Marshall McLuhan as Foresighter Bob Logan [email protected]
“Every thing that I predict about the future has already happened”. “The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
I believe that McLuhan’s use of figure/ground analysis allowed him to see things that others did not see. “My writings baffle most people simply because I begin with ground and they begin with figure. I begin with effects and work round to the causes, whereas the conventional pattern is to start with a somewhat arbitrary selection of ‘causes’ and then try to match these with some of the effects.”
His figure/ground approach accounts for his uncanny ability to “predict” the future by studying the present. He wrote a letter to Tom Stepp on March 26, 1973, The figure is what appears and the ground is always subliminal. Changes occur in the ground before they occur in the figure. We can project both figure and ground as images of the future using the ground as subplot of subliminal patterns and pressures and effects which actually come before the more or less final figures to which we normally direct our interest (Molinaro, McLuhan, C. & Toye 1987).
By focusing on the ground rather than the figure McLuhan was able to understand the present to such a high level of insight that he was actually able to peer into the future and foreshadow or predict almost all of today’s features of digital media including the personal computer, the Internet, the smart phone, Wikipedia, crowd sourcing, do-ityourself culture, eBooks, Google, Amazon, product hacking, remix and the transition from products to services. He also looked to artists as providing him with a guide to peering into the future. He was fond of Wyndham Lewis remark, “The artist is engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is aware of the unused potential of the present (McLuhan, McLuhan, Staines 2003, 14).”
McLuhan’s Prophecies So many of McLuhan’s pronouncements about the effects of electric media are prophetic because it seems as though he was aware of the coming of personal computers, the Net, the Web and other digital media long before they arrived. McLuhan’s observations for electric media seems to apply even more so to digital media. In 1959 twenty years before personal computers and 35 years before the World Wide Web he already understood that the movement of information would dominate our economy when he wrote: “The production and the consumption of information… is the main business of our time.”
Although Marshall McLuhan never saw a personal computer during his lifetime he predicted their arrival: Mac Hillock, [an IBMer] arranged a lunch with half a dozen of IBM’s divisional directors. Marshall got soon tuned up and was telling them about a computer for every home, no need to visit the grocery store… Two of them said to me after lunch, “we have not heard of anything as crazy as that!” Marshall was talking about the personal computer a dozen years before they thought of it. Here was a professor of English more than a decade ahead of the technical people in computer evolution. He was thinking in terms of the user.
He foreshadowed the Internet. The computer in education is in a very tentative state but it does represent basically speeded up access to information and when it is applied to the telephone and to Xerox it permits access to the libraries of the world, almost immediately, without delay. And so the immediate effect of the computer is to pull up the walls of the subjects and divisions of knowledge in favor of over-all field, total awareness–Gestalt. McLuhan description of the Internet was complete if one reads for the telephone packet switching and if one reads Xeroxing to represent the use of a printer.
An even earlier remark attributed to McLuhan in 1962 also foreshadows the Internet: A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve individual encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind One can also interpret without too much of a stretch the retrieval of “individual encyclopedic function” in the above quote as a foreshadowing of Wikipedia. One can also see a foreshadowing of Google if one interprets saleable data as the way Google generates advertising revenues from its searches
He also foresaw the transition from products to services “All the industries of our time are service industries.” Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed, you will go to the telephone [read Google and/or Amazon via the Net], describe your interests, your need, your problems, …and they say it will be right over. And they at once Xerox, with the help of computers from libraries of the world, all the latest material just for you personally… They send you a package as a direct personal service. This is where we are heading under electronic information conditions. Products increasingly are becoming services.
McLuhan foreshadowed crowd sourcing In a convocation address at the University of Alberta in 1971 he said: There is no kind of problem that baffles one or a dozen experts that cannot be solved at once by a million minds that are given a chance simultaneously to tackle a problem. The satisfaction of individual prestige, which we formerly derived from the possession of expertise, must now yield to the much greater satisfactions of dialogue and group discovery. The task yields to the task force.
Still another foreshadowing of McLuhan was that of the smart phone as described by his biographer Phillip Marchand (1989, 170). He told an audience in New York City shortly after the publication of Understanding Media that there might come a day when we would all have portable computers, about the size of a hearing aid, to help mesh our personal experiences with the experience of the great wired brain of the outer world. He also foreshadowed eBooks and eReaders when he wrote in 1972, “When millions of volumes can be compressed in a matchbox it is not merely the book but the library that becomes portable.”
What makes this prediction even more amazing is that there were no personal computers at the time, no cell phones and no Internet (i.e. “the great wired brain of the outer world”). McLuhan’s notion that the one-liner was the most efficient form of communication in the electric age foreshadows in our digital era texting, instant messaging and Twitter. Another premonition or foreshadowing of McLuhan was today’s DIY. McLuhan wrote, “As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of 'do it yourself'.”
Intensification of Trends McLuhan Identified for Electric Media with Digital Media Global Village Electricity decentralizes. “at electric speeds the consumer becomes producer as the public becomes participant role player”. The entire business of man becomes learning and knowing… All forms of employment become "paid learning," and all forms of wealth result from the movement of information. Interdisciplinarity “in the electronic age… you cannot have jobs; you can only have a role.”
The Rear View Mirror: History as the Laboratory of Media Studies “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.” Most people… still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. Man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world.