Anyone reading War and Peace in the Global Village by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore could be forgiven for not realising that it was written over fifty years ago in 1968. Perhaps the younger generation of now who are hyper switched-on to the world of technology having grown up with it since birth would not view this book as innovative. However, I wonder how many of them could predict what the world will be like fifty plus years from now, not many I would guess. In reality, bearing in mind just how little the world had advanced technologically in 1968 compared to today, McLuhan seems like an alien intelligence with superior knowledge (a bit like Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth). Even though one has to project back to the late 1960’s and imagine a world without personal computers, the internet, mobile phones and social media for example, the ideas in the book still seem fresh and readable today.
McLuhan’s main premise is that all social changes are caused by the introduction of new technologies. He goes deep into the psychology of what this may mean for humanity saying that technology has become a substitute for human activity and has in fact BECOME a human activity. A substantial amount of the book deals with this theory and sometimes McLuhan’s explanations are difficult to follow. However, this does not interfere with the general flow of the book where ideas, facts, opinions and intellectual arguments abound at a breath-taking rate. There are was some paragraphs that literally make you gasp, you realise that many of the things he says are so true but have never even occurred to you before. Truth was important to McLuhan, even his headstone has the words “The Truth Shall Make You Free” written on it.
The style of writing which does not adhere to a chronology or formal narrative is reinforced by the graphics designed by the co-author Quinten Fiore. He makes use of all manner of imagery making the aesthetic of the book akin to a photo-montage, sometimes surreal, sometimes pop-arty, sometimes cartoon but always relevant. There is a sense of a counterculture at play, this might not be too far from the case as Fiore also worked with such people as the social activist and co-founder of The Youth International Party (YIP) Jerry Rubin. And, McLuhan seems also to be interested in the youth of the day when he suggests that many of them are influenced by Oriental culture. He states “the turned-on effect which penetrated the television generation (fifteen years and younger) inspires them to read books like Siddhartha by Herman Hesse". Albeit this was Eastern culture distilled through the European mind of the German Hesse. McLuhan also references the ancient Chinese manuscript The I Ching, Book of Changes. His take on the I Ching illustrates that McLuhan’s thesis is not easy to follow. For example, he notes that in the philosophy of the I Ching “going and returning has no end”. He then equates this to the technological age saying that electric technology speeds up this process, claiming “instant and total rehearsal of all pasts and all processes enable us to perceive the function of purgation and purification, translating the entire world into a work of art”.
Early on in the book McLuhan declares his admiration for James Joyce and especially his book Finnigan’s Wake. It might seem obvious, therefore, that the bolded text which appears in the margins of almost every page and which are credited to FW should be quotes from this book. However, never having read Finnigan’s Wake, it took me till almost the end of the book (and on second reading) to figure this out. The words are akin to nonsense, for example, “since alls war that end war let sports be leisure and bring and buy fair”. And so it goes on, yet, strangely, these passages compliment the main body of the text, perhaps as an antidote to the relentless logic that McLuhan delivers therein.
McLuhan assails the reader with the sharp instrument that is his brain. He appears to have vast knowledge, if you read the book you are certain to learn things. In order to give credence to his main argument he tackles subjects such as fashion, education and cultural, scientific and political history. However, it is, in the main, always forward thinking and he often indicates a dislike of rear-window ideology, that is – looking backward instead of forward. This is a book that makes you think and go on thinking. It does direct your attention to the way people live in the present time and wonder what McLuhan would have made of it. It also begs the question of whether McLuhan (a lover of the truth) was predicting truthfully about the shape of things to come. The writer Douglas Coupland finishes his musings about McLuhan (on the book cover) by saying “Hey Marshall – guess what - you were right”!! This is probably true considering the way technology has become an integral part of everyday life. It has almost certainly become (as predicted by McLuhan) an extension of the human nervous system. You only need to look around for evidence of how actively technology and human beings increasingly interact with each other.