light, which is the speed of electronic information.

The son of a real estate salesman and an elocution teacher from the Highlands community in Edmonton, Herbert Marshall McLuhan left a mark. He may not have had the answers, but he asked some good questions.

# end of AllanSheppard’s article in mediamag.ca published Fall 2002 #

Download a copy of his original article.


[My thoughts on whether McLuhan’s supposed pessimism about the impact of web 2.0 communication technologies he foretold and Allan points to in his 2002 article is warranted…]

I read McLuhan as mostly optimistic about the future of media and communications although he’s no pollyanna. For the most part, he seems to share the optimism that I and other Canadian media analysts/theorists express for the new web-based communication technologies commonly known today as social media. Here I’m thinking of Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, the Outliers), Don Tapscott (Wikinomics, Growing Up Digital), Douglas Coupland (Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing About My Work), and Mitch Joel (Six Pixels of Separation and, since June 15, 2011, media analyst for the Huffington Post) and of the OpenMedia.ca initiative.

I am a fan of social media for many reasons including that it’s here to stay and we might as well get to used to it and learn to work with it (McLuhan said this idea so much better). Ask any grandparent today how they communicate with their grandchildren and I’d bet Facebook is going to rank high on their list. From my perspective, social media tools are all about learning, communicating and growing as a human being and yes, being shaped by the tools that I use.

On the level of global politics, I applaud the use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media tools in making it possible for oppressed citizens around the world to overthrow corrupt, self-serving, tyrannical governments wherever they might be. I am thankful that I live in a country where these are not obstacles for me to overcome in my daily  life or in the lives of anyone I know personally. For the most part, my government seems benign, capable and willing to serve the citizens it represents. They were democratically elected. And doing a good enough job.

I think about Julian Assange and whether it was his courage or his ego that motivated him to publish WikiLeaks which, as it is often reported, were the sparks that ignited the flames (more like bonfires) of desire for democracy, civil rights and government transparency in the Middle East (and in the United States, much to the chagrin of Obama, Gates and the US department of defense).

Yes, I know that Assange’s audacity put innocent lives at risk and Bradley Manning, a young soldier now in jail (who to my mind should be released if the US wants to practice what they preach. They applaud the use of social media tools used by citizens during the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and call for the release of Tal al-Molouhi, a young Syrian blogger whose actions were not unlike those of the young US soldier. Before that, they cheered for Salem Pax, the Baghdad blogger during the gulf war. I don’t get it. Is it the logo on their passport that makes a difference to the US? It’s hard for me to reconcile my deep admiration for Obama and his administration, including Hillary Clinton, whom I also deeply admire, and my thoughts of the young whistleblower in jail serving under the harshest of circumstances without even so much as a fair trial. How can the US send young soldiers to fight and die in countries around the world preaching democracy when they behave this way towards their own citizens?

Manning, Salem Pax and the Syrian protester are, above all, citizens, and have a basic human right to protest what they believe are government lies and deception — not just ‘other’ governments, but ‘our’ governments. In a democracy, we are the government, lest we forget. Perhaps Manning doesn’t make a good soldier in anyone’s army and should be discharged from employment but he does have a right to protest, to express his high hopes for a better world, and to invite discussion. I say, let the facts speak for themselves and let the people decide their validity. Truth is always better to deal with than lies.

As the daughter of a military man, I wrestle with conflicting thoughts about the appropriateness of Manning’s actions. As a citizen, I wrestle with no such conflicts. His crime — for which he did not ask for nor receive any financial benefit — was to break the news that governments and diplomats around the world need to be mindful what they say, with what they say it with and to whom. Why should the rules of engagement be any different for governments than they are for individuals? It isn’t us or them. We are us. We are them. Everyone — individuals, celebrities, diplomats, police and politicians alike — must be mindful of their words and deeds,  more so than ever.

Otherwise, they are likely to be featured on Candid Camera, Funniest Home Videos, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter  or in photographs shot by citizens on their smartphones at this year’s Stanley Cup riots. Photographs of criminals that many concerned, peace loving and law abiding citizens were rightly willing to upload to government websites and are now being scanned and tagged by the Vancouver’s police department for identification and arrest. This is citizen activism and civil rights in action, as it should be.  Only criminals breaking the law or governments denying basic human/civil rights have cause for concern. All others are welcome!

I have reached two conclusions thus far about Assange, Wikileaks and Bradley Manning. First, were it not for the two of them and the Wikileaks website, the war in Afghanistan would likely never end as it seems to be ending now. Soon many husbands, wives and children can rest easier, both there and here. Afghanistan now seems to have the will and the tools to sort things out themselves. If they can’t get themselves to a civilized state, neither can guns and bullets. They also have the watchful eyes, ears and voices of civilized people around the world to help them overcome communication obstacles. Second, I consider myself lucky to be born in a country where I can freely express my opinions (right or wrong) without being harassed, persecuted or thrown in jail.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in a country where your life is in jeopardy or terminated if you express thoughts that are not necessarily shared by the people who are sworn in or elected to protect your rights to express them. Freedom of expression for citizens and the media is the distinguishing characteristic of a civilized country (some consider it as the most important one because without it “we’re doomed,” to borrow a quote from Bradley Manning).

