Media: Saint of the superhighway

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan was hailed as a prophet of the media age, and thirty years on, his new disciples are spreading the message again. But how hard should we listen, asks Pat Kane
Is Marshall McLuhan in fashion again? Seventeen years after the ultimate media guru's death, his ideas are forcing themselves on our attention. Even his weariest axioms seem to have new vigour. Faced with the imminent Babel of digital television, where the stories and gossip of the world will be at our fingertips, what else can we call it but a "global village"? When politicians breathlessly invoke the information super-highway as a totem of national progress, was it ever more true that "the medium is itself the message", rather than the content it carries?

Born in Canada in 1911, McLuhan was a minor professor of English until he wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man in 1964. His timing couldn't have been better, as the Sixties woke up to itself as a media event. Whether it was the Beatles and the rise of pop culture, John F Kennedy and his Camelot court, or just the avalanche of signs and products that crowded American life, McLuhan was always on hand to make sense of the glorious spectacle.

Spread across the covers of Newsweek and Time, invited on to the top chatshows, feted by writers such as Tom Wolfe and W H Auden, even provided with a walk-on part in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, the professor surfed a global wave of publicity. He was compared unblushingly to Freud, Einstein, Newton and Darwin. McLuhan's decline in the early Seventies was partly due to the general fall of Sixties' cultural idealism - but also perhaps from a sense of weariness at McLuhan's tireless self-promotion.

But 30 years on, it is no surprise that the Canadian magus has become the "patron saint", as Wired magazine puts it, of the digital revolution. His willingness to sum up every phenomenon of media society in a handy aphorism - "In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin," for example - is perfect for technophiliacs on the hustle. A cluster of new books - McLuhan for Beginners (cartoons, speech bubbles and all), Essential McLuhan (reverentially edited by his son, Eric), and Forward Through the Rearview Mirror (a coffee-table paean to his works) - clearly signal the need to re-evaluate our first "metaphysician of the media". What they reveal the man to be is a strange mixture of the transient and the prescient, often in the same utterance.

There are aspects of McLuhanism (or "McLunacy", as his detractors had it) that simply don't survive. Take his division between "hot" and "cool" media, for example. It placed him on every talk show couch in the late Sixties, as hip as the Beatles - but it has the dated whiff of an academic trying to click with his student audience. "Hot" media were defined as high in information, and thus low in participation; "cool" defined as low in information, high in participation. Yet when McLuhan cited print and radio as "hot" media, it just sounded confused: don't they require as much participation as possible, to bring them alive in our minds? And if the television screen is a "cool" medium, low-brow and numbing in its physical impact, what happens when the same screen becomes an Internet terminal, throbbing with the "hottest" of high-information content?

Yet lose that silly taxonomy - one that Neil Postman, a television analyst and McLuhan acolyte, believes the professor wanted to abandon anyway - and McLuhan turns out to have been extraordinarly prophetic about the knowledge-society in general. This was written in 1972: "The wired planet has no boundaries and no monopolies of knowledge. The affairs of the world are now dependent upon the highest information of which man is capable. The boundaries between the world of affairs and the community of learning have ceased to exist. The workaday world now demands encyclopaedic wisdom" (Take Today: the Executive as Dropout) - sentiments that no aspiring Blairite technocrat could do without these days.

Talking of Blair, he has a weird consonance with McLuhan: both try to combine the moral certainty of religious faith with an open embrace of technological futurity. McLuhan was a devout and intellectual convert to Catholicism: and in several places he talks of global media as possibly creating a "universal communion". "The computer promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness" (from Forward Through the Rearview Mirror).

Yet, like Blair, McLuhan is so dazzled by the Pentecostal power of information technology that he surrenders the argument about who controls, and who profits. Apart from some Dadaist reflections on how media corporations were "buying off human faculties for their own use", McLuhan regarded capitalism as just one more cultural code, twisting in the eventual spiral towards the "cosmic man" who wore "all mankind on his skin". As far as your average media mogul is concerned, this stuff is exactly what they want to hear; the media empire as historical destiny, and themselves as Atlases of the new world. Luckily, the heirs of McLuhan are a bit wiser to the political realities of media. Wired magazine (whose American edition is still available in the UK) is promoting the term "netizen" as a response to criticisms that it simply accepted the leadership of big business in the development of cyberspace.

The netizen desires not a global village through the new media, but a global common. McLuhan held that media weakened our sense of identity, turning us towards tribalism and sensuality. The netizens want media to create our identities anew, empowering us to become disputatious individuals in a new civic space. Yet even make that comparison, and McLuhan immediately trips you up with some quote anticipating digital activism. As Patrick Watson says in one of these books, McLuhan "started prairie fires all over our intellectual landscape ... he was a pyromaniac of the imagination".

Most of his current commentators describe McLuhan as more of a poet than a scholar, spinning off metaphors and "probes" like James Joyce with a business degree. The Joycean reference is not gratuitous: remember that McLuhan was always a professor of modern literature first, reading the signs of the times like a Baudelaire stanza.

If there is one immediately useful idea that leaps out, it is McLuhan's position that artistic activity was the strongest possible media critique. "The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time."

With extraordinary prescience, McLuhan was arguing in the mid-Sixties for the arts as an "early radar system", helping us to discover social and psychological "targets" well in advance, so that we could better cope with them. Art was an "indispensable perceptual training rather than a privileged diet for the elite". In the age of Damien Hirst and Irvine Welsh, Tricky and Chris Morris - and the technocratic philistinism of our forthcoming government - isn't this of supreme relevance? Rave on, Marshall McLuhan: rave onn

`McLuhan for Beginners', by W Terrence Gordon (Writers and Readers); `Essential McLuhan', edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Routledge); `Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan', edited by Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart (MIT Press).