It is a rare occurrence when an academic reaches widespread fame beyond their specialties, such as in the case of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, or Joseph Campbell. It is almost unheard of for such a figure to be essentially prophetic when it comes to cultural and market shifts in society.
That individual would be Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual. In the 60s, he held the same public prominence as such pop intellectuals as Andy Warhol and Timothy Leary. McLuhan was honored yearly by hippies with a festival in San Francisco, regularly appeared on television talk shows, advised John Lennon, and later in the 70s made a cameo in the film Annie Hall.
All of this attention to McLuhan, who was basically a dry scholar, was due to his pioneering ideas. One such idea was the prediction of the internet—something only touched upon in science fiction by authors like William Gibson.
By understanding McLuhan’s ideas—these days somewhat overlooked like his past fame—one can certainly gain insights on today’s seemingly frenetic media landscape and market research.
But Did He Really Predict the Internet?
“We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
― Marshall McLuhan
It is rarely disputed by scholars or biographers that McLuhan foretold the internet. 30 years before the World Wide Web came into the scene, in 1968, McLhuhan wrote in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy:
The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
McLuhan used the term “surfing” for traveling across this new medium, and is the originator of the term “Global Village.” To him, though, the new medium would be more like the Wild West and less like a Golden Age. As he wrote:
When people get close together, they get more and more savage, impatient with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.
One does not have to go far to see his oracular words come true in the caustic neighborhoods of the internet: anonymous comment sections, social media bullying, Laissez-faire male sexuality on Reddit, and downright societal revolution of hackers on 4Chan.
McLuhan made other contributions to advertising, marketing, and media theory, but it was his ability to see patterns in societal evolution that impressed so many. As biographer Douglas Coupland explained in a New York Times article:
One must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or I.B.M., but rather by studying arcane 16th-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.
The article further states that McLuhan “came up with a theory of media generation and consumption so plastic and fungible that it describes the current age without breaking a sweat.”
In addition, McLuhan deeply studied and warned of the darker effects of mass media on the mind long before any therapist or sociologist. In the end, though, McLuhan is probably best known for his timeless adage:
The medium is the message.
What Does That Mean?
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
― Marshall McLuhan
“The medium is the message” may same sound strange in a world where content is king and big data is savior. Yet it does make sense, especially when McLuhan explained that a characteristic of a medium is it being an extension of a culture. Consequently, how a civilization embraces and reacts to a medium is just as relevant as the information it expresses. To McLuhan, “the medium is the message” primarily meant that not only should the content and data be studied, but the very medium that hosts is as well. As an example, McLuhan would contend that an ancient oral society would be more honest and honorable than a writing society, simply because of the more necessary honesty that is face-to-face communication.
To McLuhan, “the medium is the message” primarily meant that not only should the content and data be studied, but the very medium that hosts is as well as it rewires the very brainwaves of humans. As an example, McLuhan would contend that an ancient oral society would be more honorable in many ways than a writing society, simply because of the more honesty necessary for face-to-face communication.
Wikipedia further states on “the medium is the message”:
For McLuhan, it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action”. Taking the movie as an example, he argued that the way this medium played with conceptions of speed and time transformed “the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure.” Therefore the message of the movie medium is this transition from “lineal connections” to “configurations”.
Likewise, the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less about the individual news story itself — the content — and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crimes are in effect being brought into the home to watch over dinner.
How is This Relevant to Market Research?
“We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.”
― Marshall McLuhan
Today, it has become essential for any marketing to navigate various online mediums (often at once), in order to understand both shifting consumer sentiments and even brands themselves. Many marketers and researchers feel that we are entering a fruitful yet intricate era of qualitative research. Companies like Google and Microsoft, who combine predictive analytics and big data, certainly advocate prognosticating future consumer patterns as much as present behavior within online mediums.
Here is an example of “the medium is the message,” from our own primary research. In Mobile Vs. Online White Paper, we found that respondents using mobile technology were far more enthusiastic and engaged in surveys than those using personal computers. The quality of data was superior overall. Basically, the medium was the message, and that message was that respondents were more open and content within the medium of mobile technology.
There are other examples, but the main point is that not only is the psychology of consumers more important than ever, but how it changes like a chameleon in different online ecosystems.
The Global Village may not be the utopia researchers and idealists expected, far from it, but McLuhan would be very eager to engage this Wild West (he left the mass media called life in 1980). That is until he predicted the next great media arrival, which most experts wouldn’t even know was here.
Then again, McLuhan did once comment: “I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say.”