Marshall McLuhan's Four Innovation Fundamentals

Marshall McLuhan, the outlandish visionary of 60s and 70s who predicted the World Wide Web, created a blueprint for innovation in the digital age. 

In the whimsical movie line scene in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, Allen's character Alvy Singer is stuck in front of a pontificating media studies professor who is loudly dissing the work of everyone from Fellini to Samuel Beckett. Yet when this "thirtyish academic" turns his scorn to Marshall McLuhan, Allen's neurotic character has finally had enough. Allen steps out of line, adresses the camera directly, and then summons the real Marshall McLuhan for a brief cameo. 


"I heard what you were saying," McLuhan says. "You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course on anything is totally amazing." (If you are as confused as everyone else by the strange and seemingly mispoken line "my whole fallacy is wrong," read all about it here). 

As it turns out, McLuhan, who predicted innovations such as the World Wide Web, gets the last laugh. 

What the Annie Hall scene reveals, among other things, is that by the 1970s, McLuhan had become a household name in a society obsessed with television and the way it was transforming civilization. The scene also reflects the fact that while some of McLuhan's concepts - the medium is the message, the global village and hot versus cool media - had entered mainstream discourse, McLuhan was also widely viewed as maverick, if not a crackpot, for many of his controversial pronouncements about innovation - pronouncements which in many cases seem commonplace today. 

"Marshall McLuhan. . .continually risks sounding like the body-fluids man in "Doctor Strangelove," wrote Leslie Fiedler in Partisan Review.

It didn't help that McLuhan's books were filled with jargon and were poorly edited (if edited at all). Jeff DeGraff, an expert on innovation and a McLuhan admirer, admits he finds the books quite unreadable. And yet, DeGraff tells Big Think, McLuhan was way ahead of his time.

What's the Big Idea?

If Marshall McLuhan had one big idea it was about the way that new technologies affect the way we think and the way societies are organized. For instance, the invention of movable type greatly sped up cognitive developments which ultimately led to individualism and democracy. 

McLuhan saw the next medium - the Internet - as another extension of human consciousness. He wrote: "A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind." 

DeGraff says McLuhan's underlying ideas on innovation are a powerful blueprint for innovation in the digital age. McLuhan identified four attributes of innovation in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and DeGraff has supplied contemporary examples to illustrate them.

This lesson is derived from Big Think Edge, an online learning platform designed to help employees help their companies cultivate the new skills and knowledge necessary to invent new products, new markets, new business models, and new industries.

Innovation has four attributes:

1. Innovation has to enhance something

Innovation has to make something better or new.  Consider Google.  There were lots of search engines out there. Google created a little box with 34 characters a search button.  "So what Google made better and new was they made it simple to search," DeGraff says.  "It wasn’t so much the algorithm, it was the simplicity.  So now we’re all using it."

2. Innovation needs to destroy something old

"If an innovation has sufficient magnitude, DeGraff says it will unseat or take away something that is more traditional. Think about how we used to trade in brokerage houses up until about 20 years ago. Charles Schwab and other online traders came along and basically did it online. "Since it was much cheaper and much faster," DeGraff says, "the magnitude was much higher, they basically got rid of most of the brokerage houses and now we mostly do our trading online."

3. An innovation returns us to something that we feel we’ve lost

One of DeGraff's favorite examples is bookstores.  "I love to go to bookstores," he says. "I hang out in bookstores.  When you go to a bookstore it may have a leather chair and it has nice warm coffee. It’s always very engaging and interactive and you’re going to buy three books you’re never going to have time to read."  

What the people in the bookstore business know is that you want to go back in time, like when you were in college.  "You don’t want to be the Jetsons," DeGraff says.  "You don’t want to live in the future.  You want to go back to this thing that you feel you’ve lost."

4. Innovation over time becomes anti-innovation

This is very important because an innovation is only an innovation for a moment in time. Then it becomes something like a commodity, or something old.  Think about email.  Email was going to set you free. But then everybody started emailing you. Your inbox became filled with spam and people were sending you things you didn’t want to see. 

"All of a sudden we became prisoners to email," DeGraff says.  "And whatever the next innovation is going to be, it’s going to free us from email."

So in summary, innovation makes something better and new. It enhances it.  It destroys something old. It returns us to something we feel that we’ve lost.  And finally and most importantly, an innovation over time becomes the anti-innovation.

In that sense, innovation is not an end itself. It is always a bridge to something new. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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