Understanding Media

Last updated
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Understanding Media (1964 edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Marshall McLuhan
CountryCanada
LanguageEnglish
Subject Media theory
Publisher McGraw-Hill
Publication date
1964
Media typePrint (hardcover and paperback)
Pages318 (first edition)
ISBN 81-14-67535-7

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is a 1964 book by Marshall McLuhan, in which the author proposes that the media, not the content that they carry, should be the focus of study. He suggests that the medium affects the society in which it plays a role mainly by the characteristics of the medium rather than the content. The book is considered a pioneering study in media theory.

Contents

McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as an example. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence." [1]

More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society—in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children's shows or violent programming. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.

The book is the source of the well-known phrase "the medium is the message". It was a leading indicator of the upheaval of local cultures by increasingly globalized values. The book greatly influenced academics, writers, and social theorists. The book discussed the radical analysis of social change, how society is shaped, and reflected by communications media.

Summary

Throughout Understanding Media, McLuhan uses historical quotes and anecdotes to probe the ways in which new forms of media change the perceptions of societies, with specific focus on the effects of each medium as opposed to the content that is transmitted by each medium. McLuhan identified two types of media: "hot" media and "cool" media, drawing from French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss' distinction between hot and cold societies. [2] [3]

This terminology does not refer to the temperature or emotional intensity, nor some kind of classification, but to the degree of participation. Cool media are those that require high participation from users, due to their low definition (the receiver/user must fill in missing information). Since many senses may be used, they foster involvement. Conversely, hot media are low in audience participation due to their high resolution or definition. Film, for example, is defined as a hot medium, since in the context of a dark movie theater, the viewer is completely captivated, and one primary sense—visual—is filled in high definition. In contrast, television is a cool medium, since many other things may be going on and the viewer has to integrate all of the sounds and sights in the context.

In Part One, McLuhan discusses the differences between hot and cool media and the ways that one medium translates the content of another medium. Briefly, "the content of a medium is always another medium."

In Part Two, McLuhan analyzes each medium (circa 1964) in a manner that exposes the form, rather than the content of each medium. In order, McLuhan covers:

Concept of "media"

Marshall McLuhan Marshall McLuhan.jpg
Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan uses interchangeably the words medium, media, and technology.

For McLuhan a medium is "any extension of ourselves" or, more broadly, "any new technology." [4] Contrastly, in addition to forms such as newspapers, television, and radio, McLuhan includes the light bulb, [5] cars, speech, and language in his definition of media: all of these, as technologies, mediate our communication; their forms or structures affect how we perceive and understand the world around us.

McLuhan says that conventional pronouncements fail in studying media because they focus on content, which blinds them to the psychic and social effects that define the medium's true significance. McLuhan observes that any medium "amplifies or accelerates existing processes," introducing a "change of scale or pace or shape or pattern into human association, affairs, and action," which results in "psychic, and social consequences." [4] [5] This is the real "meaning or message" brought by a medium, a social and psychic message, and it depends solely on the medium itself, regardless of the 'content' emitted by it. [4] This is basically the meaning of "the medium is the message."

To demonstrate the flaws of the common belief that the message resides in how the medium is used (the content), McLuhan provides the example of mechanization, pointing out that regardless of the product (e.g.. corn flakes or Cadillacs), the impact on workers and society is the same. [4]

In a further exemplification of the common unawareness of the real meaning of media, McLuhan says that people "describe the scratch but not the itch." [6] As an example of "media experts" who follow this fundamentally flawed approach, McLuhan quotes a statement from "General" David Sarnoff (head of RCA), calling it the "voice of the current somnambulism." [7] Each medium "adds itself on to what we already are", realizing "amputations and extensions" to our senses and bodies, shaping them in a new technical form. As appealing as this remaking of ourselves may seem, it really puts us in a "narcissistic hypnosis" that prevents us from seeing the real nature of the media. [7] McLuhan also says that a characteristic of every medium is that its content is always another (previous) medium. [5] For an example in the new millennium, the Internet is a medium whose content is various mediums which came before it—the printing press, radio and the moving image.

