'Generation X' author Douglas Coupland reflects on the ideas, sound and vision of 1960s media guru Marshall McLuhan, who fifty years ago coined the phrases 'the medium is the message' and 'the global village'- an uncanny prophet for our own digital media age.
Marshall McLuhan was the first great prophet of what would become digital mass media and indeed the global media village - a thinker and writer of near supernatural foresight. Trained as a literary scholar, throughout his career McLuhan not only examined the relationship between form and content in the media itself, offering dazzling arguments for the importance of medium over content, but anticipated the very idea of online networks, virtual reality, multiple interfaces, social media and most importantly of all, how new technologies rewire us by stealth, endlessly transforming our identities and our communities. "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us," he said.
Drawing on cutting-edge thinking about networks and cybernetics, McLuhan foresaw a fully wired, connected world, which would bring to an end the isolated consumption of print. New cross-border (effectively online) communities would form, breaking old political barriers, creating genuinely new kinds of electronic identity. But with this McLuhan offered a warning: older ideas of privacy and the self would evaporate under new media he said, leading to the rise of what he called 'discarnate' man - the lost, disembodied user extended across an unrelenting, unforgiving electronic global nervous system.
McLuhan’s ideas seem more prescient than ever. As Douglas Coupland puts it: ‘The future has never happened so quickly, to so many people, in such an extreme way - just as Marshall predicted, an uncanny prophet of our own digital age.’
Contributors include novelist Tom McCarthy, DJ Spooky, Andrew McLuhan, biographer Philip Marchand, the media theorists Shannon Mattern and Bernard Dionysus Geoghegan, Zak Kyes the graphic designer, philosopher James Garvey, filmmaker Jonathan Meades and former network engineer Tung-Hui Hu, who has written on McLuhan and 1970s guerrilla television.
Presenter: Douglas Coupland
Producer: Simon Hollis
A Brook Lapping production for BBC Radio 4