News & Views from 465 California Street

Marshall McLuhan

Clint Reilly
Oct
2
2007

Just about any consumer, traveler, artist, museum curator, entrepreneur, executive, pro athlete, sports fan, politician or religious leader understands globalization. Globalization is the mass marketing of business, sports, culture, fashion and values through the “universalization” of media. In fifty short years since 1960, the spread of mass media has shrunk the planet. All of this was predicted by Marshall McLuhan in his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” published in 1964.

McLuhan observed that electronic media’s ability to transport events, leaders, political and religious ideas, celebrities, and entertainment or consumer products – even wars – into our living rooms via television would transform the world.

I first read the book “Understanding Media” as a college student at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park. I was studying to be a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Oakland. It was remarkable that an institution with a reputation for teaching only classical philosophy would expose us to a cutting edge communication theorist such as McLuhan. I had come to St. Patrick’s from a six year stint at St. Joseph’s minor seminary in Mountain View where we were prohibited from reading the newspaper – except for the sports pages. Books needed to be approved before we could read them. Television was strictly censored. By the time I had reached my final year of college at St. Patrick’s eight years later, the Second Vatican Council had opened up the windows of the Catholic Church and the seminary as well. Our philosophy professor, Reverend Ronald C. Cholchol, was a brilliant teacher who assigned “Understanding Media” as part of our curriculum. At that time McLuhan was attaining international cult status as the twentieth century’s leading media guru. I have often reflected on the irony of being introduced to the concept of media globalization by a seminary education program that until a few years before had intentionally cut off seminarians from the influences of all mass media including most books, newspapers, television and movies. I left the seminary during my first year of postgraduate studies in theology and did not become a priest but I kept my copy of “Understanding Media.”

Fate has a way of converting one experience into unintended preparation for an entirely different purpose. Instead of becoming a priest, I became a political consultant in my early twenties. My career as a political media consultant was heavily influenced by my early introduction to Marshall McLuhan who predicted correctly that television would transform politics and government. In “Understanding Media”, his analysis of the Kennedy-Nixon debates resonated with politicians around the world for the remainder of the century. Criticizing the debate analysis of Theodore H. White in the book, “The Making of the President 1960”, McLuhan wrote: “White considers the content of the debate and the deportment of the debaters but it never occurs to him why TV would be a disaster for a sharp intense image like Nixon’s and a boon for … Kennedy.” McLuhan explained that television images diminished the importance of content. But prophesying that television would change the nature of political campaigns and the nature of leadership itself was only a part of McLuhan’s total vision.

McLuhan predicted that news, advertising and entertainment content would democratize the world marketplace. He coined the phrase “the global village.” The global village is now part of the international vernacular: teenagers in Moscow and Tokyo looking more American than teens in Hollywood. A mobbed McDonald’s at Tiananmen Square. Air Jordan. Pope John Paul II ’s SRO funeral. The Iraq War live on TV. Pitt and Jolie. Harry Potter. China’s Rise. The Muslim backlash against Western Materialism. The Fall of the Iron Curtain. Starbucks. Osama Bin Laden. Global Warming.

With the explosion of the Internet, it has only been a short trip from McLuhan’s global village to today’s wired world.

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