McLuhan, Understanding Media (Rachel)
October 11, 2004
Marshall McLuhan: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Published in1964, 359 pages
Marshall McLuhan explains the psychic and social consequences of the technological media in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He believes that after three thousand years of the explosion of mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding from current “electric technology.” McLuhan states that this electric technology is an extension of people’s central nervous system. Due to this change in technology, people adjust the way they process, store, and speed up experiences which creates a different thought pattern than that of the past. This instant processing of data and knowledge simulates the automatic and natural function of the nervous system, therefore; the technology recreates this function and becomes an extension of man’s body.
McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” In his book, he postulates that in this new age of electric technology the medium from which people receive information is the message and that the content of a medium is always another medium. He explains this concept using electricity and the invention of the light bulb. The electric light is “pure information” and it does not have any content until humans derive meaning. It is not until someone uses the light to read after dark or play baseball at night that meaning is established. The way humans interact with the medium (TV, radio, light bulb, etc.) “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Using this concept that the medium is the message, he examines the new technological media and their ability to shape society.
He believes the content of a medium is always another medium. For example, the content of a book is a speech, the content of a movie is a novel, and the content of the press is a literary statement. He refers to “hot” media, which are low in viewer participation and “cool” media, which are high in viewer participation. Hot media are high definition and visually filled with data. Less effort is exerted by the viewer to understand the message. Examples of hot media include books, movies, photographs, and radio. Cool media, on the other hand, are low in definition and are not structured. They require more “filling in” by the audience. Examples include the television, the telephone, cartoons, and speech.
A basic theme of McLuhan’s book is that even if you have an understanding of the medium’s effect and force, it is impossible to stop the “closure” of the senses and the pattern of conformity that occurs. Once the technology becomes an extension of ourselves (occurring on a subconscious level), we lose the ability to function without it. McLuhan believes the media are a powerful controlling agent in society and that Western values have been affected by technology. He thinks people have surrendered their nervous systems to corporations and advertisers, allowing them to take away their rights. Through technology, people have created irritants through the process of accelerating and making things easier, faster, and better. People disassociate from their senses and have become mesmerized by the medium.
McLuhan felt that a positive consequence of the media is the unification of people into what he called the “global village.” His optimistic view was that television and radio had the potential to improve the world and involve people in each other’s lives.
Thesis: Electronic communication has decentralized modern living in the twentieth century.
School/Discourse: Technological Determinism
Since the publication of this book, a great deal of media analysis has occurred and McLuhan’s ideas probably do not seem as radical as they did in the early 1960’s. Even though slightly dated, I find that McLuhan’s ideas and criticisms of the media are thought provoking and rich in cultural analogies. We are all familiar with the various media he presented, but I found his rendition of the invention, history, and context of each medium to be interesting. He frequently compared tribal societies and Western societies when explaining various media and their contexts.
If McLuhan were still alive, it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on more recent technologies such as the Internet, personal computers, and video games. His idea of technology as “extensions of man” still applies to the world in which we live. It is common to see people engaging in conversations on their cell phones, typing on their laptops, or calculating a math problem. If these technologies were suddenly taken away, people would function on a much different level. It is questionable whether they would be able to find new resources to meet the daily challenges of life.
Western society prides itself in its technological advances but after reading this book, I have a deeper respect for cultures that have not been inundated by the mind numbing effects of the media. Tribal societies are able to function and live their lives on a different plane than the technologically based society. If we were to lose all of our technology, we would find survival difficult until learning the skills of the tribal society.
McLuhan’s idea of a “global village” did not turn out the way he foresaw. The United States expanded its mass communication system, but the rest of the world lacked these technological advances. Satellites have since been introduced but language and cultural differences preclude the globalization that he predicted. Overall, McLuhan’s analogies are interesting but are unable to be validated.