Now You Know Marshall

Many people know Marshall McLuhan because of his cameo in the 1977 film Annie Hall. You know the scene: Annoyed by a pretentious loudmouth behind him in line for a movie, Alvie Singer produces the Canadian media prophet from behind a movie poster to deflate the charlatan. “You know nothing of my work,” the mustachioed McLuhan says to pompous academic. Woody looks into the camera: “Boy, if life were only like this.”

Long after his 1980 death, McLuhan also cameoed (by proxy) in an episode of the Sopranos.In the season 2 episode “House Arrest” (March 2000), McLuhan is invoked in the form of a black federal marshall. The character comes to a hospital to check on Junior Soprano, introduces himself as McLuhan, and a nurse says, “You’re a marshall, and your name’s McLuhan. That makes you Marshall McLuhan,” the candy-striper says. “Yes, that’s right” the agent replies.

I find it unlikely that either a nurse or a federal marshall working in New Jersey would have any idea who the real Marshall McLuhan was. (Unless, perhaps, they’d seen Annie Hall.) The gag was clearly a TV writers’ inside joke – one, I feel, that attests to McLuhan’s enduring relevance in media circles, especially as the Internet becomes more social and the world grows ever more connected. And McLuhan didn’t even live to see the Internet.

Named for the famous scene in Annie Hall, Douglas Coupland’s recent bio, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! introduces a new generation to the life and pioneering work of the intense, mystifying genius responsible for the phrases/concepts “the medium is the message” and “global village.” (Spoiler: McLuhan predicted the Internet ca. 1962.)

Coupland, who is best known for really good novels that you should totally read, including Generation X, Life After God, and Hey Nostradamus! — and who is pretty active on Twitter — embraces “Marshall” (as he refers to McLuhan throughout the book) with an all-encompassing, fraternal warmth. Far from the movie-line schmuck who resorts to saber-rattling and entitlement, Coupland presents Marshall’s life in the tone of a spiritual descendent. He comes off like an earnest, awestruck virtual grandson who seeks to sympathize with his forbear more than he desires to unpack his earth-shattering ideas. Though he does that, too.

Though he refers to McLuhan as “an idea leafblower” and presents him as freakishly smart (which he was), Coupland also relates to his hero on a deeply personal level, rendering him as a hapless, devout Catholic mama’s boy and probable autistic who was more comfortable at the podium than in personal interaction; who was susceptible to the seduction of wide acclaim; who worried about money.

Coupland also identifies with Marshall as a distinctly Canadian product. There’s a spookiness to the way McLuhan grew up in the flat, empty expanses of west-central Canada – pre-television (not that he would’ve watched it; he hated TV when it finally came around) – and then later in life arrived at these staggeringly complex notions of the effects of technological connectivity on society. Toward the end of the book, in a moving, elegiac image sequence Coupland imagines his traveling salesman grandfather roaming across the plain. “Is there something about this horizontal land that will always bind us to God?” he asks.

In addition to being a surprisingly poetic work, You Know Nothing is also a useful primer to McLuhan. In attempt to uncover what the medium=message formula meant, I tried to read McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media earlier this year and totally failed to hack my way through it. Fortunately, Coupland unpacked it neatly on page 13:

“The medium is the message” means that the ostensible content of all electronic media is insignificant; it is the medium itself that has the greater impact on the environment, a fact bolstered by the now medically undeniable fact that the technologies we use every day begin, after a while, to alter the way our brains work, and hence the way we experience our world. Forget the ostensible content, say, of a television program. All that matters is that you’re watching the TV itself, at the expense of some other technology — probably books or the Internet. Those mediums we do choose to spend our time with continually modify the way we emphasize our senses — seeing versus hearing versus touching — on a scale so large and spanning so many centuries that it took at least a decade after Marshall’s death for him to be proven right, with the triumph of the internet.

In 1962, Marshall also forecast the dark side of the social web, which people (myself included) are increasingly allowing into their quivering little brains:

[McLuhan:] Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our sense have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.

Unlike the degree-flogging caricature in Annie Hall, Coupland chooses not to claim McLuhan but rather to stand in awe and attempt, with humility, to translate his ideas to a media-soaked audience that would do better now than ever to listen to him.

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