It’s an easy trick, and an often potent one, to show how many unsettlingly accurate descriptions of our media-saturated, passive, and opinion-driven world came from Marshall McLuhan, and were coined over half a century ago. In his first book, The Mechanical Bride, in 1951, and even more in The Gutenberg Galaxy, in 1962—later works were mostly rephrasings of those early perceptions—McLuhan was able to look so closely at the froth of the culture around him that he could seem to make out the future. Typically combining about five points in one, he wrote, in one characteristic pronouncement, in 1962, thirteen years before the first personal computer was marketed:
A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
McLuhan’s prose was nearly always as unreadable as that sentence, impossibly dense, yet weirdly clairvoyant; and his readiness to produce the very quippy slogans he saw as prefiguring a future in which the medium would be the message ensured that he would win fame and opposition in equal measure. In his own mind, he was more diagnostician than celebrant, essentially sending up flares to warn of the split-screen, sedated, and unreal post-literate world he saw coming. But his inability to resist a bad pun or an easy paradox (money, he proclaimed, was the poor man’s credit card) and his knotty and self-enclosed readings left him sounding like a proto-text-messager or a pioneer of the sound byte (as well as one of its earliest critics). It is easy to see him today as a kind of Dr. Frankenstein of media theory, who set into motion precisely the monster that would first throw its arms around him and then gobble him up.
Still, it’s startling to turn back to his writing now and realize how much more durable he is than just a figure who appears on the masthead of Wired magazine as “Patron Saint” or the old guy who showed up in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. “For tribal man, space was the uncontrollable mystery. For technological man it is time that occupies the same role,” he wrote (in an essay, characteristically, on jukeboxes), anticipating the way that we feel less and less bounded by geography, yet more and more hostage to the moment. “To high speed change no adjustment is possible,” he proclaimed, in 1960. “We become spectators only and must escape into understanding.” It’s possible, in those words, to hear not just the neutrality of a man who would much rather have been with his books, rereading Finnegans Wake, but also precisely the bland fatalism that his detractors always misread. Then, as if to remind us that his essays were often Emersonian…
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