The world according to Marshall McLuhan
The Globe and Mail's Mark Medley speaks with biographer Douglas Coupland on why the culture and communications guru's theories continue to resonate in 2017 – perhaps more than ever
In his 2010 biography of Marshall McLuhan, the visual artist and writer Douglas Coupland describes reading the work of the much celebrated (and much misunderstood) culture and communications guru as the equivalent of "visiting Antarctica. You have to have time, patience, endurance, means and stubbornness to do so, and once you're there, you're unsure of just what it is you will find."
It depends on when you visit, too. It's been a scant seven years since Mr. Coupland published his slim book, an idiosyncratic blend of biography, philosophy, fiction and cultural criticism, but the Edmonton-born Mr. McLuhan – whose output includes seminal texts like 1962's The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1964's Understanding Media and 1967's The Medium is the Massage (a play on his most-famous proclamation that "The medium is the message") – is, arguably, more prophetic than ever.
"He's one of those people that, with hindsight, becomes ever more relevant and ever more vital," says Mr. Coupland, whose books, from the novels Microserfs, jPod and Player One to Kitten Clone, his 2014 non-fiction study of global telecommunications firm Alcatel-Lucent, has sometimes been positioned as spiritually descended from Mr. McLuhan's work. "I would think if you didn't read that biography in 2010 when it came out, well, now it's 2017 – you really, really might consider reading it. Because since then it's just gotten more and more accurate. It's not a result of my writing. It's a result of how the world played out according to his theories."
The splintering of traditional media, the hostility of contemporary politics, the ways in which modern technology pulls us together while at the same time driving us apart – if you look, you'll find traces of it in McLuhan's work, which explored subjects ranging from pop culture to mass media to the ways in which technology would affect our ways of communication, decades before cellphones or the Internet. He was an avatar of the future, ironic considering his own, pessimistic view of things: "I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what's happening," he once said. "Many people seem to think if you talk about something recent, you're in favour of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly something I'm resolutely against."
Coupland's biography has been adapted into a short documentary, which airs on Friday as part of CBC's Extraordinary Canadians series. The Globe's Mark Medley spoke to Mr. Coupland on Tuesday under rather McLuhan-esque circumstances: The reporter was taking a break from watching the U.S. Senate health care debate on Twitter, while Mr. Coupland was driving around his hometown of Vancouver trying to find a spot with decent cellphone reception. After a couple of dropped calls, they were finally connected and proceeded to discuss topics ranging from fake news to why democracy might just be broken.
This documentary is coming out at pretty much the perfect time, considering what's going on in the world.
Well, I think it's always an interesting time in the world. I think what we're seeing now is all of the society-changing and brain-changing effects of new technologies. Events seem to be happening much more quickly than they ever did, and everyone now is hyper-aware of the rate of change of the rate of change. And we know there's no off switch. Everyone seems to be freaked out or worried. I think another thing that's happened is that the way we perceive the passage of time has made a radical, and probably irreversible, shift. It's not so much about organic, lived experience as it is the amount that you've consumed. We've triggered something in our reptile brain where you think of time's passage as the amount of data that you've consumed. If you don't believe that, then go without your cellphone for a week and let's talk.
If you were working on Marshall McLuhan's biography today, how do you think your approach would change?
I would focus on his prescience. In so many ways, he was very, very aware, on a metaphorical and conceptual level, what the Internet is, but he just didn't know the interface. It's taken 25 years for the interfaces to evolve, so now you look at certain things he talks about and go, "Oh, he's talking about PayPal" or "He's talking about pornography." And I think in the time since I wrote the book – and I started writing the book almost nine years ago – the world has changed in as much as it continues to fulfill a lot of, I wouldn't say prophecies, but a lot of his thinking on what it was that was going to replace television. I've got to say, writing that book opened so many doors for me, and really, really expanded my brain my in a way that still continues to surprise me.
It really broadened my world, which is, in the end, why do I projects like this. You develop new skill sets, meet new people. It does keep the world interesting.
I went back and re-read your book in advance of this interview, and I read it in a different way than I did in 2010, especially because of what's happened in the United States. And there was this one line from McLuhan that seemed especially relevant: "The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be so much more powerful than he will ever be."
Do you consider McLuhan to be a political writer?
