By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

McLuhan on the future of newspapers

Marshall McLuhan

I am slogging my way through Marshall McLuhan’s little-read 1964 magnum opus, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” (Fun “fact”: Western aid workers imposed linear water pipes on African villagers because of their linear alphabet. The villagers, lacking that alphabet, preferred the communal well.)

Despite finding much of McLuhan absurd, this leapt out at me last night:

The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.

Is this a case of even a blind pig finding an occasional acorn? Or of prescience bordering on genius?

Photo via Wikipedia.

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  1. Interesting observation considering the bedrock of newspaper revenue at the time was retail display, not classified. Classified wouldn’t become a big part of newspaper revenue for a couple of more decades.

  2. Tsk. That reads like envy. Perhaps his logorrhea has soured you.

    I view him as both philosopher and provocateur. He was off in the Big Think, as the expression now goes. I heard him lecture several times, when he always seem to love spurring debate and disagreement.

    One of my favorites was not in a book, rather when he addressed the S.C. educational broadcaster gathering. He was a big supporter of that particular group, in no small part because of his Southern wife. He tied in that state with his forecasting saying S.C. was prepared to lead the parade into the 21st Century (pause, beat, beat) because it has missed the 20th.

    While both humor and hyperbole, after the flying eyebrows and gasps, the remark brought considerable discussion both at the cocktails afterward and later among the journalists assembled. That kind of spark seemed to be his forte. I cut him a lot of slack in acknowledgment.

  3. Paul Bass

    Wow. And considering that he also did that brilliant cameo for Woody Allen, I’d say he deserves some props.

  4. McLuhan is more of a poet than an academic. His research is spotty at best, his writing opaque and his conclusions over-determined — so he’s been a punching bag in academia for decades. But he really did have the poet’s eye and ear for how a culture is transformed via technological change. His insights into how a culture transforms from what he called a visual to an oral culture have been prescient. I think we hear echoes of McLuhan in many current cultural trends, especially among youth. These transformations include things like a disregard for the sanctity of the written word, the privileging of the fragmentary and the spectacular over traditional logical argumentation and the trend of constant checking and re-checking in with “the tribe” via electronic devices. McLuhan predicted all of this and much else as we moved to greater and greater reliance on electronic media. And this was in 1964.

  5. tobe berkovitz

    For those of you who can’t get enough McLuhan, Douglas Coupland’s newish book “Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!” is great. Hey you want to go for a 10 on the degree of difficulty scale, try teaching McLuhan. I’ve done it. Not a task for amateurs.

  6. Stephen Stein

    One of the things I’m reading on vacation is the compendium “the BEST Technological Writing 2010“. I am particularly enjoying this article by Clay Shirky, which is peripherally related to the topic at hand.

    A sample:

    When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

    There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

  7. Excellent find, Dan. I, too, find that reading McLuhan involves a lot of slogging through comments that are unremarkable or grandiloquent (or both), but there are those occasional gems.
    I think he was right in that classified ads were “steady work,” whereas retail ads ebb and flow with the big retail seasons.

    Anyway, thanks for on-passing.

  8. Donna L. Halper

    Actually, in Understanding Media, McLuhan also predicted the rise of angry talk radio, noting that because radio is an intimate medium, it is capable of creating bonds with the listeners, but it is also capable of amplifying the demagogue and creating an appetite for rumor, gossip and malice (306).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Donna: Yes, just got there. I was thinking about the role of talk radio in the Rwandan massacres.

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