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This review is from: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Paperback)
McLuhan, who served as the Director for the Center for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto in the mid 1960s, wrote four major works focusing focus on media's impact on society. The Mechanical Bride assesses the impacts of advertising on societal behavior and structures. The Gutenberg Galaxy assesses the influence of movable type (and the proliferation of books) on the individual. Understanding Media assesses the influence of a wide variety of media on man, his senses and his culture, and gives insight to the direction that it is taking. The Medium is the Massage explores the view that regardless of the content, the media conveying a message impacts society more heavily than the message being conveyed. Understanding Media, then, is not a solitary work. Written in 1964, it encapsulates the evolving thoughts of a futurist who is acutely aware that a variety of technological forces shape society and culture. McLuhan is not easy to read. He frequently buries his points by using analogies and historical examples that, on the surface, seem oblique to the issue under discussion. However, in McLuhan's mind, the analogies and examples are precisely on point. There is a key to comprehending McLuhan. McLuhan is a futurist. Organizations characterized by strategic vision tend to have five divisions of responsibility: The rank and file who perform daily tasks without regard to which direction the organization is going; The staff and management who organize, direct and influence the work of the rank and file; The executive leadership that provides strategic direction to the organization and who is directly responsible for the organization's success or failure; Translators who exist primarily to translate the vision of futurists into a language understandable by the executive leadership so that the leadership may decide in which direction to take the organization. The futurist, or visionary, lives in a world separate and distinct from the present - isolated from reality. The futurist's purpose is to envision, explore and blueprint unknown future, alternative, worlds so that the corporation may navigate safely without tactical or strategic failure. Futurists tend to see and articulate their vision in terms unintelligible to others save the translators. Once this is understood, the complexity of McLuhan's presentations become less distracting. Unfortunately, McLuhan did not filter his works through a translator and, therefore, comprehending McLuhan is similar to comprehending Spanish. Don't focus on the individual words. Listen to what he means. McLuhan develops three themes: First, technological innovation frequently has a disproportionate impact on society influencing individual lives, basic philosophies, and societal structures. McLuhan holds that television has changed our lives and mental processes by creating a thirst for all encompassing experiences; a thirst that seeks immediate gratification. As a window to the world, television invites participation and exploration. It creates wants and needs, provides enlightenment and encourages the viewer to actively participate in his environment. Second, that "the medium is the message." "The content of a medium is like the juicy bit of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watch dog of the mind." It is not the content of the message that ultimately affects us; it is the medium carrying the message. It is not the content of a book that is important but the movable type that printed the book. As a catalyst for change, movable type (and by extension, the printing press) shifted society from an oral culture to a print culture, fractured a church, and transformed populations into "the public". Third, that media can be categorized as "hot" or "cool". Hot media requires little audience participation because the medium performs the action in sufficient detail that the audience does not have to interact. Examples include print, radio, photography and movies which fully informs the viewer/listener who is in a receive mode. Cool media requires audience participation to fill in what is not explicitly provided by the medium. Telephones, speech and television require audience interaction and are, by McLuhan's definition, cool. McLuhan discusses a wide variety of media (paper, print, telegraph, radio, wheels, weapons, clocks, money and houses) showing that, in his mind, the content of one media is comprised of another media. The content of the telegraph is print. The content of print is writing. The content of writing is speech. McLuhan holds that developing technologies are used as extensions of man's physical and nervous systems for the purpose of enhancing man's need for increased speed or power. McLuhan distinguishes these developing technologies as either mechanical media (paper, print, movies, wheels, weapons, etc) or electric media (telegraph, radio, television and computer). Whenever mechanical media is developed and used to enhance man's senses, there is a measurable increase in knowledge or production. However, these advances frequently have unintended consequences for some other segment of society. For example, the advance of movable type (and therefore the printed word) resulted in an adverse impact on the oral traditions of preliterate cultures as well as fracturing the foundations of the Roman Church. McLuhan sees the telegraph, radio, television and the computer as a transition from mechanical media to electric media. The difference, however, is that rather than extending one or two senses, the electric media extends the whole man. Electric media provides instant knowledge and instant, broad based, communications effectively broadening man's awareness of the world about him and thereby shrinking the world to McLuhan's "global village". We are evolving from pre-literate, tribal food gatherers to an information based, electronically enhanced, oral society. For the first time in history, technology is not merely extending one of man's individual senses; it is extending our central nervous system. As electric media collapses time and space, and as electronic networks emulate human neural networks, we begin to see (through McLuhan's eye) man expanding his consciousness and his influence across the planet. At the time Understanding Media was being written, Paul Baran of the RAND corporation conceived packet-switching which became the basis for computer networking. The internet, certainly in its present form, was unknown to McLuhan, but it evolved consistent with McLuhan's views. Today's internet is composed of cool media: computers, telephone, and television (monitor with video card). The operating characteristics of the net requires extensive user participation and interaction. The synergism of the computer and the telephone produces a media consistent with McLuhan's thermometer and the net behaves as McLuhan predicted. If McLuhan appreciated the instantaneousness of electric media's contribution to knowledge, communications and worldly awareness in the 1960s, he would have been deeply gratified to see the internet ongoing evolution. Today's surfer interacts with his media far more than the couch potato, or the cell phone equipped teenager. From the bedroom computer desk, the surfer is likely researching social, academic, professional or recreational issues in the four corners of the globe without leaving his chair. Downloading images of locations he has never been, exchanging e-mail with people he has never met, and learning of things formerly the province of a few scholars, the average surfer is aptly described by McLuhan. "Men are suddenly nomadic gathers of knowledge, nomadic as never before, free from fragmentally specialism as never before - but also involved in the total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience."
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Initial post: Feb 19, 2010 8:24:32 PM PST
As a long-time admirer of McLuhan, I find the main problem with his work is that human awareness to control change on the gigantic levels he envisions does not exist. Technologies sprout up, their content invariably distracts almost everyone from their basic effects, and although as he puts it '"The major advances in civilization are processses that all but wreck the societies in which they occur," little can apparently be done about it, given human nature.
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