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In an Appliance Store, 1960

[quote]We are today as far into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographic and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of experience.[/quote]

Marshall McLuhan wrote that on the first page of his first great book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, printed in 1962. I quote these words in The Information because today, a half-century later, he seems to have been talking about our era, not his own. We are intensely self-conscious about the information age and feel ourselves to be experiencing confusions and indecisions.

But for McLuhan it was the electric age, which meant, mainly, TV. That comes into delightful focus in an eight-minute snippet of video that can be seen in the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an interview with McLuhan titled The Global Village.

It is 1960. We begin in an “appliance store.” The appliances appear to be mainly television sets and radios, but I can’t take my eyes off of the great black rotary-dial telephone, the size of a fire extinguisher, hanging prominently on the wall. The trappings of this segment are more fascinating than the interview itself. Our host, Alan Millar, a handsome, professorial announcer with a sonorous baritone, begins:

Well, there they are. Our new electronic media, or our new gadgets. You push a button—and the world’s yours.

For emphasis he thumbs an imaginary button. (Even though the button is invisible, it strikes me as very large.)

We are living in a “global village,” Alan tells us. The symbol of our new era is the appliance store. (Can you see why I’m loving this?)

What is the symbol of the era now past? “We used to have just one medium,” intones Alan, “or one gadget, if you like.” Cut to: a bookstore.

From behind a crowded shelf a new announcer appears, John O’Leary, to declare in an even deeper, equally soothing baritone: “In the appliance store you’re very much the electronic man. Here, you go back to being the Renaissance man—literary man.” He turns away, selects something and holds it up for the camera.

This is, he explains, “a book.”

It’s all we used to have. There were no film projectors, no TV sets or radios. We got all our information from this…. We lived, loved, and died, as the saying goes, by the book.

Reading, he assures us (channeling McLuhan, who is still waiting in the wings) is a private, solitary, and linear experience. The age of the book is over, whether or not “literary man” is ready to accept that.

McLuhan was then a relatively obscure professor at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. The medium of television now began to publicize his ideas, but it was only in books that he would be able to form them and express them fully: The Gutenberg Galaxy, two years away, and Understanding Media soon after that. This early interview is well worth watching. McLuhan displays, as so often, an uncanny prescience. “The world,” he says,

is now like a continually sounding tribal drum, where everybody gets the message all the time. A princess gets married in England and boom, boom, boom go the drums: we all hear about it. An earthquake in north Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk—away go the drums again.

The princess? The young queen’s sister, Margaret Windsor, wed to Antony Armstrong-Jones on May 6, before an unprecedented television audience of 20 million. The earthquake in Agadir, Morocco, in February, killed 15,000 people. Which drunken Hollywood star was making news in the spring of 1960? I have no idea.

 

[Thanks to Maria Popova for the pointer. For the exhilarating last word on McLuhan, you can do no better than Douglas Coupland‘s new biography, You Know Nothing of My Work. It is a book.]

4 Comments

  1. Rebecca Reynolds says

    Thanks for this post! I loved this video too, for many of the same reasons: all the quirkiness (and scale) of gadget, all the prescience of message, and for the view into what must have been a “hi-tech” production then and looks so quaint now (O’Leary’s departure into the “vulgar” “rough and tumble of life” is especially fun). Not to mention the opportunity to see and hear the great (2011 marks his centenary) McLuhan in his early days, as he describes an analogue phenomenon (adolescent vs. teenager) to today’s “digital native vs. digital immigrant.” For all his brilliance, his cynicism and certainty also seem anachronistic, and I wonder if he heard his own bias? After all, hasn’t the grand tension always been the “individual” and the “collective,” or as he calls it “tribal man?” And we intone the benefits and detractions of each as we swing in one direction and then back the other. The global village he bemoans may be more like where we all came from before the book, just on a grander scale. And there is plenty of good in that.

  2. Mitzi G Burger says

    Fascinating. I’ve just been reading about James Joyce’s interest in early prototypes of television (as a TV features in Book 2, chapter 3 of Finnegans Wake.)

  3. Pingback: In an Appliance Store, 1960 – by James Gleick « McLuhan Galaxy

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