An overlooked, constantly repeated understanding McLuhan has is that moral judgement (for better or worse) of an individual using media is very difficult, because of the psychic effects media have on society and their users. Moreover, media and technology, for McLuhan, are not necessarily inherently "good" or "bad" but bring about great change in a society's way of life. Awareness of the changes are what McLuhan seemed to consider most important, so that, in his estimation, the only sure disaster would be a society not perceiving a technology's effects on their world, especially the chasms and tensions between generations.

The only possible way to discern the real "principles and lines of force" of a media (or structure) is to stand aside from it and be detached from it. This is necessary to avoid the powerful ability of any medium to put the unwary into a "subliminal state of Narcissus trance," imposing "its own assumptions, bias, and values" on him. Instead, while in a detached position, one can predict and control the effects of the medium. This is difficult because "the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody." [8] One historical example of such detachment is Alexis de Tocqueville and the medium of typography. He was in such position because he was highly literate. [8] Instead, an historical example of the embrace of technological assumptions happened with the Western world, which, heavily influenced by literacy, took its principles of "uniform and continuous and sequential" for the actual meaning of "rational." [8]

McLuhan argues that media are languages, with their own structures and systems of grammar, and that they can be studied as such. He believed that media have effects in that they continually shape and re-shape the ways in which individuals, societies, and cultures perceive and understand the world. In his view, the purpose of media studies is to make visible what is invisible: the effects of media technologies themselves, rather than simply the messages they convey. Media studies therefore, ideally, seeks to identify patterns within a medium and in its interactions with other media. Based on his studies in New Criticism, McLuhan argued that technologies are to words as the surrounding culture is to a poem: the former derive their meaning from the context formed by the latter. Like Harold Innis, McLuhan looked to the broader culture and society within which a medium conveys its messages to identify patterns of the medium's effects. [9]

"Hot" and "cool" media

In the first part of Understanding Media, McLuhan also states that different media invite different degrees of participation on the part of a person who chooses to consume a medium. Some media, such as film, were "hot" - that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with "cool" TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be "hot", intensifying one single sense "high definition", demanding a viewer's attention, and a comic book to be "cool" and "low definition", requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value. [10]

"Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue." [11]

Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. Hot media favour analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, as they are usually sequential, linear and logical. They emphasize one sense (for example, of sight or sound) over the others. For this reason, hot media also include radio, as well as film, the lecture and photography.

Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term "cool media" as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean "detached." [12]

Examples of media and their messages

Examples of media and their messages
ExplanationsEssence (the real message)Content/use (the irrelevant message)
mechanization [4] [13] Provides human operators with machinery to assist them with the physical requirements of work. It is achieved "by fragmentation of any process and by putting the fragmented parts in a series."The essence is the "technique of fragmentation." It is "fragmentary, centralist, and superficial" in its reshaping of human relationships. The decomposition makes a process into a sequence, which has no principle of causality.the manufactured product (e.g. cornflakes or Cadillacs)
automation [4] Uses machinery to replace human operators.It is "integral and decentralist in depth"the manufactured product (e.g.. cornflakes or Cadillacs)
movie [13] Speeds up the mechanical (a sequence of frames)With the "sheer speeding up the mechanical, it carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations."
electricity [13] [14] The electric age The instant speed of electricity brought simultaneity. It ended the sequencing/concatenation introduced by mechanization, and so "the causes of things began to emerge to awareness again". "The electric speed further takes over from mechanical movie sequences, then the lines of force in structures and in media become loud and clear. We return to the inclusive form of the icon." It imposed the shift from the approach of focusing on "specialized segments of attention" (adopting one particular perspective), to the idea of "instant sensory awareness of the whole", an attention to the "total field", a "sense of the whole pattern". It made evident and prevalent the sense of "form and function as a unity", an "integral idea of structure and configuration". This had major impact in the disciplines of painting (with cubism), physics, poetry, communication and educational theory.
electric light [5] -"totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized... it eliminates time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth."usually none. (although it can be used to "spell out some brand name")
electric power in industry [5] -the same as the electric light(different from the electric light)
telegraph [5] print
print and typography [5] [8] [15] the new visual print culture The message are the principles of uniformity, continuity, and linearity. Impact on human associations: the printed word, through "cultural saturation" in the 18th century, "homogenized the French nation, overlaying the complexities of ancient feudal and oral society"; [16] this opened the way for the Revolution, which "was carried out by the new literati and lawyers." Limits on impact: it could not "take complete hold" on a society such as Great Britain, in which the preceding "ancient oral traditions of common law", that made the country culture so discontinuous and unpredictable and dynamic, was very powerful and "backed by the medieval legal institution of Parliament"; print culture, led instead to major revolutions in France and North America, because they were more linear and lacked contrasting institutions of comparable power.the written word
writing [5] speech
speech [5] "It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal"
radio [5]
telephone [5]
TV [5] "It speaks, and yet says nothing." [17]
railway [5] "it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure." freight; "functioning in a tropical or a northern environment"
airplane [5] "by accelerating the rate of transportation, it tends to dissolve the railway form of city, politics, and association"fast travel

