Marshall McLuhan: Reflecting on the Present

“We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

The centennial of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, July 21, 1911, invites us to reflect on our present using the mirrors he developed during a prolific career, the fruits of which extended far beyond the University of Toronto and Canada’s borders. A philosopher, he established the Centre for Culture and Technology at U of T, working from the legendary Coach House where he held Monday night seminars.

Though McLuhan wrote extensively about a range of topics and accurately anticipated technologies like the World Wide Web, he remains best known for a handful of sound-bites and aphorisms –“the global village,” “the medium is the message,” and so on. In a recent biography, Douglas Coupland suggested that those phrases became clichés and, subsequently, McLuhan’s “brand.”

Almost fifty years after the publication of his seminal work, “Understanding Media,” social networking technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, confirm McLuhan’s vision of “technology as an extension of the nervous system.”

In 1979, McLuhan, nearing the end of his life, delivered his last taped lecture, entitled “Man and Media” at York University. He had been exploring the notion that electronic media represented extensions of the human body and psyche. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” he once observed.

“Man’s technology,” McLuhan continued, “is the most human thing about him.” But he went on to explain, however, that we are ill-equipped to cope with its destructive consequences. To help us think about the effects of new technology on humankind and society, he developed the “Laws of Media” (later published posthumously in 1988 by his son Eric), which summarized his idea that media could be represented in the form of a tetrad.

McLuhan argued that pattern recognition represented a means of survival as we move through with each new generation of disruptive technology. The Laws would help us understand the effects of any technology, new or old.

McLuhan’s tetrad framework pivoted on four key questions:

  • What does technology amplify, enhance, or enlarge?
  • What does it make obsolete?
  • What does it retrieve or bring back from the distant past? (including things that were scrapped earlier).
  • What does it flip or suddenly reverse into when pushed to its limits?

His own examples included cameras, zippers and clocks. But the Laws can be readily applied to contemporary technologies.


  • Enhances: productivity and amplifies multi-tasking
  • Obsolesce: renders dumb phones and desktop computing obsolesce
  • Retrieves: mobile phone, PDA, desktop
  • Reverses: when pushed to the limit, smart phones bring distraction and obsessive usage behaviour


  • Enhance: instant messaging of large groups
  • Obsolesce: emailing or multiple text messages
  • Retrieves: smoke signal, telegraph, radio, speeches
  • Reverses: information clutter & noise

Tablet Computing:

  • Enhance: simplified human interaction
  • Obsolesce: notebook
  • Retrieves: chalkboard or stone tablet
  • Reverses: productivity destruction

McLuhan challenged the way we think of media, communication, advertising and technology in general. At the end of his lecture, he explained:

“I am not offering any solutions. I think that once you know where the structure of the problem is, it may be possible to hit upon the solutions. But, it certainly is very difficult to find solutions without awareness of where the problem is.”

For a more in-depth read and understanding of McLuhan I recommend the following two books:

Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews
By Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan
Biography by Douglas Coupland

By Ian Chalmers

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