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Who is Dr. Marshall McLuhan?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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Dr. Marshall McLuhan, born Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 21 July 1911, is a well-known communications theorist and critic. He is best known for his concepts of the "global village" and his theory that "the medium is the message." He discusses these concepts in his two most famous works: The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man(1962) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

Dr. Marshall McLuhan's mention of "Gutenberg" in his book title,The Gutenberg Galaxy, refers to Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the Gutenberg printing press. Gutenberg's invention allowed for the widespread availability of printed materials for the first time. This new literacy changed society from a mostly oral, or phonetic literacy to a written form of literacy. The communications focus changed from the ear to the eye. According to Dr. Marshall McLuhan, the invention of the printing press led to a "mechanical culture" of which the "Gutenberg man" was its product.

"The global village" is his term for what he sees as being created by communications technology that includes people from different cultures and different parts of the world that would not otherwise be considered part of the same "tribe." For example, the first book printed on Gutenberg's press was the Bible and the impact of that book being distributed all around the world united readers in Christianity. Dr. Marshall McLuhan notes that television, with its sensory involvement of being able to see and hear new worlds, does much to connect the world as one large communication system of "retribalization."

For example, the electric medium of television allows a person in a large city to experience life in the jungle through sight and sound. The visual and auditory sensory experience of television involves the viewer so completely in the experience that it is in so many ways "real." Dr. Marshall McLuhan sees the idea that an electric medium such as television has so much "retribalization" power through connecting the world as one, that he stresses "the medium is the message."

Many other communications theorists research the content of television. They tend to disagree with the importance he places on the concept of television itself as a communications medium rather than considering the "message" of the content of television and its affect on society. They see importance in both the "medium" and the "message."

However, many such theorists better understood Dr. Marshall McLuhan's forward-thinking approach with the introduction of the Internet. He had accurately predicted future electric media would create a "global village" of non-verbal communication that would be accessed all over the world, thus connecting the world's "tribes." The Internet did just that, as the access to information by those all over the world, became the important aspect of this new form of communication. The messages being sent are quite secondary to the importance of being able to send and receive written messages all over the world.

Dr. Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media that man does not tend to consider the impact of new communications technology on society until it has already been established in society. He sees this as a lack of forward-thinking. He was both an English Literature and a Mass Communications professor at various universities, including The University of Toronto from 1946-1980. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1942. McLuhan and his wife, Corinne, have six children. He died 31 December 1980 at the age of 69.

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