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Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

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Terms and phrases such as "the global village" and "the medium is the message" are now part of the lexicon, and McLuhan's theories continue to challenge our sensibilities and our assumptions about how and what we communicate.

This reissue of Understanding Media marks the thirtieth anniversary (1964-1994) of Marshall McLuhan's classic expose on the state of the then emerging phenomenon of mass media. Terms and phrases such as "the global village" and "the medium is the message" are now part of the lexicon, and McLuhan's theories continue to challenge our sensibilities and our assumptions about how and what we communicate.

There has been a notable resurgence of interest in McLuhan's work in the last few years, fueled by the recent and continuing conjunctions between the cable companies and the regional phone companies, the appearance of magazines such as WiRed, and the development of new media models and information ecologies, many of which were spawned from MIT's Media Lab. In effect, media now begs to be redefined. In a new introduction to this edition of Understanding Media, Harper's editor Lewis Lapham reevaluates McLuhan's work in the light of the technological as well as the political and social changes that have occurred in the last part of this century.

389 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1964

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About the author

Marshall McLuhan

161 books774 followers
Canadian cultural critic and communications theorist Herbert Marshall McLuhan maintained more influence of the method of communicating than the information on the public and coined the expression, "the medium is the message," in his book Understanding Media (1964).

This companion of the order of Canada, educator, philosopher, and scholar worked as a professor of English literature. People view work of McLuhan as a cornerstones of the study of media theory. He coined the "global village."

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 299 reviews
Profile Image for Joshua.
34 reviews
January 24, 2012
This was a frustrating read. Lots of intriguing ideas, but presented with vague language and very little supporting evidence. Sometimes while reading it I was unsure if I was reading the profound thoughts of a genius that was above my comprehension, the ramblings of a mad man, or just the drivel of a hack who thought he was a lot more clever than he actually was.

The scholarship in this book is embarrassingly sloppy. At times he makes big claims with absolutely no evidence to support them. When he does offer evidence it is often anecdotal, with no reference to anything concrete. He'll write something like "a study was conducted in Canada a few years back in which X happened," and then use that as solid proof that X is universal. Come one man! Where's the citation? You expect me to believe the outrageous claims you're making with no proof? I felt like I was reading cult literature at times. What's more, some of his claims, without a good understanding of the context, can be taken as quite racist.

I read one defense of his lack of evidence which argued that he came from the humanist tradition (he was an English professor) which does not rely on the scientific methods of hypothesis and experimentation, etc. That's a terrible excuse. If you're going to start spouting off about cognitive science and social psychology you better bring some hard evidence to support your claims or no one will take you seriously.

I really want to give this book a higher rating, because some of his ideas are very interesting and sound plausible and I do think I have learned to look at media and world history in a new way. But I could not in good faith recommend this book to a friend unless they were hardcore about media studies. I could possibly forgive the lack of evidence and recommend it to someone with a caveat regarding such, but his terrible prose is perhaps an even bigger hurdle to get over than his credibility. He presents his ideas in metaphors, but, because of the nature of his topics, sometimes it's difficult to be sure if he is being literal or metaphorical. This may be cute to some, but it is embarrassingly bad for a scientific text. Furthermore, many of his theories are contradictory, which makes it even more difficult to understand or take seriously.

I wish someone would go through this book, pluck the interesting and plausible ideas from it and present them in a clear way that exposes the contradictions and areas that require more research for support, because there is a lot of good food for thought in the pages of this book. Unfortunately, I don't think those morsels are worth the effort of reading this book.
19 reviews2 followers
March 2, 2013
McLuhan is a nut. 50% of what he says is completely unintelligible bollocks, 20% of it is kind of interesting throw-away, and the other 30% is the most forward-thinking genius that has yet to be realized. it's kind of like he was looking into the future through fogged lenses...couldn't quite make everything out, but a good enough ideas.
Profile Image for kaelan.
260 reviews304 followers
November 17, 2017
Although it's now hard to fathom, Marshall McLuhan was once ranked amongst the world's top intellectuals. Inspiring reverence and ire in equal measure, he guided the ignorant masses—like a tweed-attired Moses—into the nascent era of mass communication. Indeed, his star shone so bright that he even advised Pierre Elliott Trudeau in matters of media. But as the 70's drew to a close, McLuhan's celebrity waned as dramatically as it had risen. These days, he is perhaps best known as the originator of phrases like "the medium is the message" and "the global village," as well as for his brief cameo in Annie Hall.

Understanding Media, which was first published in 1964, constitutes the most representative expression of McLuhan's ideas. It also explains his present-day neglect. Without a doubt, the book's thesis—that
the mass media of today are decentralizing modern living, turning the globe into a village, and catapulting twentieth century man back to the life of the tribe
—would have resonated with a post-Second World War public, one questioning the civility of Western "civilization." However, looking back at McLuhan's theory from a 21st century vantage point, several significant defects become apparent.

First, Understanding Media reads more like a manifesto than a scholarly exposition. McLuhan makes grand assertions, but rarely argues for them. Even more disappointing, he consistently disparages rival views, but fails to offer any concrete refutations. But methodological unsoundness notwithstanding, many of McLuhan's predictions have simply failed to come true—e.g., automobiles aren't obsolete, learning (as opposed to teaching) isn't a job and television hasn't fostered viewer participation.

Second, much of McLuhan's influence has been founded upon faulty readings of his work. Take, for instance, the phrase "the medium is the message." Ostensibly, this should be synonymous with something like "the form of a communication is its content." Not so. As McLuhan-aficionado Mark Federman explains, the words "medium" and "message" are here being used in a highly idiosyncratic way. See, McLuhan takes "medium" to encompass "any extension of ourselves," from television and comic strips to cities and roads. In other words, a medium is any technology that affects how we interact with the world. And with comparable obscurity, Understanding Media defines "message" as "the change of scale or pace or pattern."

Thus, we can rephrase "the medium is the message" as follows: "Technologies are the rate at which they alter our interactions with the world." Or to borrow Federman's own translation:
We can know the nature and characteristics of anything we conceive or create (medium) by virtue of the changes—often unnoticed and non-obvious changes—that they effect (message).

Is this claim true? False? Trivial? Nonsensical? Honestly, I don't really care. But in any case, McLuhan's transitory fame surely didn't hinge upon any such interpretation.

In addition to its obscurity and lack of argumentation, Understanding Media also suffers from surprisingly bad writing. I was expecting some kind of proto-Baudrillardian prose-poetry, which would have suited the book's themes of "instantaneous information" and "mass communication." But lamentably, McLuhan's style is clunky, repetitive and incredibly dry. Emphatically not recommended.
Profile Image for Matt.
82 reviews24 followers
July 20, 2008
Marshall McLuhan has suffered the fate of many quotable philosophers and critics – like Nietzsche's pronouncement that “God is dead,” McLuhan's statement that “the medium is the message” has been tossed around by a populace that often fail to appreciate its full complexity. Having now read through the entirety of Understanding Media, it is clear that although McLuhan often takes his pronouncements to unnecessary extreme, he is equally often incredibly insightful, offering up a revolutionary way to analyze the effects of technology/media on culture, and moreover is occasionally stunningly prescient.

