Understanding Media for Fifty Years


2014 will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s most important book: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

Cover for Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan MIT Press 1994

Posted by Marko Lindgren on November 6, 2012

Actually it is quite surprising how little Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man[1] has aged. Most of it is still very difficult to read and understand simultaneously. For example the first time I tried to understand the difference between hot and cool medium was some twenty years ago. I didn’t succeed. Now the second attempt wasn’t much more successful, but we’ll get to that later.

Naturally, some of the ideas in the book echo the ethos of the sixties in an endearing way, but at the same time, in many occasions McLuhan writes just as the book was written yesterday, not in 1964. Of course, I read the book through my own experience, context and view of the world, but still, it is pretty marvelous, how McLuhan 50 years ago recognized topics that are very much up-to-date even today. Actually, the book is so full of topical ideas, that in this first post I will cover the Part I of the book.

Personally I’m interested in user experience, and in broader media context, audience experience. McLuhan doesn’t touch the topic of mass media much, just like Lewis H. Lapham writes in the introduction of the reprint edition: the definition comes almost at the end of the book, on page 349[2]. Mass media, according to McLuhan, is not so much about the size of the audiences, but the fact that everybody becomes involved in them at the same time[3]. This applied to radio and TV at the time, but I think it applies as well or even better to social media of our times.

Another interesting analogue Lapham brings up[4] is the similarity between the effects of aviation and the Internet, and how aviation released the mankind from the exile sentenced by Gutenberg and Italian Renaissance. Just replace the aviation/airplane with the Internet:

… in one spot one could touch every part of the world because of aviation. […] the mosaic or iconic principle of simultaneous touch and interplay that is inherent in the implosive speed of the airplane.[5]

McLuhan sees the connection between aviation and the electric information movement, radio and TV, but of course he didn’t have a clue of a networked information movement. In that respect, it is quite amusing to realize, that the Internet hasn’t changed the world that much after all. The change happened already a lot earlier.

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The Medium is the Message

Probably one of the most quoted slogans from McLuhan is the Medium is the Message. What does it then mean in multichannel media environment? And when we add the idea that with electricity things that used to be sequential became instant[6], how does it help us understand the Internet environment?

In the seminar of Multichannel user experience[7] professor Göte Nyman connected multi channel experience to multi sensory experience. Media can be experienced thru e.g. hearing, seeing, touch, shape and motion. Users are not only receivers, but also active participants, who thru media attribution get the context, based on which they conclude the meaning, i.e. message. For example, the size of the display has a strong impact on the involvement of the user. The bigger the screen the less involved users are.

The involvement, or in McLuhan’s words, participation, is his master classification for media. Hot medium has a lot of data, is high definition, thus, according to McLuhan, requires less participation, or completing from the audience. Cool medium on the other hand carries little information and requires higher participation. Hot form excludes, cool form includes. A detective story makes the reader to participate as a co-author to fill in the blanks the writer has left in the narrative.[8]

In this respect how do online media fit in the picture? One could claim, that they are high definition, multi channel, and a lot of data. The Internet has definitely also collapsed earlier hierarchies[9]. At the same time, online media expects high participation from its audience. Should we then call online media lukewarm?

McLuhan correctly points out, that a medium gets its meaning or existence only in constant interplay with other media. In this approach however, the role of the audience is nonexistent. Similarly accurately he notes, that media studies are moving away from content studies to study total effect.[10]

Recent social media -originated Arab spring unrest[11] brings McLuhan’s idea of programming cultures to keep their emotional climate stable[12] to a chilling light. He thought that cool medium, like TV, could cool down tribal temperature raised by hot medium, like radio. McLuhan claims the impact of a hot medium can be violent when used in cool, nonliterate cultures[13]. Of course, this time TV actually increased the tribal temperature ignited by the online media.

Technological development has made online media our times vacuum cleaner and washing machine. At the time, these “labor-saving” devices didn’t so much save work, but allowed everybody to do their own work[14]. Similarly, online media allows everybody to be their own journalist – or blogger (no pun intended). Totally different question is, if everybody should be their own service provider, or would professional services have some added value, after all. Read the rest at http://tinyurl.com/bcvmo9w .

[1] McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Reprint, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.

[2] Lapham, Lewis H. (1994) Introduction to the MIT Press Edition, in McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Reprint, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994. Page xii.

[3] McLuhan 1964, 349.

[4] Lapham 1994, xviii.

[5] McLuhan 1964, 185.

[6] McLuhan 1964, 12.

[7] Monikanavainen käyttökokemus, 10.9.2012 in Helsinki, http://www.sigchi.fi/node/177

[8] McLuhan 1964, 22-23, 29.

[9] McLuhan 1964, 24.

[10] McLuhan 1964, 26.

[12] McLuhan 1964, 28.

[13] McLuhan 1964, 30-31.

[14] McLuhan 1964, 36.

Cover of book by Marshall McLuhan entitled UNDERSTANDING MEDIA: THE EXTENSIONS OF MAN, 1964 1964 hardcover Edition

7 Responses to “Understanding Media for Fifty Years”

  1. 1 Marko Lindgren

    Hi Alex, Thank you for republishing my post. Much appreciated.

  2. 6 Ernesto León De la Rosa

    Reblogged this on notas desde el inxilio and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

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