Critiques of Understanding Media

Some theorists have attacked McLuhan's definition and treatment of the word "medium" for being too simplistic. Umberto Eco, for instance, contends that McLuhan's medium conflates channels, codes, and messages under the overarching term of the medium, confusing the vehicle, internal code, and content of a given message in his framework. [18]

In Media Manifestos, Régis Debray also takes issue with McLuhan's envisioning of the medium. Like Eco, he too is ill at ease with this reductionist approach, summarizing its ramifications as follows: [18]

The list of objections could be and has been lengthened indefinitely: confusing technology itself with its use of the media makes of the media an abstract, undifferentiated force and produces its image in an imaginary "public" for mass consumption; the magical naivete of supposed causalities turns the media into a catch-all and contagious "mana"; apocalyptic millenarianism invents the figure of a homo mass-mediaticus without ties to historical and social context, and so on.

Furthermore, when Wired interviewed him in 1995, Debray stated that he views McLuhan "more as a poet than a historian, a master of intellectual collage rather than a systematic analyst.... McLuhan overemphasizes the technology behind cultural change at the expense of the usage that the messages and codes make of that technology." [19]

Dwight Macdonald, in turn, reproached McLuhan for his focus on television and for his "aphoristic" style of prose, which he believes left Understanding Media filled with "contradictions, non-sequiturs, facts that are distorted and facts that are not facts, exaggerations, and chronic rhetorical vagueness." [20]

Additionally, Brian Winston’s Misunderstanding Media, published in 1986, chides McLuhan for what he sees as his technologically deterministic stances. [20] Raymond Williams and James W. Carey further this point of contention, claiming:

The work of McLuhan was a particular culmination of an aesthetic theory which became, negatively, a social theory [...] It is an apparently sophisticated technological determinism which has the significant effect of indicating a social and cultural determinism [...] If the medium - whether print or television – is the cause, of all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history is at once reduced to effects. (Williams 1990, 126/7) [20]

David Carr states that there has been a long line of "academics who have made a career out of deconstructing McLuhan’s effort to define the modern media ecosystem," whether it be due to what they see as McLuhan's ignorance toward socio-historical context or the style of his argument. [21]

While some critics have taken issue with McLuhan's writing style and mode of argument, McLuhan himself urged readers to think of his work as "probes" or "mosaics" offering a toolkit approach to thinking about the media. His eclectic writing style has also been praised for its postmodern sensibilities [22] and suitability for virtual space. [23]

Exploring theories

Communication technology's impact on Western culture. Print culture generates the most socially revolutionary and eversive forces, while electric media makes people more reactionary. SummaryDiagramVertical.png
Communication technology's impact on Western culture. Print culture generates the most socially revolutionary and eversive forces, while electric media makes people more reactionary.

McLuhan's theories about "the medium is the message" link culture and society. A recurrent topic is the contrast between oral cultures and print culture. [8]

Each new form of media, according to the analysis of McLuhan, shapes messages differently thereby requiring new filters to be engaged in the experience of viewing and listening to those messages.

McLuhan argues that as "sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the structure and of configuration". The main example is the passage from mechanization (processes fragmented into sequences, lineal connections) to electric speed (faster up to simultaneity, creative configuration, structure, total field). [14]

Howard Rheingold comments upon McLuhan's "the medium is the message" in relation to the convergence of technology, specifically the computer. In his book Tools for Thought Rheingold explains the notion of the universal machine - the original conception of the computer. [24] Eventually computers will no longer use information but knowledge to operate, in effect thinking. If in the future computers (the medium) are everywhere, then what becomes of McLuhan's message?

