I met Marshall McLuhan and his daughter Mary in the mid-1970s, while I was president of Coastline Community College. The McLuhan’s had a home in Newport Beach, where I also lived. Mary, an attorney, was an avid supporter of the McLuhan foundation. I was the local college president and Mary was a member of the California State Board of Education. Marshall, Mary, and I met over lunch and dinner numerous times, and they also invited me to their home. I remember Marshall as tall and thin with a distinguishing mustache and Canadian accent.
Vivid memories that stick with me include conversations with Marshall about his idea of hot and cold media. He helped me understand that timely news about the Vietnam war was hot and engaged the senses and that general advertising about groceries is cool unless there is a shortage or problem that heats one’s senses. This is why, in the news, they say,” if it bleeds it leads,” a harsh but unfortunately true reality. Marshall felt that the advancing media was leading to a surrendering of the senses and was shaping people in ways they hardly expected.
At the time, I was also chair of the executive committee of KOCE-TV, our college, and the regional PBS station. We produced nationally distributed television courses, local news, and other programming. The McLuhan’s were enthusiastically interested and involved. Our wide-ranging conversations addressed Marshall’s concepts of the “medium as the message,” “the medium as the massage,” and the difference between these terms. In short, both Marshall and Mary influenced me and stimulated my avid interest and career in media… especially in media psychology. To me, these are special and valuable memories. In a discussion about Marshall McLuhan with Amplifier co-editor V. Krishna Kumar, we realized that many in the younger generation may not be familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s work, as well as the work of other important pioneers.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Canada in 1911 and passed in 1980 at the age of 71. Earning his PhD in English Literature from The University of Cambridge, McLuhan taught at several universities. In 1946 he joined The University of Manitoba where he remained as a professor until his passing in 1980. He also traveled, spoke, and taught widely. McLuhan was controversial during his life, but with the explosion of the internet, many of his theories became seminal, insightful, iconic, and central in the field of media psychology. Widely published, his most widely known book is titled Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. His most famous postulate, to me, is “the media is the massage.” Here, McLuhan asserts that the important perception is the way the message is couched. He argues that the medium itself affects human consciousness and influences the way the content is understood. McLuhan postulated that simply owning a TV that we watch is actually more significant than anything we watch on it. “The TV itself colors the message,” he told me. He said that “the lightbulb radically changes the world around it!” It massages its environment. During the Vietnam war, the nationwide reaction was ignited by the immediacy of the news, for the first time, live by satellite, through the TV, and heating your emotions. He told me that one of his goals was to help people control the new media by understanding the media effects. By knowing how technology shapes our environment he felt that we can better transcend its influencing power. He said that “short of turning off the media, there are lots of moderate ways to control its influence.” Interestingly, once at lunch, I remember he said that “ads are effective, but they are good news, which is cool. However, the ads can be the best part of a magazine.” Whitman (1981), in his obituary on Marshall McLuhan in The New York Times, quoted him as saying, “Richard M. Nixon Did not go over well on television during the 1960 Presidential campaign … because he was a ‘ hot’ person in a cool medium. John F. Kennedy was more effective because he was ‘cool.’”
In his 1962 work, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of the Typographic Man, McLuhan explored the early concept of a “global electronic village.” He predicted the homogenization of culture through modern persuasive broadcast media. While Marshall McLuhan did not live to see the impact of the World Wide Web, passing away a decade before its global dominance in the 1990s, he was a pioneering media theorist, considered by some as one of the principal oracles of the electronic age. His work continues to have a profound impact on contemporary media, culture, and technology theory. Marshall McLuhan was a prophet in media and technology circles and should be well remembered for his contributions. One repeated admonition to me, that I have always remembered, is that Marshall McLuhan urged me always to look beyond the obvious and search for the non-obvious effects. Marshall McLuhan is one of the memorable pioneers who led the public intellectual discussion about the electronic age as a provocateur, an initiator of discourse, and is a significant and memorable media psychology pioneer whose admonitions, puns, and sayings contribute a meaningful and lasting legacy. This is especially true for those of us studying and working in Media Psychology. Marshall McLuhan, along with other media psychologies’ iconic pioneers, lives on because of the relevance of his important insights, puns, quips, and admonitions. To quote a legendary entertainer and, in my view a media psychology icon because of his ability to read and analyze an audience, …Maurice Chevalier, who famously sang, “I remember him well.”
McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of the Typographic Man. Toronto, CA: The University of Toronto Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Whitman, A. (January 1, 1981). Marshal McLuhan, author dies; declares ‘medium is the Message. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/01/01/obituaries/marshall-mcluhan-author-dies-declared-medium-is-the-message.html