This Week in History


Marshall McLuhan – A Media Guru

For the week of Monday December 28, 2009

On December 31, 1980, Marshall McLuhan died one year after suffering a stroke that left him unable to speak. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, on July 21, 1911, McLuhan became renowned for his contribution to the study of communications. Although his work was considered controversial for its time, it continues to be relevant in today’s “wired” society.

Marshall McLuhan
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-172791

Even before the introduction of the Internet, McLuhan predicted its role in connecting people from all around the world and making information easily accessible with the click of a mouse. For example, in the early 1960s, McLuhan predicted that computers would eventually replace libraries as research tools – approximately 30 years before the Internet even existed! 

In his first work, The Mechanical Bride (1951), McLuhan examined the effects of advertising techniques on modern consumers. McLuhan’s next work, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), an analysis of how the invention of the printing press altered society, won him the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. However, it was Understanding Media (1964) that launched McLuhan into the centre of pop culture and fame. In this groundbreaking work, McLuhan argued that technologies such as television, newspaper or radio, which are used to convey a message to an audience, had more influence on the audience than the messages themselves – popularizing the phrase, “the medium is the message.” In addition to his controversial ideas, McLuhan’s writing style was also highly criticized: he used rhetorical questions and one-liners to make his readers think critically about his theories, and disregarded the standard chronological organization of thoughts and ideas.


Marshall McLuhan as a student at the University of Cambridge in England
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-172790

The Centre for Culture and Technology was the site of McLuhan’s widely popular ‘Monday Night Seminars,’ which he conducted to discuss thoughts and controversial ideas related to media, technology and culture. The Monday Night Seminars gave his students the opportunity to explore and challenge new theories in a casual and open atmosphere – the kind of learning atmosphere McLuhan idealized.


At the height of his popularity in the 1960s, McLuhan showed great foresight into today’s technologically oriented culture, popularizing such phrases as: “the global village,” “the Age of Information” and “the medium is the message” even before the meaning of these phrases was fully realized. McLuhan’s popularity eventually waned in the 1970s. However, after the introduction of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, McLuhan’s ideas and theories became relevant and interest in his work was renewed.

Marshall McLuhan was designated as a National Historic Person in 2006.

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