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Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man : Critical Edition Hardcover – November 1, 2003
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Marshall McLuhan is now a power in more than one land. --The New Statesman
His critics are infuriated by his ideas...but some think his foretell our real future. --Harper's
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Top Customer Reviews
Marx thought that how production was organized (and changed over time) drove a society's social and political structures (and ultimately its citizens' psyches); McCluhan argues (in excruciating and exacting detail) that the FORM of the "extensions of man", AKA the man made world-- the wheel, clothes, the phonetic alphabet and linear printing, radio, TV, etc, AKA technology, have had profound psycho-social impacts throughout human history, driven by invention and innovation. E.g., no Gutenberg, no Renaissance and European nationalism.
Just a taste, much much more is in the book!
Although this may be McLuhan's great work, it is not best place to start. It is long and often incoherent. On page 39, McLuhan introduces a notoriously difficult metaphor that he uses through the book. It concerns hot and cool media. "Hot media are ... low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience." So, he explains, hieroglyphics and photographs are hot, but the phonetic alphabet and cartoons are cool. Radio and movies are hot, but the TV and the telephone are cool.
Does that make any sense? If not, the better place to start is his earlier work, The Gutenberg Galaxy. It is shorter, and the logic is much easier to follow. It lays out the basis of McLuhan's thinking about how changes in media reshape culture. If you are a systematic thinker like me, it is a far better book to get the basics of McLuhan's analytical method and ideas.
Even if you have the basics, UM is a dense, inspiring, and unsettling work. In each of the 33 chapters, McLuhan makes connections that change the way I think about culture. But just as often, he makes some nonsensical analogy or leap of logic and then fails to explain it.
In the end, it helps to stop trying to understand UM and let it inspire you to think.
In other words, it is very cool.
In light of all that's gone on since this book was written, it's a jumble of ideas, some old, some new, some borrowed, some hopelessly naive. Honestly, it barely has an organization, does NOT have a single point or group of related points, and is really all over the map.
McLuhan, among other things [about 11,432 of them, give or take], proposes the notions of "COLD" and "HOT" media. From the amount of satire about him that's out there [and, Yes, Bob Newhart, I'm talkin' to YOU], **NOBODY** but **NOBODY** but McLuhan himself could ever figure out what he meant by those terms [for example, TV was, by his definition, counter-intuitively a COLD medium - go figure].
Having said that, it's an interesting read, as much for historical purposes as for the actual value of its content. One interesting take-away is that McLuhan was considered a prophet, oracle, and genius at the time for having written this. So if this was what it took to attain that lofty pinnacle, the competition must've been fairly pedestrian. That insight alone was worth the read. :-)
If you haven't read it, I recommend it, along with the other great classics all good boys and girls should read, like THE PRINCE by Niccolo Machiavelli, THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS by Vance Packard, and THE RECKONING by John Kenneth Galbraith. You've got to check this one off your list.
Unfortunately, McLuhan is not really a very good writer.
He rambles and makes so many obscure references that it's
difficult to figure out what he is trying to say. Part of
the reason McLuhan is so hard to understand is that the
best examples of his ideas hadn't been invented when he
wrote this book.
But the first and last chapters of "Understanding Media"
lay the groundwork for understanding the effects of the PC
revolution and the rise of the Internet. For example, he
explains that electric media is tactile in nature -- a
concept that is much easier to grasp now that we take a
GUI for granted.
And though WIRED magazine claims him as patron saint, it's
clear that the editors do not grasp McLuhan's realization
that the consequence of what he calls "automation" (or
"cybernation") is "retribalization", and
that our mechanical notion of privacy is obsolete.