Integral Awareness — Predicting Facebook and the Internet in the 1960s?

 “What the hell is integral awareness?” Ask McLuhan. He figured it out 50 years ago. He also predicted the Internet, the Global Village and Facebook years before they were launched.


Let me introduce Marshal McLuhan. He was an icon of the 1960’s; a pioneer in media studies. Wired credits McLuhan with envisioning the “global village” and the Internet in the early 1960′. That’s integral awareness!

Integral awareness is not about prediction! At least not about predicting what the next generation of iPhone is going to look like. That’s forecasting – that’s the realm of “predictive analytics” and “big data.”

It is about “noticing” what’s going on in the present…what’s happening today. It focuses on what you missed. It asks, “What did you fail to notice?”

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Once upon a time.….there was a man who, during wartime, would come to the country’s border with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. The border guard looked at the man’s papers and all was in order for him to cross. But the guard was certain the man was smuggling some sort of contraband in the wheelbarrow. So the guard took a shovel, poked around in the dirt, but found nothing. The man was allowed to cross. The next week, the man once again comes to the border with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Again, the border guard found that the papers were in order and dug through the dirt, but still found nothing. Week after week, it was the same story: Man approaches the border with wheelbarrow full of dirt. At the end of the war, the guard sees the man and asks him: “Look, I know you were smuggling something across the border, but I could never find a thing hidden in the dirt. What were you smuggling all those years?” The man answered: “Wheelbarrows.”

It’s not about the dirt, its about the wheel-barrel.

How many times have YOU been that border guard?

Where were you in 2002?

Did you see any of these coming?


Facebook was launched in 2004.

Google did its IPO in 2004.

Twitter was launched in 2006.

YouTube launched in 2006.

It is not about the content, it is about the media. Each of the above ping off McLuhan theories. Media always has a profound impact on society. For example, the introduction of the alphabet and the written word supplanted the oral tradition of the tribe. It was no longer necessary to memorize and tell stories to pass on knowledge. Among other things it changed power structures and allowed the tribe to fragment, much the same way The Web is changing power structures and allowing the re-tribalization of society….it is redefining how we do business, make war, elect politicians and even choose a mate.

Who was the source of integral awareness for McLuhan?


The first sentence says what the artist is doing – writing a detailed history of the future. What else is history but a narrative, a story?

The artist is aware of the nature of the present and the implications of his actions. To paraphrase Heraclitus, “what we do, day by day, is who we become.” The tricky part is stepping outside of our frames of reference, standing outside the prevailing paradigm.


Think of it this way, a fish knows nothing about water because he is immersed in it. He can only appreciate water when he is removed from it!

This is a core McLuhan theory: the anti-environment.  The artist captures the anti-environment, often indirectly, through his art. Often it is reactionary, capturing (or anticipating) paradigmatic shifts in the political, economic, social and technological , and emerging technologies.

The artist can come from any discipline, any walk of life, expressing his integral awareness in what he writes, designs, builds and talks about.

Any field?  For example, architecture “notices things most of us miss” through the work of Daniel Burnham, Mies, and Frank Gehry.


Note of Attribution: The story about the wheel-barrel is excerpted from The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village by Mark Federman, Chief Strategist, McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology University of Toronto.  Strongly recommend reading Federman, a he is keeping the genius of McLuhan alive.


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