McLuhan's central argument is that the function of media is an acceleration – in particular, an acceleration of a specific bodily sense function: the telephone as an extension/acceleration of speech, the phonograph as an extension/acceleration of the ear, etc. Yet the increased speed and reach of these particular media radically reorganize human interaction and communication, and therefore society at large. The first section of Understanding Media is spent presenting this overall idea – the second half of the book analyzes a multitude of case studies of media forms.

I find McLuhan's ultimate message that we have utterly failed to understand the way in which media have effected our lives strongly resonates, and unfortunately, seems to have changed little in the 40 yeas since Understanding Media was written. Much of what he predicted about the emergence of electronic media has come to pass (for example, the collapse of the physical newspaper with the advent of near-instantaneous news – although the Internet wasn't even a concept when Understanding Media was written), although not all (McLuhan also predicted that the instantaneous transmission of information would break the American reliance on the automobile, which unfortunately has not come to pass). In fact, the changes in media are happening at a greater pace now than ever before – yet our ignorance about how media is reshaping social interaction remains as strong as ever.

McLuhan's greatest weakness is his tendency to make huge proclamations without providing adequate evidence. Sometimes he presents strong anthropological, sociological, or literary evidence to back up his claims, but not always – sometimes the reader is left somewhat adrift, trying to process the veracity of some bold pronouncement. This is an important failure for a piece of cultural criticism, but the strength of McLuhan's ideas make Understanding Media an important read nonetheless.
Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews672 followers
December 21, 2017
Part I

--The Medium is the Message
--Media Hot and Cold
--Reversal of the Overheated Medium
--The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis
--Hybrid Energy: Les Liaisons Dangereuses
--Media as Translators
--Challenge and Collapse: the Nemesis of Creativity

Part II
--The Spoken Word: Flower of Evil?
--The Written Word: an Eye for an Ear
--Roads and Paper Routes
--Number: Profile of the Crowd
--Clothing: Our Extended Skin
--Housing: New Look and New Outlook
--Money: the Poor Man's Credit Card
--Clocks: the Scent of Time
--The Print: How to Dig it
--Comics: Mad Vestibule to TV
--The Printed Word: Architect of Nationalism
--Wheel, Bicycle, and Airplane
--The Photograph: the Brothel-without-Walls
--Press: Government by News Leak
--Motorcar: the Mechanical Bride
--Ads: Keeping Upset with the Joneses
--Games: the Extensions of Man
--Telegraph: the Social Hormone
--The Typewriter: into the Age of the Iron Whim
--The Telephone: Sounding Brass or Tinkling Symbol?
--The Phonograph: the Toy that Shrank the National Chest
--Movies: the Reel World
--Radio: the Tribal Drum
--Television: the Timid Giant
--Weapons: War of the Icons
--Automation: Learning a Living
Profile Image for Bucket.
861 reviews42 followers
November 1, 2012
McLuhan wrote this in the 1960s to describe the state of media (which was then beginning to take on its still rapidly evolving electronic form. He coins now well-known phrases like "the medium is the message" and "global village." He was also the one who first said that if archeologists looked at our society a thousand years from now, they would find that our advertising is what says the most about our values and beliefs.

I was alternately fascinated and sceptical as I read this book. Much of it is fantastic - well-researched, in-depth, and brilliant.

For example, all of McLuhan's descriptions of how "literacy creates very much simpler kinds of people than those that develop in the complex web of ordinary tribal and oral societies." He also says that "language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement. Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties. His collective consciousness or intuitive awareness is diminished by this technical extension of consciousness that is speech."

McLuhan describes in depth how mechanization taught us to think in very linear terms and to see life as a series of causes and effects. As the electronic world began to take over in the 50s and 60s, McLuhan predicted many of the ways it would change us (now in 2012 we are tied to our various "screens," we deal with constant "media fallout," and we expect things to be instant, which has ended our reliance on lineality and allowed us to greatly expand our knowledge and collective awareness).

Other parts of the book, however, are dated or confusing and the book as a whole is a little bit repetitive. There were also plenty of parts of this that were completely over my head.

I very much enjoyed McLuhan's multi-disciplined approach to his subject. He freely quotes Shakespeare and James Joyce along with the academics and philosophers I expected.

A few other quotations that I want to hold onto:

"The instant character of electric information movement does not enlarge, but involves, the family of man in the cohesive state of village living."

"Words are a kind of information retrieval that can range over the total environment and experience at high speed."

"What we have today, instead of a social consciousness electrically ordered, however, is a private subconsciousness or individual 'point of view' rigorously imposed by older mechanical technology. This is a perfectly natural result of 'culture lag' or conflict, in a world suspended between two technologies."

"Just as we now try to control atom-bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout."

Themes: media, mass media, history, literature, philosophy, globalization, technology, tribalism, neuroscience, lineality/causation vs. instant/concurrent
Profile Image for Rose Rosetree.
Author 21 books125 followers
April 18, 2023
McLuhan's book was a revelation to me, a big-deal set of ideas with what (today) I'd call "High Truth Value."

Who hasn't heard of his idea that The medium is the message.

TECHNOLOGY is not a message regarding content. Seemingly it's only a means to an end, using whatever form of technology.


By contrast, the IMPACT of technology is immense, intense, and potentially sinister. Each type of technology sets in motion a process.

People, parents, and neuroscientists are just beginning to figure that out. Pretty weird, how we're still living as trusting guinea pigs all the while.

At least the wise Canadian professor had a clue. In publishing this book he founded the field of media theory.


History of Ideas has been a passion of mine for decades. I think of that as exploring the progression of ideas, emergence of new understandings and language to support those understandings.

By contrast, I've only recently discovered Big History, thanks to a Wondrium course by Craig C. Benjamin, Ph.D.

As a result, I now prize positive breakthroughs to humanity's Collective Learning. Sure, technology counts as a kind of collective DISCOVERY. But what we do with it? To me, that's the seamy side of humanity's saga of collective LEARNING.

I think we humans have a long ways to go before we wise up to the impact on us of all that screen time, however much we're doing these days.


Thank you, Marshall McLuhan for jump-starting thoughtful people's recognition of the impact of different media, an impact that goes far beyond its ostensible content.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,989 reviews700 followers
May 26, 2011
The problem with so much au courant media theory is that it a) goes out of date real fast, and b) is frequently falsified within ten years. McLuhan sometimes hits the mark-- becoming an early predictor of, among other things, the Internet-- but also totally fails at predicting the future the other half of the time.

Some of his observations are quite astute. Other observations seem like meaningless, foundationless claims. Yes, there were vast cultural shifts with the arrival of the printing press in the West. But the whole concept of hot versus cool media is suspicious, as are some of his inferences, à la Freud.