Astonishingly, Chile is currently the most civilized country in the world in the protection of rights on the internet.

Citizens create and control the content they upload to  social media networks, not governments, not corporations, not  authorities, unless you’re in Communist China and some other countries where governments fear the upraised voices (and uploaded content) of the people they are supposed to be governing for the greater good. Citizens with their hands on the levers (or the keyboards) of the media, communication and citizenship around the world is as it should be. These powerful levers, now often referred to as “crowd sourcing,” are unintended happy consequences that McLuhan doesn’t seem to consider in his thinking.  For this perspective , you’ll need to turn to contemporary media analysts and Canadian journalists such as Tapscott, Gladwell, Coupland and Joel.

Dave Brindle, in an article publishing on BackoftheBook.ca, published by Edmonton born playwright, theatre director and journalist, Frank Moher likewise advocates for an open internet and the importance of citizen journalism when he writes:

As the people of Eygpt which was more reliable: the regime or the internet? The network is reliable in that it never loses its voice, fluidity, fairness, free expression of ideas and opinions, and sense of justice — the very essence of democracy. And if an open democracy is not reliable, what on earth is.

Yes, I know that the web is also inhabited by pedophiles, identity thieves and criminals of all kinds. From my perspective, this sad reality seems a small price to pay for the upside of young people, grandparents, rich people, poor people, students, artists, activists, authors, creators, musicians, filmmakers, bloggers, politicians, publishers, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens of all nations and languages expressing themselves by creating content and using the machines to transmit their thoughts to others  anywhere (well almost anywhere) in the world instead of (or perhaps in addition to?) the machinery using them/us.

If these are not good enough reasons to fully embrace the digital technologies McLuhan seems to have foretold, I think about the number of trees we can save, the decrease in chemical pollutants needed to process the trees into newspaper,  and how we can balance the harmful consequences of print newspaper production with improved  human communication. Some people prefer their print newspaper. If the only way they’re going to get their news is through the newspaper, this communication channel is still necessary and  important. And, to take my optimism for the digital world to the extreme, I think that perhaps it just  might be possible to use these communication and collaboration technologies to save the world from itself and make it a better place to live for all.

I have McLuhan to thank for influencing my personal and professional response to the onset of electronic (McLuhan would say electric) communications.  I accept the unintended consequences, both good and bad, that these new machines aka social media tools make possible. Used with good intentions, they make possible a more informed, less ignorant population and a better connected world, even if they also make possible the overemphasis of the tawdry, tacky and titallating tidbits of people’s personal lives. It’s a small price to pay for the freedom of expression that these electronic tools make possible for a single  individual, or a group of individuals, with a common goal.

As a birthday gift to Marshall McLuhan, please support the “I Am Bradley Manning” Campaign and help secure the imprisoned soldier’s release. You can donate here. Not because Manning did the right thing (that’s still open for debate and likely to be no agreement) but because he has basic civil rights. He has the rights of every citizen to pursue his stated goal of “world-wide discussions, debates and reforms.” Otherwise, as he writes to Assange, “we’re all doomed” and McLuhan’s pessimistic perspective is proven. What’s the difference between Manning, the Baghdad blogger, Bradley Manning or and any other whistleblower in any other country? Don’t shoot the messenger, change the message. It’s up to each of us to protect and promote basic civil rights not only in our own country but around the world. It isn’t the government’s job.

The “new tools” McLuhan seem to have foretold can be used for good or harm but it will be up to us as citizens and  content creators of the world, not as employees, authorities or politicians. The potential for using the  tools for good far outweigh the possibility they’ll be used for harm. We are the media. We are the people. We are the content. We have rights but only those that we are willing to defend. George Orwell sums it up like this:

Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Many millions more people around the world were interested in what Wikileaks exposed than weren’t. The people who weren’t,  have taken away his freedom in a supposedly civilized country —  a country that lays claim to the tagline: “the leader of the free world.” I am certain that McLuhan would likewise protest Manning’s treatment and support his release based on his basic human rights as a citizen of a civilized world. McLuhan would likely approve of the young and obviously technically savvy soldier using the “electric tools” and any other forms of communication at his disposal to facilitate his wishful (and perhaps naive and utopian) thinking for “world-wide discussions, debates and reforms.” Perhaps they have already begun?

Happy birthday Marshall McLuhan.


added July 17, 2011

See Michael Valpy’s Globe and Mail article of July 15, updated July 17, 2011 >  “The Return of Marshall McLuhan” for reasons why McLuhan matters today more than ever.

added July 21, 2011

see Andre Mayer’s CBC article on McLuhan summarized in this excerpt

One of the reasons McLuhan had such a vast perspective on emerging media is that he didn’t limit himself to august sources like books and radio. He tool in the media landscape, which inevitably included television, as well as comics, billboards, magazines, even fashion.

added July 23, 2011

See CBC’s round up of items on Marshall McLuhan from CBC and around the web

Listen to Jian Ghomeshi (Host of CBC Radio’s Q) three minute essay on McLuhan. He makes McLuhan and many of this theories (probes as McLuhan would call them) easier to understand.