“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”


The quote “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”  is often mistakenly attributed to Marshall McLuhan. It does NOT appear in “Understanding Media”, as Wilson Miner confidently asserts in the presentation below, indeed it does not appear in any published work by McLuhan at all. The quote was actually written by Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham University in New York and friend of McLuhan. But though the quote is Culkin’s, I would argue that the idea is McLuhan’s, as it comes up in an article by Culkin about McLuhan: Culkin, J.M. (1967, March 18). A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. Saturday Review, pp. 51-53, 71-72. The idea presented in the quote is entirely consistent with McLuhan’s thinking on technology in general.

Photos of Father John Culkin and Marshall McLuhan

 This excellent 38 minute presentation by digital product designer Wilson Miner is titled “When We Build” and weaves together a discussion about Marshall McLuhan, Steve Jobs, the things we design and build, cars, computers, art and design. It is well worth watching and listening to.

About Wilson Miner http://wilsonminer.com/

64 Responses to ““We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us””

  1. Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or guest authoring on other websites?

    I have a blog centered on the same subjects you
    discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information.
    I know my subscribers would value your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free
    to send me an email.


  2. Thanks, I wish I had the time. Time … it’s the only thing they’re not making more of…….AlexK


  3. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” was in a McLuhan publication, just not a book. It is on the recording “The Medium is the Massage” which was released in 1967. You can hear on side 2 at the 15:45 mark on my copy. He was actually rephrasing Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings and they shape us.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll check that out, Ray. It’s been awhile since I listened to that recording. But in this collection of quotes from the recording, that quote is correctly attributed to John M. Culkin: http://www.themediumisthemassage.com/the-record/ . Thanks……AlexK


  5. 5 Nate

    I just found audio from “The Medium is the Massage” on Youtube. At the 15:50 mark is “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfDS5YsasYw


  6. Sir, I’ve approved your pingback, despite your ill-informed comments about Marshall McLuhan:”master of misdirection, provocation, and the willfully obtuse”. That reflects a superficial understanding of McLuhan that amounts to misunderstanding. On his most famous aphorism, you might want to read this explanation: https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/the-medium-is-the-message/ . Thanks….Alex


  7. 7 Matthew

    Not that it really matters, but it was published! I can’t remember the book exactly. you might be right in that it wasn’t in understanding media, but I remember reading that quote for the first time in a library and it was a book written by mcluhan, not just quoting him, or Culkin as you pointed out. I’s seens it with me own two eyes!!


  8. One other place you might have seen it in a book is in Lewis Lapham’s Intro to the MIT Press edition of Understanding in Media. Other than that, you won’t find it written by McLuhan himself. I have looked. So has Eric McLuhan, MM’s #1 son. In fact, he was the one who asked me about it and started me on this query. The proof is in the pudding. If you can show it in anything written by MM, tell us precisely where. Thanks for your interest…….Alex


  9. 9 Matthew

    hmmm I see


  10. 10 Matthew

    Yes now that I think of it, it would be a preface because I started from the beginning of the book.


  11. 11 Outta Names

    Yes! However the actual quote on the album sounds more like this: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools ‘ape us”.


  12. 12 anon900

    [audio src="https://ubusound.memoryoftheworld.org/mcluhan_marshall/Mcluhan-Marshall_The-Medium-Is-The-Massage_02-Stereo.mp3" /]

    you can hear it at 15:50


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