However, he's so damned bright that I was still wowed. It's a thick book, and jam-packed with original ideas. I don't especially care that a significant amount seems suspicious. There's still real gold to be found here. McLuhan was to media studies as Freud was to psychology, Eliade to comparative religion, or Durkheim to sociology: a thinker who, while flawed, revolutionized a discipline, and for that alone is respectable.
Profile Image for Spasa Vidljinović.
89 reviews22 followers
August 2, 2019
'Poznavanje medija-čovekovih produžetaka' je zanimljiva sociološka studija, sa malo zastarelim stilom pisanja i možda na prvi utisak zastarelim shvatanjima, i prevelikim i čestima uopštavanjima, ali nije sve kao što izgleda. Makluan je bio profesor engleske književnosti pa je koristio znanja iz te oblasti da oslika promene koje se dešavaju društvu, najčešće kroz Šekspirove stihove i Džojsove igre reči iz Fineganovog bdenja.

'Opštilo je poruka' je poznata krilatica ove knjige, koju je Makluan izdvojio na početku, objašnjavajući da je sadržina svakog opštila-neko drugo opštilo, sadržina pisma je govor npr. On odvaja pojam opštila od pojma medija, jer ovaj prvonavedeni obuhvata širi opseg definisanja. Opštilo je sve što je produžetak čoveka, od pisma, preko štamparije i oružja pa sve do električne svetlosti.

Mnoga svoja viđenja prikazuje kroz tadašnje događaje, potkrepljuje novinskim tekstovima, dajući komentare o načinu života tadašnjeg američkog čoveka, kako je televizija uticala na pobedu Kenedija, odakle evropeizacija SAD i amerikanizacija Evrope, zatim često ponavljanje kroz knjigu kraja jedne mehaničke epohe i rađanje druge, električne, želeći da to naročito istakne.

Verujem da su mnogi šezdesetih na Makluana gledali kao na nekog prolupalog čiču koji piše o vezi pisaće mašine i nastanka slobodnog stiha, o električnoj mreži koja će povezati i uvezati ceo svet, o 'kraju' grada, i preobražaju sveta u 'globalno selo', o programerima koji će kreirati našu budućnost. Električno i informatičko su doveli do kraja geografije kako je tvrdio Pol Virilio, a Makluan je bio prorok ove epohe koju živimo.

Profile Image for Meike.
1,515 reviews2,460 followers
April 6, 2019
Chapters "The Medium Is the Message" / "Media Hot and Cold"
Some Notes:
- Media as extensions of the human body/mind
- Media come in pairs, one containing the other (thus "the medium is the message"); Exceptions: Speech and electric light
- Media are agents of change re experience/interaction/use of the senses
- A new medium does not replace an old one
- Cool media: Low definition, high participation; Hot media: High definition, low participation
- Nervous system protects from new media environment by blocking perception (Narcissus, narcosis)
Profile Image for Ste Pic.
68 reviews27 followers
August 17, 2017
Il medium è il messaggio e il messaggino

cinquantanni fa McLuhan scriveva: "...il nostro sistema nervoso centrale viene tecnologicamente esteso fino a coinvolgerci in tutta l'umanità e ad incorporare tutta l'umanità in noi, siamo necessariamente implicati in profondità nelle conseguenze di ogni nostra azione. Non è praticamente più possibile mantenere l'atteggiamento tipicamente estraneo e superiore che aveva finito con il caratterizzare l'uomo occidentale di media cultura". Poi ci si chiede perché MML veniva chiamato già negli anni '70 il "guru dell'informazione": aveva previsto tutto, persino l'effetto di internet o dei social media! Ho però l'impressione che ciò che McLuhan giudicava positivamente, cioè il fatto di essere coinvolti in un sentire comune con tutta l'umanità, si stia trasformando (o si sia già trasformato) in qualcosa di negativo. Grazie al bombardamento mediatico di informazione su guerre, drammi, disgrazie, disastri, omicidi, alla volgarizzazione di emozioni e sentimenti, al sensazionalismo giornalistico, i media non sono più in grado di colpire in profondità la nostra sensibilità, anestetizzata dall'eccesso di esposizione. Si è giunti ad un cinismo dell'immagine mai prima d'ora sperimentato. La realtà mediatica, quella filtrata dai mezzi di comunicazione, fornisce è vero un coscienza collettiva (magari anche parecchio manipolata dal giornalismo embedded), ma ad un livello che raramente si discosta dalla superficialità e temporaneità emotiva. L'orizzonte del ricordo si va sempre più abbreviando e con lui anche le motivazioni ideali dell'indignazione etica e morale, della reattività emozionale ad avvenimenti proposti in sequenza sugli schermi, su internet, sui giornali. Anche la morte perde, sui media e quindi anche nella nostra realtà immateriale, per colpa dell'iterazione e della ripetizione dell'atto, quel potere e quell'energia evocativa che ha accompagnato lo sviluppo della civiltà occidentale. θάνατος riesce ancora a colpire solo quando va a colpire la sensibilità delle zone più antiche del cervello, quella che genera terrore e ribrezzo insieme a curiosa attrazione e morbosità. Ci fa effetto il singolo prigioniero decapitato o arso vivo dall'Isis, ma non facciamo un plissè per i milioni di morti senza volto e nome della guerra del Rwanda (solo per fare un esempio). In questo senso i media negli anni (spesso per ragioni commerciali) hanno portato avanti, secondo me, un'opera di esplorazione accurata dei confini e delle proporzioni delle angosce e sensibilità umane. I relè che ancora riescono a scattare agli stimoli esterni sono quelli legati alle sedimentazioni emotive più radicate e antiche e per questo meno razionali e controllabili. Le convenzioni sociali, l'etica, la morale, la lingua, la capacità di indignazione sono stati invece i primi a cedere al bombardamento ristrutturante e massificante dei media.
Profile Image for Sunrise.
494 reviews14 followers
January 5, 2015
Much has been said about Marshall McLuhan, and usually so extreme that it's hard to know what to think. On the one hand, he is apparently the father of the internet age, incomparably cooler than your average intellectual, the inventor of the very language and frame of reference we now use; on the other hand, he is complete nonsense, was too popular for all the wrong reasons, and didn't do his fact-checking. The vociferous loathing for him that sprang up immediately in the Sixties is kind of hard to understand. The only way I myself can make any sense of it is that they wanted to shoot the messenger - i.e. that the forces of TV were undoing the literate world, and nobody committed to that world wanted to be told that literacy was just a phase. I'm reading a book of essays by Iris Murdoch, and in between her discussions of Kant and Sartre she has some space to cast aspersions on McLuhan.

Well, here is the most lucid thing I've read on McLuhan: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publica...

I can't help but agree with the author that McLuhan was a big-picture thinker who gave us a language and a way of thinking that we badly needed, but most of whose actual practical pointers are misleading. Thus, he is a great conceptualizer, not a great scientist.

