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Inspiration from Media Philosopher Marshall McLuhan

“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

Marshall McLuhan

With ChatGPT, we’ve all been wondering what Marshall McLuhan would say about this new technology. McLuhan, the forefather of the study of how media shapes society, famously said, “The medium is the message.” We’ve asked ChatGPT to speak in his voice, but whatever the chatbot produces isn’t quite as pithy and doesn’t capture this moment in time like McLuhan was able to do in six words.

As we think about the implications of new forms of communications with social networks and their impact on culture, McLuhan defined the mass media age of television. He also predicted the revolution that followed and even described the internet and what it would become thirty years before it existed! He also coined the phrase ‘the global village’ and warned of an ‘age of anxiety’ and the loss of privacy in the age of electronic media. Sound familiar? 

Marshal McLuhan

In a 1977 CBS Monday Conference, the host Robert Moore introduced the mass media visionary and his era-defining tagline brilliantly:

Like most of Marshall McLuhan statements, it’s pithy. Apparently simple. And provocative to the point of being outrageous.

Another of his propositions is that some media are cool, and some are hot.

Marshall McLuhan studies the media as a way of understanding what it is that makes us live in the way we do, as a way of understanding society itself. He’s concerned with all media, but he’s best known for his work on the electronic media, particularly radio and television. He sees them as the extension of our central nervous system, and argues that they’re leading to an electrical re-tribalization of the west.

McLuhan once said, “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” This couldn’t be more true, especially when it comes to the platforms we use to express ourselves, and all of the new A.I. ones that are becoming available. Take Instagram as an example. Before the Stories format, creators likely didn’t think in vertical 8-second snippets that can be tapped through. But now that it’s an enormously popular format, a whole generation of creators are thinking and creating for Stories; therefore, Instagram is shaping their thinking and output. 2023 is going to be the year of prompts and we’re all going to be thinking in what questions to ask ChatGPT (or one of its competitors in this A.I. race).  

McLuhan’s words are still thought-provoking as we reflect on the screens and media that are pervasive in our lives. Watch the full CBS special here for some great food for thought from the Canadian media philosopher and professor.