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OnWords: On Marshall McLuhan

Few public intellectuals have influenced the way we talk about communication more than Marshall McLuhan.

Best known for the phrase “the medium is the message,” McLuhan is also responsible for popularizing the way that we refer to content as the substance of a message in contrast to its medium of delivery. That idea predated McLuhan, but he made it acceptable for English teachers to use it when critiquing a freshman composition and for “content creators” to exist in the Internet Age.

Likewise, McLuhan was writing about “disruptive technologies” fifty years before tech startups started using the term as a selling point for whatever new app they’ve unleashed upon the world. And while few now draw the connection, McLuhan’s notion of the medium being the message is at the heart of contemporary worries about how Facebook and Twitter are shaping our lives.

So why is it that McLuhan is largely forgotten?

He was a ubiquitous presence in the ‘60s and ‘70s—exploiting all media from television to paperback books. So he may be a victim of being the very content his ideas deflated. His ideas also described what the world was doing as he was describing it, and so we don’t see his work at work because we’re living it every day.

But maybe we forget McLuhan because he was a public intellectual, a social function all but inconceivable in the world he predicted, where carefully massaged media rule the day.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.