However, as a conceptualizer, he does not proceed on the lines of logical analysis. He doesn't have premises and conclusions, he has strings of aphorisms and metaphors that are only fancifully connected to logic or the observable world. As he himself says more than once, Hume already proved that linear succession does not prove causation, and what we need is a non-linear way of thinking. (Perhaps his disdain for logic is what Iris Murdoch found objectionable in him.)

Well, non-linear, non-logical thinking seems to ground him square in something else: literary thinking. He was originally an English professor, of course, before inventing his own department (Communications), so that should not be so surprising. Yet it seems like it is. Nothing that I've read on him takes him as anything but a muddied up philosopher of culture, rather than a literary critic of media, or even a poet of media.

And that's why, contra the above article, I think McLuhan is very much worth reading, because he is the great poet of media. He has provided a literary framework for us to deal with media, and that is more than merely being a "founder of discursivity," because it is a claim for the lasting value of his writing. As an example, let me quote a bit - and any short quotation will be unindicative of the whole, because his best essays here move so wildly from paragraph to paragraph that I'm often at a loss to explain what jump has been made. Anyway, here's the quote, from the opening chapter, "The Medium is the Message":

"Just before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak performance. Mechanization was never so vividly fragmented or sequential as in the birth of the movies, the moment that translated us beyond mechanism into the world of growth and organic interrelation. The movie, by sheer speeding up the mechanical, carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations. It is the transition that produced the now quite correct observation: "If it works, it's obsolete." When electric speed further takes over from mechanical movie sequences, then the lines of force in structures and in media become loud and clear. We return to the inclusive form of the icon."

Now, perhaps, it's easier to see what I meant. In a sense, isn't this just like a poem, where the transformation of sound into sight (deeply synaesthetic) is made a metaphor for all transformations within "that great pattern of being"? And then on to the metaphor of film, and resolving in that iconic image of the icon. In a literary sense, it doesn't matter if it's true or not; it's beautiful and convincing. This is why I find it so hard to understand where the line, exactly, is drawn between a conceptual thinker and a poet. If there is one!

Now, "Understanding Media" itself is happily divided into two parts - the prose-poetry conceptual parts which are amazing and blew my mind, and the tedious and erroneous attempts to apply these concepts to actual media, in the second part. All one needs of Understanding Media are the seven interrelated essays which make up part one. If the intrepid reader would like to journey into part two, I recommend the chapters on clocks, cars, and the four-chapter suite that runs from the telegraph to the phonograph. The problem with most of these parts is that, not only are they tediously written, but they are so obviously wrong. Consider this terrible paragraph from the chapter on "Wheel, Bicycle, and Airplane":

"Humpty-Dumpty is the familiar example of the clown unsuccessfully imitating the acrobat. Just because all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty together again, it doesn't follow that electromagnetic automation couldn't have put Humpty-Dumpty back together. The integral and unified egg had no business sitting on a wall, anyway. Walls are made of uniformly fragmented bricks that arise with specialisms and bureaucracies. They are the deadly enemies of the integral beings like eggs. Humpty-Dumpty met the challenge of the wall with a spectacular collapse."

Here McLuhan is obviously playing with us. Nevertheless, if his ideas were essentially coherent, or even appealing in a literary way, this passage would come off as witty; instead, McLuhan appears unintentionally funny, because he is explaining a ridiculous idea in a jokey way.

Well, if that last quote didn't scare you off, I fully recommend reading part I of the book, because, as I and the writer from the New Atlantis have testified, it has laid down the conceptual and discursive foundations for our multi-media world. It may have sufficed for the 19th century to have a specialist language for every medium, but in the 21st century, we are simply all of us too involved with too many kinds of media, even just on the internet, to get away with not understanding how all these forms relate to each other - and how the use of some forms over others has consequences.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,829 reviews95 followers
October 21, 2021
In my working life, I sometimes run into people who seem very smart, but who are nearly unintelligible. They are usually very articulate, and I walk away from the encounter puzzling over what they said, wondering what I missed and thinking that just maybe they are onto something big. McLuhan is one of these people. Almost invariably after I have let one of these experiences sink into me for a few days, I decide that nearly all of what I heard was nonsense. I am mindful of what Roland Barthes said of simple minded people who reject complicated theories on account of their complexity, "You may not understand the philosopher, but the philosopher understands you," but sometimes when it seems that there is no there there, it is because there is really none.

McLuhan creates categories of hot and cold media, implosions and explosions, things that are extensions of our hands, feet or nervous system, which all seem to have some basic validity, but from which he draws long threads of spurious meaning that tie his whole narrative into strange and confusing knots. And he does all of this with apparently absolute unshaken certainty in the accuracy of his analysis.

McLuhan is obviously a smart and cultured man. He quotes extensively from James Joyce and T.S. Eliot with a clearly greater understanding of their work than I have. He has more than a passing familiarity with great philosophers and theorizers of history and society. There is a six page bibliography at the end of the book of works that he cites, and nearly all of his citations seemed smart to me. You would think that this deep cultural knowledge of a highly educated person might ground him a bit, but alas not -- he spins and spins in epicycles of nonsense.

Still I admit that there are insights of value here. We are forever indebted to McLuhan for teaching us that the medium is the message -- the qualities of any method of transmitting information are an inherent part of what is transmitted. It is essential to understand this both as a transmitter and as a receiver. As a transmitter, I need to pick a medium that will be an effective way of conveying the message that I want to send and then use the strengths, weaknesses and general qualities of that medium to delivery my message effectively. As a receiver, I need to understand the nuances of media that I consume so that I can appreciate more fully the entirety of the message, reduce deception and distraction, and see when a particular medium is used well or poorly. Anyone who analyzes human interaction in a way that looks only at the content of tramsmission and not at the method misses a vital part of the meaning.

McLuhan is also smart, I think, in seeing media as extensions of our body. When we use media to communicate they become part of us and we become part of them. When I use a hammer, or a gun, or a car or the internet, that thing becomes part of me and I become part of it, so we need to choose our tools wisely.

But there is so much blather here that it makes the whole book hard to take. Somehow I find it easier to accept the blather in Freud and Foucault and to appreciate the genius beneath, whereas with McLuhan I felt that I was drifting and spinning in a great sea of nonsense, fishing out occasional pearls.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Sims.
Author 30 books101 followers
October 14, 2022
I'm in the camp of those who feel this book is riding on a few cool ideas, the main one being the most famous: "The medium is the message." Otherwise, McLuhan makes several vague assertions per page, it seems, and I got tired trying to make sense of them. I grant that the book is dated, and I don't hold it against McLuhan that he wrongly predicted the end of automobiles and so on. It could be my intellect isn't strong enough to fully appreciate him, but to me he just seemed drunk on his stylish turns of phrase and mostly left it at that.
Profile Image for James Gw.
10 reviews
May 4, 2022
A dense read, but well worth it. This is one of those books that make you look at everything around you in an entirely new (electric) light.
Profile Image for Thorsten.
43 reviews11 followers
January 11, 2010
Written in 1964, this book is startling in it’s prescience and extrapolation of the possibilities of technological growth, and still has much to offer in the understanding of sociological change. The ‘media’ of the title is not the same definition as is now commonly held: Although it does include television, radio and print, McLuhan’s ‘media’ can be taken more broadly to be any tool, technology or invention of man, which he explains as having a primary role in the extension of our senses, communications and control, for example he starts out with oral speech and works through examples from use of papyrus and the phonetic alphabet, to the building of roads, housing, money, clocks, printing press, photography, telegraphy, films, radio and the then emerging ubiquity of television.

