Understanding Media

by Marshall McLuhan

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

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