Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland

Back in 1995-1996, during my first year as a student at Uppsala University, while over at a friend's place doing calculus assignments conversation strayed away from the integrals to an ad in a newspapers beside us on the table. It was a full-page ad for the Swedish postal service. (Back then Sweden actually had a postal service, with offices; but that is another story). I can not remember what the ad actually said, just that it had some text, probably a logo, and (in the background) the page was full of ones and zeros. Binary.

Nerds as we were we started joking about if the code actually meant something, or if it was just filled in to make the whole thing look more cyber (as the ironic lingo went back then). Our guess was the latter one. In any case, just for fun we took a sequence of 8 bits at random and converted to base ten. It didn't make any sense so we shifted it one bit at time and repeated until we got a value that corresponded to an alphanumeric character in the ASCII table. (Yes, we knew the table more or less by heart, as I said, we were nerds, and proud.) Then, we checked the next byte. It did actually correspond to another letter. The whole thing was a text. It said, over, and over: the medium is the message the medium is the message the medium is the message…

This was how I experienced the legacy of Marshall McLuhan for the first time. It would be some years before I learned more about his work. After the wow-factor of the discovery wore off, and we found out that the message was due to some guy called McLuhan, we went back to our calculus.

Now Douglas Coupland has published a biography of McLuhan for Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series. I thought it was a must read when I saw it in my local book shop a couple of weeks ago so I picked it up and read it almost in one session. I currently live in the same city as Coupland, and could do with some more knowledge of other famous Canadians as well.

The book is set almost as a journey through Marshall's life, from early childhood to death. Coupland seeks to describe the phenomenon McLuhan though life events, biology, and family. The thesis is that Marshall McLuhan was exactly the right man at the right time to channel the ideas, understand them and formulate them. If there had been no McLuhan someone else would have presented the same ideas Coupland writes - but it may have taken many years more.

Without knowing anything about the real McLuhan, I get the impression that the biography strives to be honest and balanced. It presents McLuhan as a human being. Maybe wired in his own special way; but a person with both faults and virtues. The book strives to not only explain Marshall's genius and motivations but also his ideas, and in true Douglas Coupland fashion this is not only achieved trough what can be called the semantics, but also using form and syntax.

While Coupland deserves credit for the text, Penguin deserves similar praise for the design, typesetting, and form of the hardback edition I bought (yes, I know, hardback from Penguin…). It is simply beautiful, and very pleasant to handle and read. From the type up to form and paper.

On the negative side I feel the book might be somewhat too shallow, a bit too short. More could have been said about Marshall's work and theories for instance. On the other hand, that would have made the book much more dense, and probably not so easily accessible. There are probably much more complete works on Marshall McLuhan's teachings elsewhere, but not written in the same style.

All in all I think that Douglas Coupland make an excellent job of conveying both the character McLuhan, and the effects of his work. After reading the biography I am more convinced than ever that I should try to find some time to study the work of McLuhan, inaccessible as they may be.

Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland is an entertaining, interesting and easy to read biography of a great Canadian. I felt I learned something.


By the way. A short while after the ad-decoding, after another calculus assignment, the same friend borrowed me a book called Microserfs. I had never heard of the author, but I once I started, I read the book in one session.