The main thrust of the book is that society has consistently been blind to the transforming power of new technology to alter the structure of society, instead focussing on whatever content was being broadcast via the medium, hence his well know phrase “the medium is the message”. One of the clearest examples would be the massive transformation of society by the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, which led to the democratisation and diffusion of knowledge to the masses – of course there is some interest in the contents of the books or tracts of the time, but it is the societal shift that is the more important implication of this technology.

The Guttenberg print process is a key theme throughout the book, as McLuhan pinpoints this as the birthplace of industrialisation, individualisation and mechanisation, and in general is the root of all Western society’s psychic mode of thought, it is here he says, that modern man is split from tribal man: Where tribal man held an inclusive view of the world and was located within and was part of the external world, modern man, with the advent of movable type, began a process and acceptance of uniform and lineal modes of thought and action, a process of specialization and fragmentation. According to McLuhan, this breaking down of a cohesive view of the world has alienated modern man from himself and from the rest of society, and this distancing of himself, this separation of “action, without reaction” is what has allowed many of the modern evils of the world such as war and social inequalities.

It is with the birth of electric technology that McLuhan sees the next massive stage of societal upheaval that will rival the changes inculcated by movable type. McLuhan describes the growth of mechanisation as an explosive process as we move further apart and more specialist, but foresaw in electrical technologies a remedy to this, that electrical technology and communication would lead to an implosion, a drawing together of various strands of specialisation, and bring in depth involvement in process and knowledge. It is from here that his other famous phrase arrives, the “global village”. Reading much of his extrapolation of these electrical networks, it’s an uncannily close description to the way the internet and global economy have developed.

Ultimately the most valuable lesson in the book is that we have to stand back and see the larger picture to fully understand how a technology affects us, but the book is also curiously naïve and shot through with a science-fictional optimism that can’t fail to make you smile, with it’s belief that electric technologies would return man to a utopian tribal state of harmony with the world and hold warm fuzzy feeling towards others due to his direct instantaneous link and gestalt about the state of the world, through this inclusive electrical and knowledge field. All-in-all however, a highly recommended read.
Profile Image for Joy.
234 reviews2 followers
April 21, 2013
"As the printing press cried out for nationalism, so did the radio cry out for tribalism." This is just a small taste of the highly comedic historical generalizations that await you in reading this book! Here's another great one: "The hotting-up of the medium of writing to repeatable print intensity led to nationalism and the religious wars of the sixteenth century." Thank god for that concise explanation!!

Okay, I know I'm being unfair...McLuhan's 1964 publication was tremendously important, and had a great impact on many fields of research. For that, it can be considered an important primary historical source that can help us understand the historiography of media theory over the last 60 years. Yes, it's full of interesting ideas! But let's not mince words about the fact that McLuhan's assertions are mostly....well...a bit untenable. Lending so much agency to media forms themselves all but eclipses human politics and culture. Also, it fails to account for the diversity in media use with respect to both governance and everyday practice.

What's so important about a book that contains many, if not mostly, untenable claims? McLuhan's most famous thesis, that "the medium is the message," argued that medial forms aren't so important for their "content" but for how they restructure social life. I think this insight is one that remains relevant. McLuhan also though that "human senses, of which all are media extensions...configure the awareness and experience of each one of us (21)." In this way, media forms would come to stand in for our natural senses. This could result in overrepresentation of some senses, such as the eye via writing. According to McLuhan, the substitution of the eye for the ear in the transition from oral to written culture (not entirely sure what either of these would actually be) led to an intense focus on the visual in modern culture. At the same time, as the media forms perform the work of the senses, our "natural" sense diminishes, or becomes numb after a brief period of overstimulation and habituation. McLuhan likens this to watching a movie, then exiting the theater and feeling like real life is dull in comparison. McLuhan thought that media forms would fundamentally alter our perception and experience of the world. For McLuhan, writing created "individualism and introspection," among other things. TV causes us to lose our "habit of visual perspective as a sensory modality." Etc. McLuhan goes on to discuss clothing, houses, infrastructure, money, clocks photographs, cars, and more- all as extensions of some basic bodily function. McLuhan repeatedly refers to the holistic state of man before the advent of printing as belonging to "tribal man." Mediated man, in contrast, is fragmented, differentiated, diffused, and contained. McLuhan definitely has a bit of a romantic notion of the "tribal man" as well as a distastefully hierarchic view of humans as divided by categories of civilization. But this shouldn't be surprising for 1964, and indeed McLuhan's interest in human primitivity with respect to senses and technology is an interesting potential historical research topic in its own right.

Obviously, I don't buy much of McLuhan's causal account, nor do I find his universal characterization of "Man's" psychic state convincing. However, I do think that with careful research we can try to seriously investigate the impact of, say, the internet on forms of life and subjectivity while avoiding McLuhan's extreme (and indefensible) technological determinism.
393 reviews8 followers
July 15, 2013
I found that McLuhan was referenced in two starkly opposing books about the internet I read last summer: Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and Cathy Davidson's Now You See It. McLuhan died before the rise of the internet and video games, but his ideas are so prescient about those media that he seems like some kind of Nostrodamus for the electric age. Even though this book is extremely dated (he refers to television as a new medium), every chapter has some thought-provoking ideas and statements that are clearly applicable to the internet and social media. McLuhan makes little attempt to prove his points, and his diction is occasionally so abstruse that I was frequently frustrated; however, his ideas are worth the work it takes to unravel them. I highly recommend this book for anyone who s curious about the way technology and media impact our culture. He states, "Rapidly we approach the final phase of the extensions of man-the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media. Whether [this]...will be 'a good thing' is a question that admits of a wide solution...Some feel keenly that speed-up has impoverished the world they knew by changing its forms of human interassociation...But all the conservatism in the world does not afford even a token resistance to the ecological sweep of the new electric media." How true.
March 10, 2009
In the 1960's, when normal (i.e. "non-intellectual") people could tell you who Marshall McLuhan was, the word most likely to be associated with his name would be "incomprehensabilty." This is not without reason.

Reading McLuhan is indeed a little like reading stereo assembly instructions from the future. Made all the more puzzling by the fact that virtually none of the words he uses are unfamiliar, his concepts nonetheless at first seem to be out of the reader's league, if not of another sport, on another planet.

