Tuesday, 26 July 2011

¶ It is pretty clear by now that Marshall McLuhan was a premature genius. He had a great insight, but it hit him about 25 years too soon. A professor of Renaissance rhetoric who was preoccupied, long before television blighted the airwaves, with “the influence of all kinds of communications media on individual consciousness,” McLuhan was a geeky space cadet ante lettera. The quote there comes from Douglas Coupland’s recent book on McLuhan, the subtitle of which is the battle cry of premature geniuses: You Don’t Understand My Work! And how can they? The premature genius doesn’t understand it, either. No matter how bright the name of McLuhan shines in intellectual history, his life was not an intellectually happy one.

McLuhan looked at television and somehow sensed the Internet. Crazy! (Bear in mind, though, that the technological material of the  early Internet — telephone lines, cathode-ray tubes — was already lying around, and already being forged into something by DARPA.) But by the time he died, in 1980, he had been crippled by nearly ten years of small strokes, and his utterings went beyond cryptic, and the notion of “interactive television” was right up there with pet rocks: What were we thinking? It didn’t help that his various futuristic business ventures went nowhere. It seems that he could sense the future so well because he was so firmly rooted in the past — professor, Catholic convert, would-be patriarch. True to the story of Moses, he was denied entry into the new world that he foresaw. Well, he’d have hated it. Facebook or Google+? It’s fun to imagine the fulminations. Ian Austen brings us up to date on centennial celebrations in Canada. Maybe the rule that a good idea ahead of time is no better than a bad idea with no future has an exception or two.