Writer and creative consultant
Writer and creative consultant
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Marshall McLuhan predicts the internet

It’s 1966. Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan is being interviewed by Robert Fulford in a bare television studio.

Close on McLuhan as he leans forward, brutally honest.

McLUHAN
Television gave the old electric circuitry that is already here, gave it a huge extra push in this direction of involvement and inwardness. You see the circuit doesn’t just simply push things out for inspection. It pushes you in to the circuit. It involves you.

Medium over Fullford’s shoulder. Both men are seated on white Eero Saarinen tulip chairs. McLuhan is becoming excited.

McLUHAN
When you’ve got a new medium into play in a population, all their sensory light shifts a bit. Sometimes shifts a lot. This changes their outlook, their attitudes. Changes their feelings about studies, about school, about politics.

Fulford nods. McLuhan saddens.

McLUHAN
Since TV both Canadian and British and American politics have cooled off almost to the point of rigor mortis. Our politics require much more hotting up than the TV medium will give them.

Close on McLuhan.

McLUHAN
TV is ideal when you get two experts like ourselves discussing TV. This is good TV because there’s a process going on of mutual challenge, discovery and processing. TV is good for that. And same with ads.

McLuhan thinks.

McLUHAN
If the audience can become involved in the actual process of making the ad, then it’s happy. It’s like the old quiz shows. They were great TV because it gave the audience a role, something to do. They were horrified when they discovered they’d really been left out all the time because the shows are rigged. This is a horrible misunderstanding of TV on the part of the programmers.

McLuhan nods.

McLUHAN
In the same way most advertisers do not understand the TV medium. Do you know that most people read ads about things they already own? They don’t read things to buy them but to feel reassured that they have already bought the right thing. In other words, they get huge information satisfaction from ads. Far more than they do from the product itself.

McLuhan smiles.

McLUHAN
Where advertising is heading is quite simply into a world where the ad will become a substitute for the product. And all the satisfaction will be derived informationally from the ad and the product will be a merely a number in some file somewhere. Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed, you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems and say, ‘I’m working now on the history of Egyptian arithmetic. I know a bit of Sanskrit, I am qualified in German and I am a good mathematician.’ They say, ‘It’ll be right over.’ And they at once Xerox with the help of computers from the libraries of the world all the latest material just for you personally. Not as something to be put out on the bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service.

McLuhan eyes Fulford.

McLUHAN
This is where we’re heading under electronic information conditions. Products are increasingly becoming services.
FULFORD
What kind of a world would you rather live in? Is there a period in the past or a possible community in the future you’d rather be in?
McLUHAN
No, no. I’d rather be in any period at all as long as people are going to leave it alone for a while. Just let go, just leave it.
FULFORD
But they’re not going to are they?

McLuhan laughs.

McLUHAN
No! So the only alternative is to understand everything that’s going on and then counter and neutralize it as much as possible. Turn off as many buttons as you can and frustrate them as much as you can.

McLuhan tightens.

McLUHAN
I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change. But I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose to just sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.

McLuhan recoils.

McLUHAN
Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against.

McLuhan grins.

McLUHAN
It seems the best way of opposing it is to understand it and then you know where to turn off the button.


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