McLuhan observed and wrote about the effects on the human race of "media," extensions of the human organism, which had never been considered as such.
Most of what is conveyed in Understanding Media had never been conveyed before, saddling McLuhan with the job of creating (as opposed to re-iterating) the language necessary for the transmission of his ideas.
Profile Image for John Pistelli.
Author 8 books262 followers
March 3, 2021
I recently saw a distinguished academic Tweet, over a picture of a robot police dog, "We don't have to accept this." For Marshall McCluhan, on the other hand,
Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.
Like later and perhaps related theories that organic life exists to propagate the gene and consciousness to propagate the meme, McLuhan at times implies that humanity is merely the biological substrate of technological development, albeit a stratum that can offer informative feedback to the mechanism riding it. One way to understand McLuhan's understanding of media in this celebrated 1964 book that made the Canadian literary scholar one of his age's gurus is to substitute the word "technology" for "media." His real topic is every inorganic "extension of man," from the wheel that extends the foot to the printing press that extends the eye to the electronic and cybernetic networks that extend the entire nervous system. In choosing to elongate our agency this way, we ironically subject ourselves to machinic processes over whose implications we appear to have limited control. Analogizing recent techno-social developments to earlier ones, he claims,
Automation retains only as much of the mechanical character as the motorcar kept of the forms of the horse and the carriage. Yet people discuss automation as if we had not passed the oat barrier, and as if the horse-vote at the next poll would sweep away the automation regime.
I've begun this essay rather abruptly in tribute to McLuhan's own fragmentary and oracular style. Understanding Media is not a logically ordered treatise, but a vatic collage. What organization it has—a first part that lays out the main case and a second part that offers a series of studies of different "media" from prints to comic books to television to weapons—goes to pieces due to McLuhan's circling repetitions and jump-cut transitions. Television is the book's master medium, the presiding mode of the late 20th century, and McLuhan reads TV as maximally participatory, requiring the viewer to collaborate deeply in assembling its montage of low-resolution imagery into coherent sense and meaning.[1] In an electric, televisual age, he writes an electric, televisual book. The mandarin George Steiner, in his essay "On Reading Marshall McLuhan" (which begins, "This is not an easy thing to do"), expresses discomfort before coming around to the premise:
The writings of Marshall McLuhan are so compounded of novelty, force of suggestion, vulgarity of mind, and sheer carelessness that one is quickly tempted to put them aside. Many aspects of his success represent modern journalism at its most obvious. The McLuhan cult is characteristic of those confidence tricks of "high journalism" which, perhaps, more than any other force, deafen and cheapen the life of ideas. Yet all this is part of the point: the question of how to read McLuhan, of whether reading him is in itself an obsolescent mode of contact, is implicit in McLuhan's own work. The crises of relationship between traditional literacy and the hypnotic mendacities of the mass-media are exactly those to which McLuhan himself applies his rhetorical, confused, but often penetrating attention.
But that old art-school dodge—it's supposed to be bad because it's a comment on badness—is not quite McLuhan's method. He is, rather, paying tribute to his modernist precursors who were the first to understand that, as his famous dictum has it, "the medium is the message." They transformed literature into a prophecy of how new media would alter the sensibility of mankind:
The format of the press—that is, its structural characteristics—were quite naturally taken over by the poets after Baudelaire in order to evoke an inclusive awareness. Our ordinary newspaper page today is not only symbolist and surrealist in an avant-garde way, but it was the earlier inspiration of symbolism and surrealism in art and poetry, as anybody can discover by reading Flaubert or Rimbaud. Approached as newspaper form, any part of Joyce's Ulysses or any poem of T. S. Eliot's before the Quartets is more readily enjoyed. Such, however, is the austere continuity of book culture that it scorns to notice these liaisons dangereuses among the media, especially the scandalous affairs of the book-page with electronic creatures from the other side of the linotype.
In McLuhan's historical narrative of the last millennium, the invention of the printing press transfigured western culture. Orderly lines of type, whatever they happened to say, by their mere form turned western Europe into a visually-oriented, linear, and regularized society, with consequences as far-reaching as the development of perspective in painting, classical mechanics in physics, and gunfire in war—all highly visual phenomena. Literate culture is mechanical and leads to the growth of vast mechanisms like heavy industry and the nation-state, even as it disaggregates society into a corps of regulated but distinct individuals. The antitype of print culture is oral culture, which, while centered on the ear, is tribal, intimate, and participatory, and therefore easily disarticulated when introduced to the combined centripetal (individualizing) and centrifugal (nationalizing) forces of print. Yet mechanical culture becomes electric culture as early as the mid-19th-century with the telegraph and its media offspring, the modern newspaper and its bewilderingly non-linear aggregate of disparate human-interest stories. Artists received the wire report quite early:
The meaning of the telegraph mosaic in its journalistic manifestations was not lost to the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. He used it to establish two startlingly new inventions, the symbolist poem and the detective story. Both of these forms require do it yourself participation on the part of the reader. By offering an incomplete image or process, Poe involved his readers in the creative process in a way that Baudelaire, Valéry, T. S. Eliot, and many others have admired and followed. Poe had grasped at once the electric dynamic as one of public participation in creativity. Nevertheless, even today the homogenized consumer complains when asked to participate in creating or completing an abstract poem or painting or structure of any kind. Yet Poe knew even then that participation in depth followed at once from the telegraph mosaic. The more lineal and literal-minded of the literary brahmins "just couldn't see it." They still can't see it. They prefer not to participate in the creative process. They have accommodated themselves to the completed packages, in prose and verse and in the plastic arts. It is these people who must confront, in every classroom in the land, students who have accommodated themselves to the tactile and nonpictorial modes of symbolist and mythic structures, thanks to the TV image.
Electric culture reaches its apogee in television, as aforementioned. In McLuhan's celebrated distinction, TV is a "cool" medium, a fragmentary and low-information form that needs audience collaboration to consummate itself (other cool media include the woodblock print and the comic book). "Hot" media, by contrast, are much more high-resolution and therefore require less work from the audience, whether the medium is print, with its orderly exposition, or radio, with its hypnotic tribal rhythm.[2]

Does this hot/cool distinction hold up? Not especially. I laughed when McLuhan wrote that TV so solicits our participation that it can't be experienced as background noise—it was the background noise of my entire childhood. I suspect he was overly dazzled by the medium's novelty. Meanwhile, I was reading a print copy of his book, a battered old '60s paperback. I enjoyed its musty vanilla smell and the cursive red-pen annotations of its previous owner (Dorothy Lamberton, according to her inscription on the title page) even as I underlined sentences and scribbled in the tiny margins myself. Unless I don't grasp what he means by "participation," I participated more in reading his book that I ever have in watching TV. On the other hand, almost everything he writes about TV applies tenfold to social media, from its participatory character to the way it permits the emergence of social groups that been literally marginalized by the regularizing function of print culture:
As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree. It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro, the teen-ager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media.
Even here, though, is the medium really the message? Is all print matter equal? Didn't the novel, back in the 18th century, give a social voice to women and the working class? Wasn't it Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, not television or even telegraph, that brought down slavery in the 19th? And, finally, doesn't McLuhan know this perfectly well when he celebrates modernism as a monumental anti-literature, a literature that turns print inside out to effloresce as the invitingly portent-struck chaos of the newly-networked cosmos? For modernism to be the Golden Age he makes it ("[the modernists] gave the arts of this century an ascendancy over those of other ages comparable to that which we have long recognized as true of modern science"), its creators had to have more agency that he grants them.

