A brilliant prophet of whiz

Prophecy is a rough sport. You tell your car pool that Jimmy Carter will be re-elected. You tell your mother-in-law in Florida that California is due for a severe winter. You tell your son's old football coach that Houston will win the Superbowl.

Then, mostly, you wait for the egg to drip from your prophet's beard.

Of course if you make enough prophecies, you're bound to be right now and again.

You're also certain to be wrong a good deal of the time. And that may be your only safe prophecy.

The late Marshall McLuhan kept his prophecies very, very general, but even vagueness doesn't help. A professor of English, he cheerfully predicted his own obsolescence. Print would become as quaint as the kerosene lamp because, he said, print was "linear," print was trying to place thoughts in an orderly row, print was trying to be reasonable.

McLuhan forecast a "global village," plugged into one cosmic antenna. As images exploded at ex-readers out of the television tube -- jet rockets of stimulus, well beyond the speed of thought -- there could be no more cogitating, no more messages in the old literary sense. "The medium," McLuhan said, "is the message."

The subliminal message of this man who thought all messages were subliminal read (if we may use the word) thus: Now, and in the future, experience is going to come at us at a rate we cannot even measure, to say nothing of keep up with.

An Elizabethan specialist and a Roman Catholic, McLuhan was rather paradoxically the futurologist of futurologists -- the White Rabbit trotting along, watch in hand, telling everybody that no matter how they hurried, no matter how they anticipated, they would be late, late, late. The most contemporary contemporary was still doomed to look at the present and the future through a rear-view mirror.

Though the Greek philosopher's name was one name he never dropped, McLuhan was a latter-day disciple of Heraclitus. Almost 2,500 years ago Heraclitus said it first: "Everything changes." A man stands in a river. At every second the water changes as the river flows. But, Heraclitus emphasized, the man changes too. He is not the same man he was a second before. Everything flows. Everything changes.

There are periods in history when the insight of Heraclitus seems like the whole truth. The '60s was such a period. McLuhan articulated the vibration everybody felt in their bones:

History had taken off at an exponential speed that made even the recent past irrelevant. Wherever you looked there was Revolution of one sort or another. The very species was mutating.

Hold onto your seat belts! What seat belts?

Then came the '70s, and as suddenly as it began, the whirlwind stopped.

Today McLuhan's prophecies appear rather like the abandoned set of an old science-fiction movie. Young people in three-piece suits and preppie outfits seem to be trying to mutate themselves into the past rather than the future. There is nothing in McLuhanism that could have predicted Ronald Reagan, or the mystical passion for genealogy, or the market for antiques, or the renaissance of the debutante ball.

Ten or 20 years from now some of McLuhan's projections will come closer to being correct. He was not all wrong. He simply became an absolutist of change in the way others become absolutists of tradition.

Heraclitus didn't make the same mistake. He knew that, while everything is in the process of change, this does not mean nothing persists. If change is yin , continuity is yang. A prophet of change who forgets continuity becomes the last thing he could ever imagine himself being -- old-fashioned.

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