No. He was conservative, socially, but he never let politics enter his writing or his teaching. He was superreligious. He looked at pollution and hippies and everything else and just saw the end of the world coming, one way or another. Sometimes people get mad at him for his lack of social engagement on that level. But forget his personal life or all that stuff – what did he write? He wrote what you just said, about the abdication of actual leadership in favour of the image, because the image is going to win in the end. Your question – "How would I write [the book] differently?" I'd really, really focus on that.
It's cliché at this point, but if McLuhan is known for anything it's "The medium is the message." But I wondered what happens when the message doesn't matter, or, as we're seeing now, what happens when people don't care if the message is a lie?
The one thing that we're learning with news sources is that people – it's something that's really kicked in the last five years – that once you find out what it is you believe in, you do end up in your own echo chamber, reflecting whatever that set of beliefs is. So there's a lot of fake news out there, but the only people who are listening to it are the people who like fake news. And here you have the Democrats in such disarray that The New York Times has become the de facto opposition of the U.S. government. And personally, boy, those Democrats … They're as much into chaos and disarray as the right is. We'll get back to Marshall in a second, but I do think that's the biggest political challenge right now – making the left less suicidal. Okay, back to Marshall.
Well, speaking of people stuck in echo chambers, it's true – I come up against this all the time on something like my own personal Facebook page. Last year, during the U.S. election, the posts being promoted on my feed were inevitably liberal-leaning articles. The mediums we use today are providing messages they think we want to hear. That seems super unhealthy for a democracy.
It's the complete vanishing of the centre. Was this predictable? Was this foreseeable? I would actually like to go back into [The] Gutenberg [Galaxy] and Understanding Media and try and find something that predicts it. Not retroactively, but something that actually nails the hyperpartisanship of modern society, and the dissolving of democracy, and the dissolution of it. The dismantling. Culturally, we've always assumed that individual freedom can only happen inside a democracy. And now the big change I'm seeing seems to be – look at Turkey, where they voted against voting. And you've got the States, where you have a lot of people on the alt-right saying democracy is not a prerequisite for freedom. In fact it might even be anti-freedom, in a lot of ways. And so, what would have been heretical even a decade ago is now entering the realm of common wisdom, and I find that very, very spooky. These are people who are not providing something better than democracy. They just want to dismantle it. There's a lot of dismantling going on, and it's happening very, very quickly. It is accelerating. And this time next year who knows what's going to be the big thing that's happening. So many people I know right now want to go in a coma for five years and come out and see how this whole thing all plays out.
McLuhan is also known for the idea of "the global village." At one point he wrote, "When people get close to each other, they get more and more savage, impatient with each other … the global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and abrasive situations." You see that first-hand on Twitter and Facebook, where it sometimes seems civil discourse is impossible. We've been brought together, yet we've further apart.
Friction has become abrasion which has become violence, almost. We have to accept the possibility that this could well be the permanent new normal. One of the interesting things about society is that anyone who might be a good politician is smart enough to say, "Oh God, why would I enter that snake pit?" You get photographed puking in a snowbank in college – are you going to go into politics with that thing surfacing in the media? Who needs it? Politics, the way it's developed, and what's happened now, it really does make me wonder is democracy actually broken? Do we have to find a substitute for democracy? One thing I will say is that after the Brexit and Turkish elections and the Trump election is that I think, if nothing else, democracy really does need morning-after pills. We have to come up with some new system where you have a primary vote, and then everyone goes, "Holy shit!" and then you have the actual vote.
Like a mulligan.
Like, with Brexit, I was in Germany when that happened and all these young Germans were just – they'd grown up with the Schengen Agreement and cultural porosity, and they could see that vanishing. We'll never know, but imagine if they'd had another Brexit vote one week later. Would it have been the exact same results? We have to make things just a bit more malleable so that we don't end up with these ridiculous decisions. Morning-after pills, that's what we all need. Political morning-after pills.
In his introduction to the documentary, John Ralston Saul describes you as "the contemporary expression of McLuhanism." How do you feel about that comparison?
John talked to me about this [book] starting back in 2005, in Melbourne, Australia – we happened to be at the same event. And I kept on saying, "No, no, I don't want to do it." Finally, I crumbled and did do it. The thing is, I didn't know anything about McLuhan before this. Almost nothing. Well, his clichés. So I went into it with no preconceptions. The only preconception would be John's thinking that I'm somehow the embodiment of his work. I'm going to take it as a compliment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.