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

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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.

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 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 player, whereas football and ice hockey (with roles supposedly less specialized than baseball) are tribal sports indicative of postindustrial electronic culture. As the baseball-football example suggests, McLuhan is quick to make general observations that may not stand up to specialist scrutiny.

One of McLuhan’s motifs in Understanding Media is the limitation of specialist research and scholarship. Trained as a literary critic, he makes ample use of literary allusions, ranging from Andrew Marvell and John Milton to T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, to demonstrate the influence of book and print technology on the themes and psyche of literary artists. However, he also relies heavily on cultural historians such as Arnold Toynbee and Lewis Mumford to document the effects of media such as the wheel, roads, and towns on cultural evolution.

Perhaps the essay form of Michel de Montaigne had been McLuhan’s primary model for his thirty-three chapter book. McLuhan decries academic specialism, both in theme and form. Each essay in Understanding Media (on topics ranging from roads and housing to radio, the telegraph, and automation) passes easily from general to particular without documentation and support for lofty generalizations. For example, the chapter “Games” moves from a discussion of tribal ritual and the founding of the Greek Olympics to observations on baseball and football in less than three pages. At times, intriguing ideas that might form the topic of an entire book-length study are raised in one paragraph, only to be dropped in the next. For instance, McLuhan comments that the social customs of one generation become the games of the next—those games then can become the jokes of the succeeding generation. However, he provides no examples and moves on to his next point. Likewise, McLuhan aims for a popular audience beyond the specialist realms of academia by incorporating informal language and slang into his arguments. He uses terms such as “fun,” “puny,” and “flunky” as well as phrases such as “global village” and “an eye for an ear.”

McLuhan is most prescient in his analysis of the effects of electronic media on language, communication, and social patterns. For McLuhan, the repeatability of print typography altered the balance of the human senses to favor the visual, therefore underscoring the values of uniformity and equality. These values, in turn, led to the development of industrialization by specialists in production and to the invention of mass-manufactured interchangeable parts. The influence of the electronic media of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he continues, is only beginning to be felt; electronic media, he argues, will have the same transformative power that typography had exerted in the Renaissance. While Understanding Media is a product of the 1960’s, and McLuhan had died in 1980, the book nevertheless anticipates the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the late twentieth century. With the Web, especially, came new forms of instantaneous, global, emotionally intensive, and interactive forms of communication, such as blogging and social networking.

Perhaps the most audacious claim of Understanding Media is that “electronic circuitry” (his term for digital media, including the Internet and Web) serves not only as an extension of a person’s central nervous system but also as a means of developing a global collective consciousness. At this point in his argument, McLuhan appears to be departing from social science and entering the realm of science fiction—or its progenitor, mythology. He seems to be envisioning a universal self, fragmented in a primordial fall into individual beings connected and disconnected by a variety of communication media that will one day become reintegrated into wholeness and unity. In his work, he acknowledges his debt to the myth of a universal self delineated in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) and to William Blake’s prophecies of the fall and rise of the universal human being in Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820).

It remains to be seen how digital media will furhter influence the human senses (or nurture new combinations into being) and possibly speed civilization’s evolution or decay, but it is clear that McLuhan’s interest in these possibilities show him to be an ambitious thinker willing to take on the mantle of prophet rather than submit to the humble role of social critic.


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