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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

Understanding Media: Extensions of Man is a critical analysis of media studies which offers a new approach. McLuhan argues that for too long media studies has been distracted by the content of media rather than how it is brought to viewers. He believes, controversially, that content is not nearly as important as the mediums through which media is conveyed. Many of his contemporaries were arguing that content was central. A major focus has been on whether or not violence in media is impacting children or how subliminal messaging about drugs and alcohol is brought to teenagers. However, McLuhan takes a new approach and considers the mediums of technology themselves and the varying effects they have on the viewer.

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McLuhan believes technology to be extensions of humans. The first technology he considers is human speech. He writes that this is the original form of media and that it is what all other forms of technology are built off of. He generally writes positively of physical forms of technology. For example, he seems to believe that technology, such as bicycles and light bulbs have revolutionized media. While these mediums have no content, they have changed the ways we are able to consume content. For example, bicycles revolutionized newspaper routes, and light bulbs created a sense of space at night that was night quite as possible before.

However, McLuhan writes generally negatively about electronic technologies that are used to expand consciousness. Understanding Media is most well known for its distinctions between “hot” and “cool” mediums. McLuhan makes clear that these are not definitive categories and depend greatly on the culture and context of where they are introduced. Hot mediums have limited viewer participation. For example, a movie theater is quiet and dark. There is little to distract you than the movie itself. Cool mediums have increased viewer participation. McLuhan gives the telephone as an example of this medium, because the telephone is a two way conversation that requires participation.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097

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...

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