I don't deny that media has a message. This would read differently if I were writing it by hand, by candlelight, in a silent room, or if I were pounding it out on a manual typewriter. Instead I am typing it into a TextEdit document, copying and pasting quotations from an illicit pdf of the book, switching over to YouTube to change the music and then to another browser tab to see what's trending on social media, with glances at my phone to see if any email has come through, not to mention guiltily avoiding the open tab with the "SpeedGrader" where I'm supposed to be reading student essays even now, when the hour is approaching midnight. As McLuhan says at the end of the book, the electric age makes us all modern artists, lifelong and 24-hour-a-day learners and teachers arranging information into new patterns. Yet to be this conscious arranger, I must also be more than the machine's unconscious pollinator; the message must be, as much or more than the medium's, mine.

[1] McLuhan describes this process of making meaning from the TV as "closure," the term Scott McCloud will borrow for the experience of reading comics in his own Understanding volume, but McLuhan allows that comic books and TV are media kin. He also says that TV has induced a decline in comics—a statement written three years into the Marvel revolution, in the prime of Jack Kirby's creative life. Like many of his prophecies, it's suggestive but unpersuasive.

[2] Which radio rhythm McLuhan, incidentally, blames for the rise of Hitler, along with the comparative savagery of Germans. His anthropology—e.g., much talk of "primitives"—will not cheer the contemporary reader, though his overall point that the west returns via electric media to premodern ways just as the east, due its later industrialization, enters the modern mentality, is probably not a wrong description of the midcentury situation despite the offensively outdated language.
Profile Image for Ondřej Sliš.
9 reviews25 followers
March 25, 2019
Marshall McLuhan je pro mediální vědu nedostižný vzor: inspiruje ji, ukazuje jí cestu, definuje její působení – podobně jako tuhle větu jistá vágnost.

McLuhan má současně problém. Z jeho myšlenek přežívá jen výseč a ta je šeredně překroucená. Koncepty globální vesnice, horkých a chladných médií nebo medium is the message stále žijou: ale myslím si, že McLuhana už nikdo doopravdy nečte. Veliká škoda. Tyhle koncepty, který se člověk naučí na test– to je jen odrazovej můstek. Nejdřív k němu, stojí za to.

V podstatě všechny McLuhanovy koncepty říkají: média zásadně proměňujou svět – a nejde o jejich obsah. Každé z médií zvrátí naše smysly: jejich zapojení, utlumení, rovnováhu mezi nimi. Třeba knížky: nezáleží, jestli čtete Ziburu anebo cokoliv. Důležité je, že nás knihtisk naučil orientaci především na zrak. Naučil nás očekávat uniformní písmena. Odstup od věcí, racionalitu. Harlekýn na babčině stole není romantika: je to exemplář zlověstného nástroje, který na čas vytrhl západního člověka ze vší přirozenosti do mechanického, horkého světa.

A takhle McLuhan pracuje. Začne s víceméně seriózním konceptem – a potom s jeho pomocí vysvětlí s nevídanou divokostí úplně všechno. Číst jeho text po padesáti letech je samozřejmě horská dráha. Tu ho jeho dobrodružství zavede k vnímavému proroctví, tu k vážně-dalšímu? poznatku o životě divochů.

Ať máte představu. Médium auta je demokratizující: vytváří z nás všech šlechtu, každý se stává ve svém voze rytířem. Americká kultura je nejvizuálnější, nejmechaničtější: proto jsou tamější ženy nejkrásnější ze všech (a pro Evropany zároveň nesnesitelně loutkovité).

Vedle toho působí veliká spousta jeho náznaků (použiju to slovo, ano) prorocky. McLuhan předvídá Amazon i Google Calendar a ukazuje, že pro orální Rusy je nejsilnější zbraní zasévání idejí. Je to jako na skládce. Vedle šuntu se válí skvělé kousky. Myslím, že Jak rozumět médiím se tak hodí spíš k hospodskému tlachání než akademické analýze. A největším přínosem je důraz kladený na onen neviditelný vliv médií. Začnete si všímat, jak se kvůli Messengeru promítají oči a hlas našich blízkých do každé naší akce a myšlenky. A proměňuje zážitek z čtení existence Goodreads? Já nevím.

//náhodná citace z knížky: "Když ve třicátých letech miliónová vydání comics zaplavila mladé lidi kalužemi krve, zřejmě nikoho nenapadlo, že emociálně je násilí miliónů automobilů v našich ulicích nesrovnatelně hysteričtější než vše, co kdy bylo vytištěno. Kdyby se všichni nosorožci a hroši světa sešli v jednom městě, nemohli by ani zdaleka vytvořit takové ohrožení a explozívní intenzitu, jakou dnes a denně zakoušíme s výbušnými motory. To se od lidí vskutku očekává, že všechnu tu sílu a explozivní násilí budou internalizovat, že tedy s nimi budou žít, aniž by je kompenzovali a vyvážili jakousi formou fantazie?"

A "Moralismus je v technologických záležitostech až příliš často pouhou náhražkou pochopení."
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews120 followers
August 22, 2018
It isn't always easy but it is often amazing. UNDERSTANDING MEDIA is a challenging, zesty, occasionally outrageous book that was first published in 1964 and sent media studies -- and their applications to such fields as advertising --straight into orbit. McLuhan coined the term "global village" and that's just one of his many contributions to the fledgling field of media studies. Nearly fifty-five years later, many of McLuhan's insights seem not so revolutionary -- such as his statement that the American economy in the early 1960's was based on television just as surely as the economy of the Deep South prior to the Civil War was based on cotton. Well worth picking up and reading, even after all this time.
Profile Image for David Kadavy.
Author 20 books231 followers
August 31, 2021
It's rare that I read a book that has this profound an impact on the way I see the world. It happens maybe once a decade.

We've all heard the term, "the medium is the message" thrown around, but how many of us really know what that means? I didn't before, and now I do.

But an even more valuable idea from the book was McLuhan's identification of "mechanical" versus "electric" technology. Mechanical technology "explodes" the world, causing us to formalize things to work with the technology. Electric technology "implodes" the world, making it possible to leap across any barriers we've created to help mechanical technology work. You can see the stress between mechanical and electric technology everywhere. This book was before its time.

