- Series: MIT Press
- Paperback: 392 pages
- Publisher: The MIT Press; Reprint edition (October 20, 1994)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0262631598
- ISBN-13: 978-0262631594
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 77 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #60,088 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man Reprint Edition
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...the most brilliant marketing mind of all belonged to Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media is a timeless analysis of how language, speech and technology shape human behavior in the era of mass communication. The book is a cautionary tale for marketers today who hear the Web's siren call and ignore the power of the spoken word.(Wall Street Journal)
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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.
The fact is that inventing dichotomies is like asserting theories without any evidence. How can you prove the validity of a dichotomy? Couldn't these dichotomies become distortions, even an abuse of language? And although Marshall doesn't proclaim any morality involved by using his dichotomies, it is implicitly there.
McLuhan's linguistic technique was to use dichotomies such as media and message, such as hot and cold media, such as electric and pre-electric culture. He placed his dichotomies like stones across a river. Once the readers step off the shore they must keep stepping on these stones, these dichotomies, or go splash. There is no way to turn around.
The problem with McLuhan's message, with his vocabulary, with particularly his terms "extensions" and "media" is that he implied a rather ridiculous metaphor with them. His term, "extensions" depicted man being jerked by the unseen puppeteer, outside strings attached to the numb puppet to make him dance.
As he discussed at length in Chapter 21, The Press, McLuhan was very aware that he was spinning the words. He had a corporate image of his own to enhance, UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, itself. He was his own press agent. Listen to him on P. 213,: "Today's press agent regard the newspaper as a ventriloquist does his dummy." McLuhan was both writing a book and advertising that book at the same time. He wasn't hung up on being accurate -- he knew the spinning power of fiction. On P. 216 he speaks of "dressing up language." It becomes obvious that he used all the techniques he discussed in advertising while writing this book.
His idea that man's brain was a blank tableau, a tabula rasa, set the reader up for his dichotomies that all media were extensions of man's brain or central nervous system, CNS. But is man's CNS a tabula rasa? One thinks not. The various media he listed are all part and parcel of man's CNS. It would have been more accurate to term McLuhan's so called "extensions" as dimensions. These "extensions" never actually existed outside McLuhan's thesis and vocabulary.