Illustration by Kate Wakely-Mulroney Illustration by Kate Wakely-Mulroney Kate Wakely-Mulroney

In the early 60s, when posting to someone’s wall required a thumbtack, and only birds tweeted – even before the invention of the earliest form of the Internet - Marshall McLuhan predicted that we’d someday be living in an electronically inter-connected world “as wide as the planet and as small as a little town,” the Global Village. Professor at the University of Toronto from 1946 until his death in 1980, McLuhan, the author of Understanding Media and the Medium is the Massage [sic] (a typographic mistake that McLuhan, a punster, chose to keep), would have been a hundred years old this July.

This year, McLuhan 100, representing U of T’s McLuhan Program for Culture and Technology, the City of Toronto, and Mozilla, is organizing audio-walking tours led by CBC radio host Nora Young, open houses, seminars, and other (free) events celebrating McLuhan’s centenary, his life and ideas. The week of McLuhan’s birthday (July 18-25), the McLuhan Legacy Network, a group of over 200 professors and students from all four Toronto universities, will be hosting panel discussions on themes such as McLuhan’s views of society and education.

Professor of Physics at U of T and founder of the MLN Robert Logan says McLuhan was even more prophetic than is widely assumed. Not only did McLuhan anticipate the Internet, he may have also foreseen the invention of the videocassette (McLuhan in 1964: “soon… film will go into its portable, accessible printed-book phase”) and Wikipedia (In 1962: “a computer as a research instrument [that] could retrieve individual encyclopedic function”). Logan, who worked with McLuhan at U of T from 1974 to 1980 and co-authored a paper with him which was the basis of Logan’s book The Alphabet Effect (1987), described McLuhan as a “trickster and a humourist. He liked to play jokes and things, he was a lot of fun to be with.” If someone disagreed with his views, McLuhan would often joke, “You don’t like those ideas? I’ve got others.” This was characteristic of McLuhan’s scholarly approach, Logan says. “He believed play was essential to developing new ideas.”

Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, where McLuhan gave his Monday night seminars, Dominique Scheffel-Dunand says McLuhan’s “undisciplined” approach is what truly set him apart from other scholars of his day. He was very well read and had a fascination for the Renaissance. Inspired by Nashe and Ezra Pound, he re-popularized the literary genre of the essay, developed by the French writer Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century, and applied it to new fields, such as communication studies. “For McLuhan, as for Montaigne, what is involved in the essay is the testing of the judgment and to an extension of the whole being.” For McLuhan, design was to juxtapose visual images and audio images, trying to make sense of elements that you would not really see, that you would not juxtapose. He was a pioneer of this methodology to understand the effects of any technology on society and culture.”

McLuhan’s innovative approach was highly controversial in his time. “When he was publishing his explorations, it was really counter-current to established design for scholarly dissemination.” The chapters of his 1962 book the Gutenberg Galaxy, for example, (the centennial edition of which will soon be published by U of T press) resemble what we would recognize as “Tweets or blog posts,” Scheffel-Dunand says. “They’re not chapters in the way a book was designed in the 1960s. That’s why his publications were not considered as scholarly work.”

His unique methodology, his “probing approach,” however, is one of the reasons McLuhan remains relevant today. “It’s about connecting the visible with the invisible. It’s a very strong approach,” Scheffel-Dunand says. “I’m encouraging any scholar today to adopt it to make sense of the effects of the digital technologies on the life of the mind.”

At 6 pm on Tuesday at Ryerson’s Eaton Lecture Theatre, Professor Logan will be giving a lecture called McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight. This week the Faculty of Information is awarding five Marshall McLuhan Centenary Visiting Fellowships in the field of culture and technology to international scholars. Starting next month with Jane’s Walk and the Contact Photography Festival, McLuhan100 is putting on a variety of events, an international conference McLuhan100 THEN NOW NEXT (November 7-10 2011), and legacy projects. A full calendar of events is available online at mcluhan100.ca. McLuhan 100 is seeking volunteers to help out with the events (information available at www.mcluhan100.ca).

Marshall and Douglas

The fascinating thing about the Extraordinary Canadians series is that each book twines the promise of an extraordinary subject with an equally extraordinary biographer. Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland makes good on this promise, with one important upgrade: Coupland is an agent of that future which Marshall McLuhan so precisely foretold.

McLuhan, an academia superstar who settled here at U of T, taught Renaissance rhetoric, yet anticipated the manifestations of internet culture. Therein lies another delight of this biography: the irreconcilability of the what McLuhan held dear and the realization of his theories (Coupland is the first to admit that McLuhan would have been horrified).

Coupland is an astute biographer, parsing McLuhan’s experiences and how they would influence his theories. And, true to Coupland’s own work as both artist and author, he weaves leet speak, psychological tests, and Wikipedia entries into the fabric of this prismatic biography.

Reading Marshall McLuhan is a perfectly entertaining way for students looking to transition out of the rigors of exams into the academic lull of summer.

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