Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

One of the most outstanding theorists of the 20th century. in the field of culture and communications
Date of Birth: 21.07.1911
Country: Canada

Biography of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan was one of the most prominent theorists of the 20th century in the field of culture and communications. He was an innovative and creative communicator, easily bridging the gap between science and popular culture. His work at the Centre for Culture and Technology in Toronto brought him scientific fame and made him a cultural icon in the 1960s. McLuhan's writings on the relationship between culture and communications have had a significant impact on the advertising industry, with his two most famous books, "The Mechanical Bride" and "Culture is Our Business," focusing on advertising issues. His work has also had a significant influence on discussions about globalization.

McLuhan gained fame through his two well-known phrases: "global village," which reflects the growing trend towards global cultural convergence, and "the medium is the message," which recognizes the influence of technology on communication. He aimed to spread these ideas in various ways. His books often serve as practical expressions of the idea that the medium is the message, combining illustrations, photographs, and unconventional presentation schemes with statements from psychologists, sociologists, and writers such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. Critics argued that his works lacked novelty and that their main themes had already been developed by other authors.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Manitoba, he defended his doctoral dissertation at Harvard and in 1936, obtained his first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. He then taught at the University of Saint Louis before returning to Canada in 1946 to teach at the University of Toronto. McLuhan's name first gained recognition with the publication of his book "The Mechanical Bride" in 1951, which focused on the American advertising industry. In 1952, he became a professor and from 1953 to 1955, led seminars on culture and communications organized by the Ford Foundation. His interest in the impact of new technologies on media led to the publication of his book "The Gutenberg Galaxy" in 1962. In 1963, McLuhan founded the Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, which brought him international recognition.

McLuhan began to gain more influence as a theorist on the relationship between culture, media, and technology in the 1960s and 1970s. He authored over a dozen books and hundreds of articles on technology, art, and advertising, which continue to have a significant impact on the course of discussions on these topics. He advised many world leaders, including Jimmy Carter and Pierre Trudeau, and in 1975, was appointed as an advisor to the Vatican's Commission for Social Communications. McLuhan received numerous prestigious titles and awards, including membership in the Royal Society of Canada in 1964 and the Order of Canada in 1970. He passed away in 1980 while working on several books and preparing for a major international conference in the United States.

McLuhan's works revolve around three main themes. The first examines art as a process of knowledge, related to symbolic means present in various visual representations, from art to advertising. The second theme focuses on the use of technology as a means of expanding human capabilities. McLuhan believed that the content of any message is inevitably influenced by the technology used to distribute it. The third theme revolves around McLuhan's conviction that human development has gone through two epochs, the primitive and industrial or "typographic," and has entered a third technological epoch. McLuhan's attention to advertising in his first work on the examination of art as a process of knowledge is typical of his approach to exploring the relationship between art and popular culture. In "The Mechanical Bride," he analyzed several examples of print advertisements, demonstrating the presence of symbolic elements in each of them. McLuhan concluded that advertising becomes a form of folklore and returned to this theme in "Culture is Our Business," where he described advertising as the "cave art of the twentieth century." However, his attitude towards advertising was not unequivocally positive.

McLuhan's book "Understanding Media," published in 1964, marked the beginning of his exploration of the influence of technology on media. He stated that in a culture like ours, accustomed to fragmentation and division, it sometimes seems shocking to be reminded that the medium is the message. McLuhan further outlined the negative and positive effects of this principle. For example, automation replaces human labor but also creates new roles for people in relation to their previous work, replacing connections disrupted by the machine revolution. The same applies to media; humanity, with the use of the printing press, made the transition from oral to written culture, but television and radio brought people back to oral culture.

McLuhan's conceptualization of the circular process, or the return of humanity to previous forms of existence through new technologies, is the essence of his third theme. He wrote, "If the Gutenberg technology reproduced the ancient world and made it kneel before the Renaissance, electric technologies have reproduced the primitive and archaic worlds, the past and the present, the private and the corporate, and thrown them onto the doorstep of the West to be processed."

