Marching backwards into the future

“All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the message.”


Reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” is a mind-blowing experience. Although the book was written 50 years ago (1967), at almost every page and every paragraph you feel as if you’re reading contemporary commentary on media and its effect on the human condition. Here are a few of his numerous observations/prophecies, with some examples of parallels from the present. (Note: the quotes are arranged in the order they appear in the book).


“Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions… are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early “mistakes”.”

The internet never forgets. Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco can attest.


“The family circle has widened. The worldpool of information fathered by electric media… far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear… Now all the world’s a sage”

From families we’ve moved to eco chambers.


“There is a world of difference between the modern home environment of integrated electric information and the classroom. Today’s… child… is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth-century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment… Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds”.

Some think the solution is homeschooling. Some are trying to re-invent school.


“When his circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?”

47% of US jobs are threatened due to computerization. Robots will replace us.


“All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system… The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world”.

What would VR/MR be?


“Whence did the wond’rous mystic art arise,
Of painting SPEECH and speaking to the eyes?
That we by tracing magic lines are taught,
How to embody, and to color thought?”

We live in the visual age. And we can’t Snap out of it (pun intended).


“Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness… We now live in a global village.”

Watch Yuval Noah Harari explain why globalism vs. nationalism might currently be the most important political divide.


“Because of electric speed, we can no longer wait and see. George Washington once remarked, “We haven’t heard from Benjamin Franklin in Paris this year. We should write him a letter”.”

Welcome to the instant gratification economy.


“Electric circuitry profoundly involves men… Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition”.

But what do you do when recognizing patterns becomes a matter of sorting truth from fiction?


“In the name of “progress”, our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old… We impose the form of the old on the content of the new”.

Companies discover that again and again.


“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… They will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing”.

Is the internet making us stupid, or just shallow?


[From Alice in Wonderland, quoted by McLuhan:]
“…and who are you” [asked the caterpillar]
[Alice:] “I-I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”.

Customers’ changing identities is a perplexing challenge for today’s marketers.


“It is the business of the future to be dangerous” [quote of A. N. Whitehead].

So what do you do? You build firewalls.


Here are a few more quotes, from an even earlier book, Understanding Media (1964):

“In this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness”.

The Singularity is near.


“The classified ads… are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold”.

Yes indeed.


“Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left”.


In yet another book, Culture is Our Business (1970) he wrote: “Privacy invasion is now one of our biggest knowledge industries”.


Finally, after all the seriousness, here’s some comic respite – McLuhan’s cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:


“There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening”

Photo: Marshall Mcluhan Photography Date: March 8, 1967.

Photo: Marshall Mcluhan
Photography Date: March 8, 1967.


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