Happy birthday, Marshall McLuhan

Today is the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian scholar who forever changed the way we think about media and their effects on the human psyche.

Last week I sat down for a conversation with Len Edgerly, host of “The Kindle Chronicles,” on what McLuhan would think about the Kindle, the iPad, and what effects e-readers would have on our perception of text, reading and linearity. The interview grew out of my recent review of Douglas Coupland’s McLuhan biography for Nieman Reports.

Len and I had great fun, and I hope you’ll have a chance to give it a listen.

Cable news in the age of McLuhan

McLuhan (right) in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"

Could Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann have thrived in the days of fuzzy, black-and-white television sets? It’s a question I found myself asking after having introduced myself to the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan earlier this year.

The result — my review of Douglas Coupland’s quirky “Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!” — appears in the new issue of Nieman Reports.

The O-and-O question comes about from McLuhan’s definitions of “hot” and “cool” media. To McLuhan, writing in the 1950s and ’60s, radio and movies were “hot” media because they were all-encompassing, leaving little to the imagination. Television was “cool” because the flickering images were so inadequate — that is, television was a participatory medium, forcing the viewer to fill in the missing information and thus requiring his active participation.

Thus, according to McLuhan, hot personalities who did well on radio were failures on television, which favored bland, soothing folks upon whom the viewers could project their own thoughts and desires.

In one of his two major works, 1964’s “Understanding Media,” McLuhan seemingly anticipated today’s flat-panel HDTVs, writing that “‘improved’ TV” would no longer be television as he understood it. My guess is that if McLuhan were alive, he would tell us that the talk-radio style of television that works on cable would have been a failure before technological advancements made it easier for the viewer to just sit back and vegetate.

Not to get carried away — after all, “The Beverly Hillbillies” was popular when McLuhan was writing — but one interpretation might be that the harder you have to work, the less willing you are to be told what to think.

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.