Historical examples

According to McLuhan, the French revolution and American revolution happened under the push of print whereas the preexistence of a strong oral culture in Britain prevented such an effect. [8]

Footnotes

  1. Understanding Media, p. 8.
  2. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962) The Savage Mind , ch.8
  3. Taunton, Matthew (2019) Red Britain: The Russian Revolution in Mid-Century Culture, p.223
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 p.7
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 pp.8-9
  6. p.10
  7. 1 2 p.11
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 p.15
  9. Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan Archived 2007-10-01 at the Wayback Machine , a virtual museum exhibition at Library and Archives Canada
  10. Understanding Media, p. 22.
  11. Understanding Media, p. 25.
  12. See CBC Radio Archives
  13. 1 2 3 p.12
  14. 1 2 p.13
  15. p.14
  16. Alexis de Tocqueville (1856) The Old Regime and the Revolution
  17. quoted from Romeo and Juliet
  18. 1 2 Debray, Regis. "Media Manifestos" (PDF). Columbia University Press. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  19. Joscelyne, Andrew. "Debray on Technology" . Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  20. 1 2 3 Mullen, Megan. "Coming to Terms with the Future He Foresaw: Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media". Archived from the original on 5 November 2011. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  21. Carr, David (January 6, 2011). "Marshall McLuhan: Media Savant". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  22. Paul Grossweiler, The Method is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan through Critical Theory (Montreal: Black Rose, 1998), 155-81
  23. Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium (New York: Routledge,1999), 30.

Related Research Articles

Marshall McLuhan Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher, whose work is among the cornerstones of the study of media theory. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, McLuhan studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of Cambridge. He began his teaching career as a professor of English at several universities in the United States and Canada before moving to the University of Toronto in 1946, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Media studies is a discipline and field of study that deals with the content, history, and effects of various media; in particular, the mass media. Media Studies may draw on traditions from both the social sciences and the humanities, but mostly from its core disciplines of mass communication, communication, communication sciences, and communication studies.

Media ecology theory is the study of media, technology, and communication and how they affect human environments. The theoretical concepts were proposed by Marshall McLuhan in 1964, while the term media ecology was first formally introduced by Neil Postman in 1968.

<i>The Gutenberg Galaxy</i> 1962 book by Marshall McLuhan

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man is a 1962 book by Marshall McLuhan, in which the author analyzes the effects of mass media, especially the printing press, on European culture and human consciousness. It popularized the term global village, which refers to the idea that mass communication allows a village-like mindset to apply to the entire world; and Gutenberg Galaxy, which we may regard today to refer to the accumulated body of recorded works of human art and knowledge, especially books.

<i>The Medium Is the Massage</i>

The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects is a book co-created by media analyst Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore, with coordination by Jerome Agel. It was published by Bantam books in 1967 and became a bestseller with a cult following. The U.K. edition was published by Allen Lane Penguin Books using cover art by Newsweek photographer Tony Rollo.

Transmediation is the process of translating a work into a different medium. The definition of what constitutes transmediation would depend on how medium is defined or interpreted. In Understanding media, Marshall McLuhan offered a quite broad definition of a medium as "an extension of ourselves":

"In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."

Media transparency, also referred to as Media Opacity, is a concept that explores how and why information subsidies are being produced, distributed and handled by media professionals, including journalists, editors, public relations practitioners, government officials, public affairs specialists, and spokespeople. In short, media transparency reflects the relationship between civilization and journalists, news sources and government. According to a textual analysis of “Information Subsidies and Agenda Building: A Study of Local Radio News”, an information subsidy is defined as “any item provided to the media in order to gain time or space”. In order to understand media transparency, one must gain an understanding of the different aspects in which media transparency is researched, understood, and explored. The following page will attempt to examine media transparency as it has grown and how it affects the modern world.

The medium is the message Communication theory phrase

"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by the Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan and the name of the first chapter in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. McLuhan proposes that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be the primary focus of study. He showed that artifacts as media affect any society by their characteristics, or content.

