Understanding Media

by Marshall McLuhan
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is an iconic and revolutionary text in media and communication studies. McLuhan takes a relatively nihilistic approach to technology and the impact it has had on humankind’s consumption of information. Rather than consider the content of media, McLuhan considers the medium through which it is brought to the viewer. Very controversially, McLuhan disregards content all together. He chooses to not consider the impact violence on television has on young children or subliminal messages that are brought to teenagers through advertisements. Instead, he focuses solely on how media is designed. He starts the book by saying, “the Western world is imploding.” Many have suggested the McLuhan is a technophobe for his general belief that technology has produced some of the worst mediums of media. He primarily argues that media is an extension of human beings. The original form of media was human speech. Technology has simply been building upon that from the start. McLuhan sees technologies with physical capacities, such as bicycles, as largely useful in expanding human capabilities. However, electronic technologies that expand consciousness are at the heart of the implosion he originally mentions. He does not outrightly say if technology is good or bad. However, the reader is left with a fatalistic feeling based on his writing.

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His writing is most well known for coining the ideas of “hot” and “cool” media. The definitions of these are designed to be fluid and depend on the culture and environment upon which the medium of media is introduced. The general idea is that “hot mediums” are designed so that the audience has limited participation. The example he offers is a movie theater. Here the environment is designed with limited stimuli besides the movie playing itself. The lights are dark and everyone stays quiet. “Cool mediums” require some work by the audiences. For example, television is often playing in the home where there are distractions.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849

“The medium is the message” is one of those phrases that seem to summarize in a synthetic, almost formulaic way a major insight of the twentieth century. As such, it has acquired the true mark of popular notoriety: It sounds both familiar and profound, but its meaning is only vaguely understood and its source is often unknown. In fact, tracing this phrase to the book in which it is first discussed at length and to the argument which its originator builds around it is instrumental to a full understanding of its relevance.

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, in which the cryptic phrase appears as a chapter title, was first published in 1964, but it did not attract wide attention until the following year, when extensive review articles appeared in The New Yorker and in other influential journals. From that moment on, the international debate over McLuhan’s controversial theory gained momentum, and Understanding Media rapidly became one of the most discussed books of the 1960’s.

That was probably a most unexpected turn of events for those who had followed the development of McLuhan’s intellectual career. A Canadian by birth, he had studied engineering and then literature at the University of Manitoba. He had subsequently specialized in literary criticism at the University of Cambridge in England. McLuhan greatly admired James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot and traced some of these authors’ stylistic innovations to the symbolism and linguistic dexterity of the Elizabethans. This early interest stimulated McLuhan’s own delight in the inventive use of unusual grammatical constructions, in the creation of puns, and in a formulaic style that very probably contributed to the popular impact of Understanding Media. Yet McLuhan’s early works seem to be squarely in the tradition of rather esoteric academic production, directed at a limited and specialized audience.

Some of the themes he was to develop fully in Understanding Media appear as early as 1951, in his book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. A subsequent work, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), takes up similar themes in a clearer form and presents the gist of McLuhan’s main theoretical contribution. The publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy, which received the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize—the Governor General’s Literary Award—caught the attention of Canadian intellectuals, but in general McLuhan was still considered a marginal phenomenon, a maverick academic with an unusual turn of mind. All that would change dramatically with the publication of Understanding Media.

This book expands on some of the ideas McLuhan had already introduced in previous works, but the theories are presented in a much more accessible, less specialized format. The style is both entertaining and slightly baffling. Ideas are organized in short, snappily written chapters, and concepts are repeated again and again, for emphasis and for clarification. The book is organized in two parts, each subdivided into a number of chapters. Part 1, containing seven chapters, lays down the theoretical foundations of McLuhan’s argument; part 2, divided into thirty-three shorter chapters, illustrates the argument in a systematic way.

The argument, which the phrase “the medium is the message” aptly summarizes, centers on the idea that the reality shared by people living in a certain culture or age is determined by the kind of psychic framework created by their senses. The five senses, however, do not always contribute equally to the creation of this framework for the simple reason that in the process of evolution humanity develops specialized forms of communication—the “media” of the title—which, by being extensions of particular senses, automatically reinforce the function of one sense at the expense of all others.

With the introduction of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, for example, the visual function underwent a tremendous overdevelopment, and this shift created societies that were fundamentally different from those typical of preliterate times, when people’s reality was based on the sense of hearing. This particular example, fully discussed in The Gutenberg Galaxy, is taken up again in Understanding Media, but here the focus expands from a description of the particular consequences of one technological innovation to the investigation of the very nature of media and their impact on the human psyche. The fundamental point McLuhan emphasizes is that all human technological innovations may significantly shape perception and cognition. Thus, they carry a communicative message that is rooted in their form rather than in their content. It is to this form and to the particular way it expands the functions of certain senses that human beings must pay attention in order to understand the process of social change affecting societies.

Furthermore, McLuhan suggests that this understanding is made urgent by the shift in perception being created by what he defines as “the new electric age.” As this shift gains momentum, the older forms of “typographic perception,” typical of Western civilization until the mid-twentieth century, lose their relevance and power. It is only through a full understanding of the mechanism by which media affect psychic constructs that one can prepare for this shift and for the new society it is creating.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37

Finkelstein, Sydney Walter. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan, 1968.

Miller, Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan, 1971.

Rosenthal, Raymond, ed. McLuhan: Pro and Con, 1967.

Stearn, Gerald, ed. McLuhan: Hot and Cool, 1967.

Theall, Donald. The Medium Is the Rear View Mirror: Understanding McLuhan, 1971.

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