Ever since my pal Peter Hirshberg got me hooked on Marshall McLuhan about five years ago, I've enjoyed learning as much as I can about the man who predicted the social, silly, indispensible Internet and the mechanisms, such as search, that would enable it. What's most remarkable about McLuhan is that he made his predictions beginning in the 1950s and never lived to see the fullest manifestation of what he predicted.
He was the first to talk about a coming "global village," coined the phrase "the medium is the message" and was among the first to be concerned that context would soon become more important than content itself. He foresaw the coming echo chamber and what that might mean for independent thought, the exchange of ideas and the ability to evolve one's own thinking as a result of such exchanges.
A new biography, "Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!" by Douglas Coupland, is a wonderful read about a man who predicted the world we live in today from the middle of the last century. From his deep thinking about advertising, the rise of television and society's increasing embrace of mass media, he was able to envision, almost exactly, the exhilarating and often bedeviling culture of mass communication and precisely targeted advertising that increasingly drives our daily activities.
In last week's New York Times Book Reviewarticle on the book, David Carr pulled a quote of McLuhan's that he couldn't have known would be particularly prescient given the tragedy that unfolded in Arizona over the weekend: "'When people get close together, they get more and more savage, impatient with each other,' McLuhan said. 'The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.'"
Though the gunman who critically injured a Congresswoman and killed a total of a half-dozen people on Saturday seemed to have acted on his own crazed impulses -- the only one of his online ramblings that indicated a particular political persuasion was the desire to return to the gold standard for the U.S. dollar -- the national soul-searching that followed the incident seems to validate what McLuhan predicted.
And as prominent political figures scrambled to scrub their Web sites of the rhetorical and graphical flourishes that could be construed as an endorsement of the hunting down and killing of political opponents over the weekend, search advertisers who bid on terms relating to gold, the gold standard, and those advocating for a return to it no doubt similarly scrambled to ensure their ads weren't anywhere near this awful news story.
Carr points out in his review that the wildly profitable world the Internet has enabled has its sad consequences: "...what happens now that everyone is a broadcaster? Ubiquitous, cheap technology (digital cameras) and a friction-free route to an audience (YouTube) means that people might broadcast images of their closeted gay roommate having sex, and that the unwitting star of their little network might subsequently, tragically, jump off a bridge."
But I digress. My point, truly, is that a study of the man who predicted the world in which we now toil is both instructive and illuminating. Such a study can serve as powerful guidance as you consider the audiences you're trying to reach, as well as the means and methods for doing so. This most recent biographical sketch is a good place to start.