Reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media


Book review

I guess there are many more people who refer to Marshal McLuhan than people who have actually read his work. This is a pity. McLuhan is certainly worth reading. “Understanding Media” was written in 1964 and is widely considered to be a visionary book. The cover claims: “In 1964, this looked like the paranoid babblings of a madman. In our twenty-first-century digital world the madman looks quite sane”. I must say that to me, most of “Understanding Media” still seems like babblings of madman. The book is hard to read; there are flaws in McLuhans theory; these are plentiful and easy to pick out. It is not a book with clear-cut answers on practical problems. But some books are not about the answers but about the questions. Marshal McLuhan, does a wonderful job at asking questions. So if you take the effort to endure his paranoid babbling, Mcluhan manages to bring you a fresh, tantalizing and haunting perspective on media and their effects on society.

In a nutshell McLuhans theory is as follows. Media are ‘extensions of man’ (1). They extend our motor skills (wheels over legs) or our nervous system (telephone extends our ears). (2) The impact of media goes beyond the content. The impact of the newspaper is not the news, but the fact there is news, where there was none before. (3) There is a distinction between hot media and cool media. Cool media are informal, participative, low definition and hot media as formal, consumptive high definition. Twitter would be a cool medium while the dictionary would be a hot medium. (4) Media can heat up and reverse when they develop. McLuhan gives the example of roads, connecting the workplace (country) to a leisure place (the city) reversing work and leisure. We used to work in the country, but nowadays we work in the city, roads made that happen. (5) We do not often see what media does to us, because they have a numbing effect on us. Media strengthen one sense over the other, but we don’t notice this. For the medium to work we need to embrace it. And thus we accept its displacement of perception, making the medium invisible to us. After setting out this theory in a couple of dense essay’s, McLuhan devotes a short chapter on a host of specific media: the spoken word, the written word, roads and paper routes, number, clothing, housing, money, clocks, print, comics, the printed word, wheel, bicycle and airplane, the photograph, press, motor car, ads, games, telegraph, typewriter, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, television, weapons and automation. While it is not always clear what the purpose of each chapter is, these later chapters do help to grasp McLuhan’s theory in a better way.

It is easy to dismiss McLuhan for his lack of precision and clarity, but this is a general weakness of radical thinkers. It is hard to be clear when you try to say something completely new. A more serious problem with “Understanding Media” is McLuhan’s blunt technological determinism. It is fair to say that the printing press has played a role in the reformation of the church; it is a different thing to call it “the architect of nations”. McLuhan acts as if the press was the sole reason that western society as a whole changed after its invention. He does not explain why we didn’t see the same changes in other places with the printing press. Also, he takes no effort to explain the process by which the press is such a changing agent. Using this ‘seven miles booth’ approach to the philosophy of technology, he makes himself immune for counter arguments with an empirical basis.

Apart from pointing at the printing press as the ‘architect of nations’, McLuhan draws a more general account about how power structures change when communication ‘speeds up’, which I do find convincing. The account starts with the city states of ancient Greece, and the invention of the phonetic alphabet. Because of this user-friendly way of writing (as opposed to Chinese signs) and because of stone roads, rulers could exert power (giving orders) over greater distances. This helped the Roman Empire to grow so big. Later it helped the catholic church build its power across Europe. While it is easy to centralize power on land, it is harder to do so overseas. Boats do not travel as fast as is possible overland. McLuhan credits the independence of the US from the British Empire to this difference in speed. According to McLuhan, inventing the telegraph and following electronic media will end this centralizing effect and after years of ‘expansion’ the western world is about to ‘collapse’ and it will retribalize. Partly because electronic media allow such speeds that centralizing becomes unnecessary partly because radio and TV have become as dominant as print. Thus restoring the ‘balance of the senses’. There is much to say against this account of events, but this idea of a global village that is retribalizing remains strangely captivating. I will most likely try to disentangle it in a later post.

McLuhan looks at media and their effects on society in global terms, on large time scales and describes the effects he sees in a very eclectic way. The questions McLuhan poses are stick, but there will never be final answers. This doesn’t matter. McLuhan is essential reading for those who want to grasp the of outlook other media critics like Geert Lovink (I discussed some of his thinking in my Googlization post). But it is also essential reading for those who make sweeping claims a bit to easily. If you think that social media changes everything and the world in particular: try to put in to a historic perspective spanning hundreds of years and try looking at it at a global scale. This puts the word change back into perspective.

Reading More

I wrote specifically about McLuhan’s views on money, in my post Living Without Money.

10 Responses to “Reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media”

  1. I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it’s an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

  2. hi I was luck to search your subject in bing
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  3. Reblogged this on REMILEKUN DOSUMU.

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