Special Report

McLuhan’s Centennial

Marshall McLuhan was born 100 years ago today. He lives on through Mark Zuckerberg.

By 7.21.11

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MANAMA, Bahrain -- I had a meeting in Bahrain, not far from where I live, on March 2, 2011, at about the midpoint of a month of street demonstrations that began with euphoria over Egypt and Tunisia's popular uprisings and ended in martial law.

There was no violence in Bahrain that day, but there were many road closures because denizens of the island's dusty villages had descended on the capital city to protest at the nearest thing resembling a central plaza -- the traffic circle called the Pearl Roundabout. Against my intentions I had to take a detour placing me on a street with no exits headed straight for the center of the Roundabout. Threading through a crowd of tens of thousands of people, I took half an hour to drive from one block in front of the circle to a more normal flow of traffic about two blocks beyond the circle.

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."

Today, to mark McLuhan's centennial, the constellation this wise man from the West discovered could be called The Zuckerberg Galaxy.

How did McLuhan make his discovery? He was neither a scientist nor an engineer nor an economist. He was a literary man, a Renaissance scholar, devoted to the tradition of Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas Aquinas, steeped in the doctrines of formal cause and natural law.

His formation enabled McLuhan to see all technologies, including electronic media, as environments -- manmade tools that tend to become imperceptible as they reshape their makers and as their makers become dependent upon them as vital ambiances: water for fish, air for birds.

McLuhan and his associates formed a school of thought that came to be called "media ecology." Not the political movement to protect the natural environment from man, media ecology is an apolitical outlook concerned with protecting our humanity from the hazards of overexposure to our manmade milieu.

For a brief moment McLuhan was a celebrity big-think type in big business boardrooms. Unlike his friend Peter Drucker, who had the knack for holding businessmen's attention, McLuhan was too far ahead of his time and his style of pronouncement too edgy for their tastes.

This was unfortunate because McLuhan, while he offered stunningly original perceptions, was a thinker of deep and enduring wisdom. His oddly named 1972 book aimed at business audiences, Take Today:The Executive as Dropout, made gnomic statements such as this: "The public becomes the participant consumer-producer of 'hardware' products and 'software' information alike."

The sentence makes sense to us and maybe draws a shrug or a yawn today in the Zuckerberg Galaxy where blogs and social media platforms make money and capitalist owners of printed newspaper empires do not. But the entire statement and even the now commonplace term "software" were perplexing to most people four decades ago. The book's very title uncannily foresaw dropout billionaire executives such as Bill Gates (b. 1955), Steve Jobs (b. 1955) and Mark Zuckerberg (b. 1984).

Marshall McLuhan died in 1980, before many of his visions had become apparent to the larger public.

Today his teaching on innovation -- "if it works it's obsolete" -- harmonizes with what Mark Zuckerberg says about how Facebook succeeds in business. In an October 2010 video interview with The Business Insider, Zuckerberg said his team has "made a lot of very good technical and product decisions along the way and good cultural decisions to make sure that we can make it so the best people can come and work here. And have a very big impact very quickly." He adds: "if you get those right then you can actually make a lot of mistakes." A core value of Facebook, he says, is "move fast and break things…unless you are breaking some stuff you are not moving fast enough."

The pitiful ending of News Corporation's half-billion-dollar misadventure with MySpace is the tale of a bureaucratic enterprise that failed to move fast and break things.

McLuhan heralded the Zuckerberg Galaxy and the global village, but he did not celebrate them. He took care to describe the new milieu as a village -- not as Aristotle's polis or Cicero's civitas. The village of old was illiterate, an oral culture of "acoustic space" abuzz with rumor and emotion, pre-civilized. McLuhan said the electronic media would re-tribalize the human race and foment strife.

Eric McLuhan, Marshall's son and co-author, says we live in the post-literate era, where people "know how to read but choose not to." Learning from the McLuhans and the media ecologists is for people who want to carry the vessel of civilization intact through a post-civilized age, who want to keep themselves and things together in a world whose heroes are young men who move fast and break things.

What are the chances that Mark Zuckerberg -- one of the last men on earth who knows how to read Aristotle and Cicero and Aquinas in the original -- will choose to do so?

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About the Author
Joseph P. Duggan served on a U.S. State Department diplomatic mission to Prague in 1988, presenting then-dissident Václav Havel his first briefing on U.S. and NATO defense postures and policies. This article is adapted from Duggan's new electronic book, The Zuckerberg Galaxy: A Primer for Navigating the Media Maelstrom.