Perhaps the best summary of McLuhan's main ideas can be found in his book "Laws of Media," published a few years after his death. Originally intended as a second edition of "Understanding Media," his research expanded beyond the scope of the original book. In this work, McLuhan established four fundamental principles and provided clarification of their characteristics for communicators in each field, including advertising. These principles were formulated as follows:

1. Every technology extends the capabilities of a particular organ or human ability.
2. When one area of perception is intensified, another is weakened or suppressed.
3. Every form, when pushed to its limits, changes its characteristics.
4. The content of any media is an older medium (i.e., the new medium includes all older forms).

McLuhan insisted that these "laws" adhered to Karl Popper's definition of scientific laws, which allows for the possibility of falsification. McLuhan understood that there would come a time when the perception of these laws would change, and his theories would be seen as outdated. McLuhan's reputation as a great thinker had such a significant influence on people's perception of his ideas that it is challenging to critique them. However, Stephen B. Neal sharply criticized many of McLuhan's theories as scientifically unproven and possibly unprovable. Neal claimed that "Laws of Media" might be McLuhan's best book because it provides evidence for the underlying theories of mental processes.

McLuhan's theories have been noted to resemble those of other authors. The concept of the global village was previously discussed by Lewis Mumford in his notion of the "one world man." McLuhan's theories also bear resemblance to the ideas of György Lukács and Franco Fortini regarding art and values. Additionally, his historical theories bring to mind the model of history as a process put forth by Henri Bergson.

Like most modernists, McLuhan often overestimated the direct influence of printed media and underestimated the spread of written word in the pre-Gutenberg era. He focused more on the technology itself rather than the necessary education to use it effectively. However, the main obstacle to the assimilation of literacy was the lack of education, not the technology itself. McLuhan's attention to media as a means of communication sometimes led him to overlook the influence of other types of technology. The revolution in transportation has made as significant a contribution to the creation of the global village as the revolution in communication. Interestingly, McLuhan failed to predict the development of the computer revolution, which has empowered people to manipulate media both before and during its reception. From the concept of the medium as the message, we are now transitioning to a paradigm in which the viewer becomes the medium of transmission.

As previously mentioned, McLuhan's clear understanding of the mutual influence of communication and culture remains relevant to this day. His views continue to fuel discussions on globalization, with many indebted to McLuhan for ideas on the subject, such as Thomas L. Friedman. McLuhan's impact on the advertising industry is summarized by Barry Day, who said, "McLuhan tells every good advertising person something he or she knows but rarely formalizes." The idea that the medium has a greater impact than the message itself is crucial for advertisers. Day highlights five important points from McLuhan's works that are extremely relevant to advertisers:
1. Advertising must create interest in the external environment.
2. Advertisers must attempt to predict the state of the external environment.
3. Each medium should be used where its application is most effective.
4. The audience should be involved in the process as much as possible.
5. The image should always tell the "real" story.

McLuhan's views on language and symbols are less well-known but equally important. The influence of new media technologies that emerged in the 1990s, such as global satellite television, is evident, but McLuhan defined media as any form of self-extension and included images and words in more everyday communicative forms based on this understanding. He believed that language is the most powerful metaphor of all. In one of his last letters to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, McLuhan wrote, "The orator speaking in any language assumes that language to be the medium or mask by which he uniquely perceives the world and communicates with men... Words spoken by a lawyer, judge, or bureaucrat have a different meaning than the same words spoken by friends or enemies... the impact of language as a medium of information transmission is quite separate from the input or implied meanings of words. All original words have collateral meanings that are normally disregarded by the speaker or the conveyor of the text as irrelevant."

In conclusion, Marshall McLuhan was one of the most prominent and articulate theorists of the changes in communication, culture, and society in the second half of the 20th century. His observations on the development of new technologies, media, and communication have great significance for psychologists, sociologists, and business professionals, particularly those involved in advertising and marketing. However, at a deeper level, McLuhan's remarks on language and symbols are valuable for all forms of human interaction. The concept that the medium is the message has become a folkloric element and remains a symbol of McLuhan's theoretical and practical achievements.