BORN: Edmonton, Alberta • 21 July 1911
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 31 December 1980
At the outer edge of an old millennium, splashy ads in the highbrow New Yor\ Review of Boo\s peddle a new Marshall McLuhan CD-ROM. Internet web pages dedicated to his ideas boast cult followings around the world. His image, his voice, and his slogans mingle on communication paths that were scarcely conceived of when a serious, middle- aged English professor from Canada first shook up the world. It is all very fitting.
Today McLuhan remains the most famous communications theorist on the planet. At home, he is that rarest of Canadians: a legend of such staggering proportions that who he actually was and what he actually said is buried under an avalanche of myth and confusion.
The trick for historians pondering his influence is uncovering the man himself: Who was McLuhan? And did he really matter? Yet detaching the man from the myth is an impossible and probably fruitless endeavour.
Simply, McLuhan is important precisely because he was a myth; in his own time and today, people around the globe are drawn to the idea of McLuhan, regardless of, or even despite, what he actually wrote and said.
McLuhan was the son of a real estate agent, and his formative years in Edmonton and Winnipeg provide few clues to suggest a future of path-breaking intellectual achievement. He excelled at the University of Manitoba, however, and completed a doctorate in English at Cambridge in 1942.
Appointed a professor of English at the University of Toronto, he gained a reputation as a forceful literary critic in the 1940s, but in 1951 he hinted at his changing interests when he published The Mechanical Bride, a book on the power of advertising in a consumerist society.
By 1964 the publication of Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy had demonstrated his success in applying literary criticism to communications technology.The books gained McLuhan a wide following, but few Canadians, and only a handful of dedicated scholars in other places, have actually read any of them.
That is not surprising, considering that he showed little deference to the conventions of written argument and had a frustrating, often impene¬ trable style.That didn’t matter. In the public mind, McLuhan’s enduring intellectual legacy boiled down to one basic propo¬ sition: the way we communicate is at least as important as what we communicate.
“The medium is the message” was an underwhelmingly simple suggestion, but it was an appealing one. That culture was being ambushed by ever improving communications technology, creating a “global village,” had common sense appeal.
Revolutionaries, intellectuals, and literary critics awakening to the possibilities of postmod¬ ernism found in McLuhan a kind of anti-hero. In a world renewing itself with dizzying speed, Marshall McLuhan alone seemed to see the big picture—although no one could really say so with certainty.He was a worldwide celebrity by the late 1960s, an overnight sensation created by the same forces that his work described.
Installed as the head of his own Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto by the 1970s, McLuhan continued to test his ideas publicly, but the world was starting to tune out.Soon his communications theory disappeared from popular discourse almost as quickly as it had appeared.
His seminal influence continued, however, as communications and media studies emerged as distinct fields of study.By 1990 he was back.Though he had in fact died a decade earlier, the new ways in which information was criss-crossing the universe hurled the planet into yet another communications revolution and gave McLuhan the mantle of prophet.
He saw it all coming, many suggest, and today he is again in vogue as the foundational philosopher of technology and postmodernism—though the caricatures of his work usually presented are at best gross simplifications.Even as his popularity ebbed and flowed, Canadians have always maintained a special relationship with McLuhan.
He is more than a native son; his work has long been a reference point, an article of faith for succeeding generations of Canadians who have attempted to define their space in the cosmos. As political borders have become increasingly contested, a McLuhanesque communications state is now an almost universally accepted description of what defines us.