I have a lot to say about this book, so I wrote an entire summary about it here: https://kadavy.net/blog/posts/underst...
Profile Image for Michael.
907 reviews135 followers
December 25, 2016
This is the book that introduced the phrase “the medium is the message,” which is now so axiomatic in discussions of modern media that it constitutes a dominant paradigm (and will probably be overthrown by a new paradigm in a few years). Although a lot of the arguments here are based in what we think of as “old media,” this is still a basic text in media studies, and it probably is necessary to introduce students to serious consideration of how electronic media have changed social interaction, although they will immediately see that a lot has changed since their parents’ (and grandparents’!) day.

McLuhan is one of those thinkers whose ideas are more convincing than his evidence. In some sense, “the medium is the message” is an insight that could only come from thinking about the subject outside of the usual lines of empirical research, but at times it seems that McLuhan is out his depth, as when he discusses linguistics or sociology. As an English professor, he is comfortable with the intuitive approach of the humanities, but he will not satisfy those looking for hard science to help understand social changes. As an example of how this affects his argument, he begins with the interesting idea that an electric lightbulb is “pure information,” “a medium without a message,” but then, he does not stop to analyze what the implications of this deliberately “meaningless” medium are, or how it differs from gaslight or candlelight in its effect on society, he simply leaves it at that and moves on to media which more clearly carry content, asserting that the content is unimportant, or, at least less important. It is this sort of leaping that can be frustrating to a reader who wants to look more closely at the concepts.

My edition of the book compares its importance (or McLuhan’s) to that of Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov. It now seems unlikely that McLuhan’s name would be placed so highly, although it is true that some of his ideas live on as aphorisms. In addition to “the medium is the message,” there is the concept of the “global village,” which McLuhan coined. Some also give him credit for predicting the World Wide Web, but in this he was noticeably unilluminating, and rather far behind some of those who really were working on early computer connectivity. It seems to me as if his “household name” status has declined as we have moved into a post-television era, but for historians of media, he will surely still be relevant to consider.
Profile Image for Valentina Κιαγ..
31 reviews1 follower
May 17, 2019
A very thorough restrospective on the invention of media and communication and how, it not only affected but was a large factor in creating human society.
McLuhan dedicated his life into analyzing the media that were invented by humans and how it came to change their way of life and thinking. Media is not only about improvement and speed, it is an extension of our senses and it is connected to our nervous system. What kind of media and the way we use them will define our way of thinking and the content of them.
Your enviroment you grow up in, nourishes you and it ultimately wants to control every cell of our body if it can.
A fascinating study that makes you think twice and question the way your enviroment was created and for what purpose.
Profile Image for Anita.
219 reviews11 followers
October 23, 2017
how much of my awe @ this book is just bc it confirms my deepest fears about excelling only in Word Literacy and completely neglecting (and not even knowing how to approach) Visual and Audio Literacy!!!!!! Check this:

"Failure in perception occurs precisely in giving attention to the program “content” of our media while ignoring the form, whether it be radio or print or the English language itself. There have been countless Newton Minows (formerly head of the Federal Communications Commission) to talk about the Wasteland of the Media, men who know nothing about the form of any medium whatever. They imagine that a more earnest tone and a more austere theme would pull up the level of the book, the press, the movie, and TV. They are wrong to a farcical degree. They have only to try out their theory for fifty consecutive words in the mass medium of the English language. What would Mr. Minow do, what would any advertiser do, without the well-worn and corny clichés of popular speech? Suppose that we were to try for a few sentences to raise the level of our daily English conversation by a series of sober and serious sentiments? Would this be a way of getting at the problems of improving the medium? If all English were enunciated at a Mandarin level of uniform elegance and sententiousness, would the language and its users be better served? There comes to mind the remark of Artemus Ward that “Shakespeare wrote good plays but he wouldn’t have succeeded as the Washington correspondent of a New York daily."

what an argument! and then he builds further on this:
"Uniformity reached also into areas of speech and writing, leading to a single tone and attitude to reader and subject spread throughout an entire composition. The “man of letters” was born. Extended to the spoken word, this literate equitone enabled literate people to maintain a single “high tone” in discourse that was quite devastating, and enabled nineteenth-century prose writers to assume moral qualities that few would now care to simulate. Permeation of the colloquial language with literate uniform qualities has flattened out educated speech till it is a very reasonable acoustic facsimile of the uniform and continuous visual effects of typography. From this technological effect follows the further fact that the humor, slang, and dramatic vigor of American-English speech are monopolies of the semi-literate."

Maybe eventually Benedict Anderson read this book (I have nothing intelligent to say about Imagined Communities and Nationalism because I've only read basically wikipedia and sparknotes about Anderson bc im garbage) and then wrote his thing?

Anyway, I was discussing this with a Friend who works at Facebook, and he said: "Wait. Literally they tell us "The medium is the message" during training. And I nearly choked bc remember when Marky Z and Jack what's his name were like The Trending Topics are Surfaced By Algorithms; We Are A Medium! But if they actually wanna quote Marshall McLuhan they better be thinking about how the Rapid Conveyance of Information is also the message!

Frick. So anyway now I feel like I need to watch more movies. This is coincidentally how i'm retroactively justifying the 2 hours I spent watching Best Vines of All Time on Youtube today.
Profile Image for Jan D.
138 reviews10 followers
June 18, 2020
It’s complicated.
First of all: It is relatively easy to read; most of the vocabulary is common, the sentences are not overly complex, particularly given that McLuhan was followed by other media scholars, who were much harder to read. You need to be able to cope with the bold, short statements of what will happen and to whom, often without any explanation. I enjoyed that it discussed the effects of media often via literature and poetry.

I mainly read this since it is known to have had a big influence on silicon valley culture. And a lot of assumptions and tropes in the book are common in the tech industry. So it clearly delivered in regards to digging into tech culture.

The book is about “media”, and a lot of chapters are also about what one would commonly refer to as media. However, McLuhan makes the term really broad, saying that media is any technology and any “extension of man”. So it is hard to find things that can not be discussed as media under this assumptions.

Fitting to the idea that problems can be fixed with technology, McLuhans view on media is deterministic. The people who use the media, the content or context only have an incidental effect. What matters is the medium itself and what it essentially entails. It changes society and the people’s very thinking. No wonder it appeals to people who see themselves as creating media itself.

Utopian ideas, like the global village, the integration of all areas of life and the end of linearity are described by McLuhan. But while his “we” and “us” is centered on educated men in the US and Canada. All culture gets a generalizing treatment: “We”, “The Russian”, “The European” and “The African” are repeated archetypes.

So… it is an interesting read, particularly given it’s influence on the “californian ideology”. McLuhan has a lot of creative and interesting ideas and can convey them in captivating prose. Yet the sweeping predictions without explanations, the employed stereotypes and the idea,that agency is only in the medium itself, makes it also disconcerting.
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