July 21, 2011


McLuhan's Centennial (Joseph P. Duggan, 7.21.11, American Spectator)

Just before entering the Roundabout, I caught sight of a Bahraini boy, maybe 15 years old, in a T-shirt and baggy shorts walking alongside my car. Over his shoulder was a staff with a massive Bahraini flag. The banner of this country is a simply beautiful piece of heraldry. With a medieval sort of flair, about half of the flag is dramatic scarlet and the rest bright white, the two fields divided by a sharp serrated edge -- stylized dragon's teeth.

With plenty of time to look carefully at my surroundings, I noticed something about the boy's flag. The white section had two added heraldic devices: large round-edged squares, the "f" and "t" logos of Facebook and Twitter.

What was this boy (or whoever had added those symbols to the flag) trying to communicate?

More than anything else I was reminded of the words of Marshall McLuhan , a man born on the western Canadian prairies 100 years ago -- July 21, 1911 -- "the medium is the message" and "the human family now exists under conditions of a global village."

McLuhan came to mind again in April when I visited Washington and heard Senator John McCain report on a visit to Tahrir Square in Cairo. He found it remarkable that a young leader of the Cairo protests had told him, "our hero is Mark Zuckerberg ." Not a reincarnation of Gandhi, not a hot new Nasser, but a twenty-something Jewish atheist from White Plains, New York who was a prodigy in physics, math, Latin and ancient Greek before dropping out of Harvard.

Half a century ago, when color television broadcasting was still in its infancy, in a single paragraph McLuhan forecast the personal computer, Google, Wikipedia, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, and several generations of multimedia World Wide Web technologies. Here is what McLuhan wrote in The Gutenberg Galaxy: "The next medium, whatever it is -- it may be the extension of consciousness -- will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. 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."

Bill Keller wryly describes Johannes Gutenberg as "the Mark Zuckerberg of his age."

The point being that the book, radio, television, movies, the Internet, etc. are all just mediums for broadcasting the same message. The medium is only significant to the degree that it allows greater penetration of our ideas.

Posted by at July 21, 2011 7:22 AM

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