Medium theory is a mode of analysis that examines the ways in which particular communication media and modalities impact the specific content (messages) they are meant to convey. Medium theorists argue that media are not simply channels for transmitting information between environments, but are themselves distinct social-psychological settings or environments that encourage certain types of interaction and discourage others.

Figure and ground is a concept drawn from Gestalt psychology by media theorist Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970s. This concept underpins the meaning of his famous phrase, "The medium is the message". The concept was an approach to what was called "perceptual organization." He began to use the terms figure and ground as a way "to describe the parts of a situation" and "to help explain his ideas about media and human communication." The concept was later employed to explain how a communications technology, the medium or figure, necessarily operates through its context, or ground.

Tetrad of media effects

Marshall McLuhan's tetrad of media effects uses a tetrad to examine the effects on society of any technology/medium by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously. The tetrad first appeared in print in McLuhan's posthumously-published works Laws of Media (1988) and The Global Village (1989).

Global village describes the phenomenon of the entire world becoming more interconnected as the result of the propagation of media technologies throughout the world. The term was coined by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). Literary scholar Sue-Im Lee describes how the term global village has come to designate “the dominant term for expressing a global coexistence altered by transnational commerce, migration, and culture”. Economic journalist Thomas Friedman's definition of the global village as a world “tied together into a single globalized marketplace and village” is another contemporary understanding of the term.

In publishing, art, and communication, content is the information and experiences that are directed toward an end-user or audience. Content is "something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing or any of various arts". Content can be delivered via many different media including the Internet, cinema, television, radio, smartphones, audio CDs, books, e-books, magazines, and live events, such as speeches, conferences, and stage performances.

Mediation in Marxist theory refers to the reconciliation of two opposing forces within a given society by a mediating object. Put another way "Existence differs from Being by its mediation. [?By concrete-ness and Connection?]...“The Thing-in-itself and its mediated Being are both contained in Existence, and each is an Existence; the Thing-in-it-self exists and is the essential Existence of the Thing, while mediated Being is its unessential Existence....” (125)".

Joshua Meyrowitz is a professor of communication at the department of Communication at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He has published works regarding the effects of mass media, including No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, an analysis of the effects various media technologies have caused, particularly television.

Media are the communication outlets or tools used to store and deliver information or data. The term refers to components of the mass media communications industry, such as print media, publishing, the news media, photography, cinema, broadcasting, digital media, and advertising.

The Toronto School is a school of thought in communication theory and literary criticism, the principles of which were developed chiefly by scholars at the University of Toronto. It is characterized by exploration of Ancient Greek literature and the theoretical view that communication systems create psychological and social states. The school originated from the works of Eric A. Havelock and Harold Innis in the 1930s, and grew to prominence with the contributions of Edmund Snow Carpenter, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan.

<i>From Cliché to Archetype</i>

From Cliché to Archetype is a 1970 book by Marshall McLuhan and Canadian poet Wilfred Watson, in which the authors discuss the various implications of the verbal cliché and of the archetype. One major facet in McLuhan's overall framework introduced in this book that is seldom noticed is the provision of a new term that actually succeeds the global village; the global theater.

New media studies is an academic discipline that explores the intersections of computing, science, the humanities, and the visual and performing arts. Janet Murray, a prominent researcher in the discipline, describes this intersection as "a single new medium of representation, the digital medium, formed by the braided interplay of technical invention and cultural expression at the end of the 20th century".The main factor in defining new media is the role the Internet plays; new media is effortlessly spread instantly. The category of new media is occupied by devices connected to the Internet, an example being a smartphone or tablet. Television and cinemas are commonly thought of as new media but are ruled out since the invention was before the time of the internet.

In the social sciences, materiality is the notion that the physical properties of a cultural artifact have consequences for how the object is used. Some scholars expand this definition to encompass a broader range of actions, such as the process of making art, and the power of organizations and institutions to orient activity around themselves. The concept of materiality is used across many disciplines within the social sciences to focus attention on the impact of material or physical factors. Scholars working in science and technology studies, anthropology, organization studies, or communication studies may incorporate materiality as a dimension of their investigations. Central figures in the social scientific study of materiality are Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.