Herbert Marshall McLuhan is famed for having one of the most poignant predictions of the 20th century. The philosopher and intellectual foresaw the birth of the internet 35 years before it happened.
On the day that would have been McLuhan’s 106th birthday he is being honoured with a Google Doodle.
Who was Marshall McLuhan?
Born in Canada in 1911, McLuhan studied at the University of Manitoba and University of Cambridge before becoming a lecturer at the University of Toronto. He rose to prominence in the 1960s for his work as a media theorist and for coining the term “global village”, which was a prescient vision of the internet age.
His theories were met with controversy in academic circles throughout the 1970s and after his death in 1980. Then in 1989, the internet was born, and McLuhan was looked upon with renewed interest.
McLuhan’s preeminent theory was his idea that human history could be divided into four eras: the acoustic age, the literary age, the print age and the electronic age. He outlined the concept in a 1962 book called The Gutenberg Galaxy, which was released just as the television was starting to become popular.
He predicted the world was entering the fourth, electronic age, which would be characterised by a community of people brought together by technology.
He called it the “global village” and said it would be an age when everyone had access to the same information through technology. The “global village” could be understood to be the internet.
In his follow-up book, Understanding Media, he expanded the theory to show the method of communication rather than the information itself would come to be the most influential fact of the electronic age.
He soon became a TV personality, making regular appearances to explain his theory of why “the medium is the message”.
He became the most publicised English teacher of the 20th century, a prestige that only grew with the realisation of his vision of the “computer as a research and communication instrument”.
In the 21st century people have a world of information at their finger tips on smartphones, tablets and laptops. The internet has facilitated a breaking down of global barriers and the democratisation of knowledge.
McLuhan’s predictions caused a frenzy in the US, with high profile magazines and authors rallying around him. He was the subject of a Tom Wolfe article titled “What if he is right?” that was published in New York Magazine.
His theory influenced the likes of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister’s father, and artist Andy Warhol.