Marshall McLuhan died 20 years ago this coming December, but at the TEDCity conference in Toronto yesterday it was as if he had never left us. His ideas and attitudes and patterns of thought danced invisibly in the air over the audience at the St. Lawrence Centre.
It seemed altogether fitting that a Canadian version of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), the most influential gathering of its kind anywhere, should finally have come to roost for four days in McLuhan's Toronto, the city he loved, hated, and helped to make famous.
Everyone is a futurist now, but McLuhan in the 1960s was the Abraham of futurists, the one from whom all others (including most TEDCity speakers) have directly descended. The founder of mass-media studies and the poet of media speculation, he created the language everyone uses to discuss technological change. In his famous phrase "global village" and many other utterances, he anticipated the worldwide information society that finally started to appear when CNN went on the air in 1980, the year McLuhan died.
His central idea was that the means of communications change the message that is communicated ("the medium is the message"), and that this in turn profoundly changes the public that receives the messages. This idea, a bit flaky when he began passing it around in the 1950s, is now so imbedded in the culture of institutions like TEDCity that it would be unthinkable for anyone to question it. It's not that anyone would be criticized for opposing the McLuhanistic view. It's just that it would never occur to anyone to do so.
As if to recognize his spirit in the hall, two of the first three conference speakers mentioned McLuhan's name -- poet Christopher Dewdney and Concordia University theorist Arthur Kroker. Dewdney plans to devote much of his next book to a reworking of the ideas McLuhan put forth in Understanding Media.
When Dewdney says (as he did yesterday) that "language is still the most fantastic technology we have," he was speaking pure McLuhan; until McLuhan, with his gift for analogies and metaphors, no one thought of seeing language as technology. McLuhan also taught us to see the alphabet as technology. At the TED conference in Monterey last February, someone said (probably not even knowing of his debt to McLuhan) that the first great human technological innovation was standing up on two feet.
Kroker wrote at length about McLuhan in his 1984 book Technology and the Canadian Mind. Yesterday, he reprised that book's tribute, including his view of McLuhan as a symbol of Canada's peculiarly close and understanding relationship with technology.
To Kroker, McLuhan was a technological Utopian, which made him a rarity in his time. But at TEDCity nearly everyone is a technological Utopian, filled with a giddy sense that new means of communications are taking us steadily toward higher levels of civilization; while also, of course, making a lot of money for the people who preach their virtues.
The one afternoon speaker who didn't mention McLuhan was Don Tapscott, a management consultant -- and he's the one whose business would have most interested McLuhan. In fact, he's the partner McLuhan desired all his life, a man who understands both ideas and balance sheets.
TEDCity is a project that McLuhan would have gloried in: It generates profit with nothing but the development and distribution of precisely the sort of intellectual and imaginative probes that McLuhan tossed off all day long. But McLuhan was born at least a generation too soon to be that sort of success. He often explained that ideas are the only capital that really matters, but not enough business executives believed him. Today, if he entered TEDCity, he would be treated like the founding priest of a religion.
Most of the time, TEDCity honours McLuhan in quiet and subtle ways -- an inflected idea here, a phrase there. But there's one place in the digitalized world where his status is permanently and directly acknowledged. Wired magazine, which was born at a TED conference in the 1990s when some eager young editors met some willing investors, remains a favourite journal of the people who go to TED. Every issue of that magazine carries, in a prominent place among the editors on the masthead, the same line: "Patron Saint: Marshall McLuhan."