Herbert Marshall McLuhan

“The Media is the Message”

The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village” McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962).

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher, literary critic and communication theorist. He coined phrases such as “The Media is the Message”, “information overload” and “the global village”.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He was the oldest son of Herbert Ernest McLuhan and Elsie Naomi, née Hall. His father ran a real estate business in Edmonton, but the company folded when World War I broke out in 1914 and father Herbert enlisted in the Canadian army. After the war the McLuhan family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. His mother Elsie – her own mother had the surname Marshall which she passed on to her son – was a schoolteacher, but later became an actress and elocutionist. From his mother he inherited not only his second name but also his remarkable ability to give impromptu speeches and to speak long and eloquent sentences – some have said he spoke in paragraphs. He preferred talking above writing in his communication with other people while listening to others was one of his weaker points.


McLuhan grew up in Winnipeg where he, after graduating from Kelvin Technical High School, started to attend the University of Manitoba in 1928. He obtained his B. A. in English Literature in 1932, being awarded the University’s Gold Medal in Arts and Sciences. This was followed with a Master’s Degree in English in 1934 from the same university.

McLuhan pursued his love for the English language and literature and moved across to England to enroll at Cambridge University. Here he obtained his B. A. in 1936 following which he returned and he accepted a position as teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1936-1937). While at Cambridge McLuhan also commenced his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism – a process completed in 1937. His Methodist father could accept his decision to convert, but his Baptist mother thought his decision would negatively affect his career and was against it. From then on he did his teachings only at Roman Catholic universities and colleges.

In 1937 he moved to St. Louis in Missouri to teach English at the Saint Louis University. Apart from a short break in 1939-49 to return to Cambridge to obtain his M. A. in English, he stayed in St. Louis until 1944. Here he also married Corinne Keller Lewis – like his mother a teacher and actress – with whom he had six children. Because war had broken out in Europe he was allowed to submit his dissertation for his Ph. D. from the United Stated without having to attend in person for the oral presentation. Cambridge awarded him his Pd. D. in 1942.

In 1944 McLuhan returned to Canada where he taught at the Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario. In 1946 he joined St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto where he received a professorship in 1952. He stayed at St. Michael’s College for the rest of his career. As he became more widely known through his lectures on communication and media, other universities tried to obtain his services. In order to retain him, the University of Toronto appointed McLuhan in 1963 to head a new Centre for Culture and Technology to research the social impact of technologies and media on society.

The Media is the Message

McLuhan’s unorthodox theories about the media, communication, advertising and the effect of the electronic media on society often have been controversial. He stated that the electronic media could be seen as extensions of the nervous system, thereby imposing their own assumptions on the user’s psyche. He saw the medium itself, especially television, as having a greater impact on the individual than the contents of its information – hence his theorem “The Media is the Message”. McLuhan articulated in the sixties that new technologies, such as Gutenberg’s printing press centuries ago or modern electronic media, affect our social organization which in turns affects our social interactions. Modern electronics speed up the communication process to such an extent that our society will move from individualism to a collective identity – the global village. These theories were developed, explored and expanded in his lectures and in a series of books.

Apart from being controversial – always a good reason for becoming famous – McLuhan became well-known for his eloquence and articulateness. He was an aphorist who loved puns and wordplays. He managed to convey his message in often surprising language.
. “All advertising advertises advertising “ – from The Book of Probes (2002), probing extracts from his writings, published posthumously.
. “One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There's always more than you can cope with.“ – from The Best of Ideas (1967).
. “The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.“ (1980).

In 1979 McLuhan suffered a stroke which affected his speech. He never recovered from this and died in his sleep on December 21, 1980.

His writings

McLuhan has written a number of books amongst which are:
1951 – The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. His first book consists of a series of essays on advertising, explaining its culture and assumptions.
1962 – The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Here he analyses the effect that Gutenberg’s printing press has had on oral culture and postulates that it brought about a visual culture. It also isolated people because “Printing … created the portable book, which men could read in privacy and in isolation from others.
1964 – Understanding the Media: The Extension of Man. In McLuhan’s best-known study on media theory he states that it is not the contents of the media’s messages, but the characteristics of the media itself that affects our society. This concept has been popularized to “The Medium is the Message”.
1967 – The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. The McLuhan website, which is maintained by his estate, explains that when the book returned from the typesetters, it had the incorrect word “massage” in its title. McLuhan immediately saw the pun and decided to leave the word in the title. He saw the media as massaging our sensorium and expanded on his ideas that it is not the contents of its message but the media itself that influences man. The book has become a bestseller.
1968 – War and Peace in the Global Village. A study of war throughout history.

McLuhan honoured

Marshall McLuhan received numerous awards and honorary doctorates Only the most important awards are mentioned here.
1964 – Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
1967 – Molson Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Social Sciences.
1967 – Appointed to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at the Fordham University in New York.
1970 – Companion of the Order of Canada.
1970 – Received the President’s Award of the Institute of Public Relations in Great Britain.
1973 – Appointed by the Vatican as Consultor of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications.

Between December 1999 and March 2000 Canada issued a series of 68 stamps in a book: The Millennium Collection. One of 17 souvenir sheets – each containing four stamps – portrays Marshall McLuhan with in its margin the text “The Man with a Message”. The accompanying text on the opposite page in the book quotes McLuhan: “electronic interdependence has transformed the world into a “global village”. ” It also mentions him as the “oracle of the electronic age” and states: “His contribution to communication has been compared to Darwin and Freud in its universal importance.”

The only other stamp featuring McLuhan was issued by Palau in its 1999 sheet of 25 stamps: The Information Age: Visionaries in the Twentieth Century. The stamp shows his name with the legend “The Medium is the Message”.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2010

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