Article abstract: With a cryptic, maddeningly epigrammatic style, McLuhan provided the twentieth century with its most provocative critique of the way technology, specifically electronic media, has shaped the modern view of what it means to be human.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in western Canada on July 21, 1911, to religious, Scotch-Irish parents; his father earned his livelihood by selling real estate and insurance, while his mother worked in theater as an actress and monologuist. His family moved to Winnipeg during his youth, and in his adolescence, McLuhan began his lifelong infatuation with electronic media, building his own crystal radio set at the age of ten. He later enrolled at the University of Manitoba, intending to become an engineer but, in his own words, eventually “reading his way out of engineering into English literature”; he was graduated from the university in 1933 with a B.A. in literature. The following year he earned an M.A. in the same field and took a vacation to Europe, acquainting himself with Continental scholarship.
Soon after this trip, McLuhan decided to study further in England, enrolling at Cambridge University and attending the lectures of such famous British scholars as I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis. Eventually McLuhan took a second B.A. and M.A. at Cambridge and remained long enough to complete a brilliant graduate career with a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance studies in 1942. In the midst of his graduate study, McLuhan had begun a teaching career in the United States, where he was first exposed to the power of popular culture in Western society, as he noticed the hold that the relatively new media of cinema and radio had on young American students. It was also during this period that he met his wife, Corinne Keller Lewis, and converted to Roman Catholicism—the latter an event that undoubtedly influenced his critique of the morality of technology.
After having taught at various colleges and universities in the United States and Canada between 1937 and 1946, McLuhan accepted a professorship at the University of Toronto, where he spent most of his teaching career and where he enjoyed his most fruitful and provocative years of scholarship. In the early 1950’s, surrounded by evidence that the popular culture of film and television had begun to displace centuries of traditional literary values and preoccupations, McLuhan began his incisive inquiry into the nature of media. In particular, McLuhan focused on the effect of advertising on human behavior, a subject which he pursued in his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951). Influenced by his colleague at the University of Toronto, economist Harold Innis, McLuhan continued to enlarge his critique of mass media and reached the zenith of his productivity and notoriety in the early 1960’s.
To appreciate McLuhan’s impact on and contribution to the twentieth century’s understanding of communication and communications media, one must examine not only particular events or achievements in his life but the substance of his ideas as well. In 1962, McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, a far-reaching analysis of the effect of the printing press on the culture of Western Europe, a book which earned for him the Governor-General’s Award for Critical Prose, Canada’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. In this book, McLuhan argued that the fixed, linear nature of typeset texts affected the way sixteenth century writers, musicians, and scientists thought about their disciplines and about the meaning of humanness, thus forging a radical change in the values and modes of perception in Western culture. The eye displaced the ear as the primary sensory organ, and, McLuhan claimed, this alteration of perception encouraged a self-reflectiveness or narcissism. This in turn led, McLuhan believed, to a fragmentation in society that sharply divided literates from nonliterates, creating a new underclass.
Sociologists had long debated the effect of industrialization—of the machine—on society’s members and their modes of perception, but McLuhan was one of the first to identify the printed word as a unique technology that altered perception, value, and authority in a culture. He, in effect, made a “thing,” or a “machine,” out of the printed word, so that it could be seen as the powerful and thus disruptive influence it was in human society. By objectifying the technology of writing, he empowered communications theorists to recognize and explain the burgeoning gap between the highly technologized cultures of the West and the undertechnologized cultures of the third world and elsewhere.
In 1963, McLuhan established, at the University of Toronto, the Center for...
(The entire section is 1990 words.)