Understanding Media Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, argues that a medium is best understood, from a functional perspective, as a technological “extension” of a human sense. Thus, the medium of radio extends the sense of hearing, and the medium of the printed book extends the visual sense into the once predominantly oral-aural realm of language. For McLuhan, even clothing (or fashion) becomes a medium, extending the tactile sense of the skin. Even a light bulb is a medium: a technological advancement upon the candle, which is itself a medium or tool that extends human vision into the dark.

From this functional premise comes a second: The medium itself constitutes its own primary content or message. As media interact with one another, they influence human perceptions and alter the balance of a person’s senses (vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell). These changes in a person correspond with larger social changes and usually are rooted in the introduction of new media that significantly change not only what society perceives but also, more important, how society perceives.

Understanding Media expands upon the argument made in McLuhan’s previous work The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962). The earlier book studies how the introduction of typography at the beginning of the European Renaissance supplanted the predominantly oral-aural culture of medieval Europe and increased the importance of the visual sense at the expense of the oral-aural. The cool, detached visual sense helped nurture a rational Humanism that replaced the hot, engaged, oral-aural-dominated world of medieval Europe; in medieval times, truth was a matter of religious revelation. By providing a uniform system of printing and the verbatim repeatability of written works, the medium of typography also informed “messages” that ranged from the scientific method and individual rights to democracy and nationalism.

Understanding Media broadens The Gutenberg Galaxy’s distinction between Europe’s medieval “tribal” culture and an industrialized, modern Western culture. At the same time, McLuhan argues that the introduction of electronic media (including radio, television, and computer-based communication) is “retribalizing” modern culture into postliterate social organizations based on a new balance of the senses (with less dominance of the detached visual sense). McLuhan argues that tribal societies are relationship-intensive and have little industrial specialization. For example, in addressing the medium of games, he argues that baseball epitomizes nineteenth century industrialization with its specific roles for each...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)