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McLuhan + 40 years: Community efforts prove he was right

Brian McMahon
Photo courtesy of University UNITED
Brian McMahon, executive director of the University UNITED community coalition in St. Paul, is focusing on urban planning and redevelopment issues along University Avenue and the Central Corridor.


Last year over winter break, our two college-age children were catching up on news and gossip with their two younger siblings. All four were sprawled around the coffee table with open laptops exchanging music, articles, streaming videos and the like.

They were communicating through their computers, which have become a virtual extension of their bodies — a phenomenon predicted by media and technology guru Marshall McLuhan 40 years ago. “As much as the wheel is an extension of the foot, the computer is an extension of our nervous system, which exists by virtue of feedback or circuitry,” he said at the time. McLuhan also said that “electronic information systems are live environments in the full organic sense. They alter our feelings and sensibilities.”

As a communications major in the late ’60s, I was familiar with McLuhan, who coined the terms “global village” and “the medium is the message.” I saw the first presidential TV debate between Kennedy and Nixon and understood why those who saw the debate on the “cool medium” of TV gave Kennedy a considerable edge, compared with listeners of the “hot medium” of radio who gave Nixon the edge.

I experienced the awe and anxiety of Sputnik, an event that McLuhan said showed how technology figuratively and literally altered our natural environment. I saw how the nightly TV broadcasts of the Vietnam War changed the nation. Technology had brought about a new age — a transformation as significant, he said, as that brought about by Gutenberg’s printing press. Humans were changed in the way they think, learn and communicate.

McLuhan déjà vu
I hadn’t thought much about McLuhan since then, until a recent conversation with a young media artist, who described how activists were planning to cover the upcoming Republican convention by using citizen journalists to provide wall-to-wall video coverage that would be uploaded to the World Wide Web. It immediately brought back memories of the 1969 movie “Medium Cool,” inspired by McLuhan, in which a theatrical story line filmed with “cinema verite” technique was woven through live coverage of the chaotic Democratic National Party Convention in Chicago. This brilliant movie effectively blurred the line between fact and fiction and between Hollywood and documentary.

We are in the midst of a new media/ technology revolution that has “flattened” the world, as Tom Friedman regularly reports. I work in the field of community development along University Avenue and have come to recognize the importance of capitalizing on technological innovations.

A year ago, we created U-PLAN, a community-based planning and design studio in St. Paul that uses such state-of-the-art techniques as GIS mapping, Google maps, “mash-ups” and SketchUp architectural graphics. We recently created a citizen-based global research effort to learn about light rail using the technique of “crowd-sourcing.” Dozens of questions from our community on light rail are being sent out to tens of thousands of residents around the nation who live in cities with light rail. With the help of citizen sleuths from around the globe, we are “flattening” communications and lessening our dependence upon the filtered message of expert consultants.

If indeed the “medium is the message,” what are the best ways to deliver and receive “the message”?

I recently heard that during his early campaigns, Paul Wellstone made audio cassettes in the Hmong language that were circulated from household to household. For an immigrant community that was historically grounded in the oral tradition, this made sense.


New tech tools help spread our message
At U-PLAN, we are now preparing to introduce video-conferencing technology that would enable the small Asian businesses along University Avenue to communicate directly with their counterparts in Seattle, which is completing construction of a light rail line. Peer-to-peer communications may work better than lengthy consultant reports.

We also are looking into the possibility of recording public meetings and broadcasting them into a micro-network tailored to the diverse communities along University Avenue. We need to reach out to people who cannot find the time to attend public meetings, and we need to figure out a way to engage the community in the process. The medium will vary depending upon the audience.

I had never seen a YouTube video until a few months back when I asked my daughter to show me how it worked. We had an incredible few hours together on a musical tour of the late Sixties — me with my memories and my daughter with her new technology exploring a whole new/old world.

This is the “total field” way of learning and communicating that McLuhan anticipated. I am enjoying discovering how the new technologies enhance so many things in my life, even as I confess I probably didn’t understand or believe the predictions 40 years ago.

Brian McMahon is the Executive Director of University UNITED. He can be reached at (651) 647-6711 or Information about U-PLAN can be found at

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