Marshall McLuhan was such a slyboots. He kills me. He continues to be known, of course, as the enthusiastic prophet of the coming electronic utopia, the guy who slathered intellectual grease on progress’s rails. The skeptical, sometimes dystopian, subtext of his work went largely unnoticed when he was alive, and it’s even more submerged today.
This weekend I was reading through Understanding Me, a collection of interviews with McLuhan, and I came upon this telling passage from a 1966 TV interview with the journalist Robert Fulford:
Fulford: What kind of world would you rather live in? Is there a period in the past or a possible period in the future you’d rather be in?
McLuhan: No, I’d rather be in any period at all as long as people are going to leave it alone for a while.
Fulford: But they’re not going to, are they?
McLuhan: No, and so the only alternative is to understand everything that’s going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can. I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.