Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is the Message

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Media Poet, Confused Academic, Guru?

"we make our tools, and then our tools shape us"


Recommended readings

  • Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is the Message

His website

Marshall McLuhan's bio

  • born in 1911- died in 1980
  • 1937 - conversion to Roman Catholicism
  • 1943 - Ph.D Cambridge, UK (Arts).
  • 1951 The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (impact of advertising)
  • 1958 - coins phrase "the medium is the message"
  • 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
  • 1963 Establishes The Centre for Culture & Technology, University of Toronto
  • 1964 Understanding Media: The extensions of man
  • 1966 - subject of 2 New Yorker cartoons!
  • 1967 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (E.Q Fiore & J. Angel)
  • 1968 found McLuhan-Dew-Line newsletter ( business)
  • 1976 appears in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, suffers stroke
  • 1977 City as Classroom ( w. Eric McLuhan & K. Hutchon)
  • 1979 massive stroke
  • 1980 University of Toronto closes his Centre, he dies

Posthumous Publications

  • 1988: Laws of the Media: The New Science ( w. Eric McLuhan)
  • 1989 The Global Village (w. Bruce Powers)
  • 1993: Founding of Wired - McLuhan named "patron-saint"
  • by late 60's - McLuhan at height of his media
  • From mid-70's -> was regarded as passe, in media, and had always been met with suspicion by many in academic world rarely substantiated his arguments, casual about his facts..and often not much
  • Also a bit of a self-publicist, sought fame/notoriety
  • McLuhan rejected linearity, stepwise argumentation, a single of view. Gutenberg Galaxy for example, has no chapters, pages of text with quotations thrown in to break up called it a "mosaic or field approach".


  • Was influenced by Harold Adams Innis- Canadian economic historian at University of Toronto who wrote The Bias of Communication (1951); Innis died in 1952;
  • For Innis, each communication medium has a bias organization and control of information. Any empire is generally concerned with duration over time in space. ..Time-biased (speech) and Space-biased(paper)
  • Influenced such figures as Neil Postman(1931-2003) - author of books such as "Technopoly", "Amusing ourselves to death"
  • "Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. It destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided."
  • Walter Ong (1912-2003) author of Orality & Literacy: The technologizing of the word (1982)

His perspective

  • 3 basic technological innovations:
    • (1) the invention of the phonetic alphabet by the ancient humans out of oral patterns of speech and thought for the dominance of literate forms of communication
    • (2) the introduction of movable type by Gutenberg in the accelerated this process;
    • (3) the invention of electric media, beginning with the telegraph and followed in succession by radio, films, telephone,

Quotes, Aphorisms

  • "If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their victim; we're the first culture in the history of the ever regarded innovation as a friendly (1971)
  • he [McLuhan] was giving you some tools for thinking about what's going on..(Jeffrey)
  • "the future of the future is the present".. "global village".. "medium is the message"
  • "If you are really curious about the future, just study the present,..What we ordinarily see in any present is really what appears in the rearview mirror. What we ordinarily think of as present is really past.".
  • Nonsense? Can it make sense?
  • Most people live in the rearview mirror - moving ahead in time but actually living in the past.
  • People never want to live in the present..people live in the rearview mirror because it is safer..They've been there before, they feel comfortable.
  • Aphorisms are incomplete: a poetic form that calls for lots of participation by the reader.
  • You have to chew on an aphorism and work with it for a while before you understand it fully.(Eric McLuhan)
  • "There are no Remote Places. Under instant circuitry, nothing is remote in time or in space. It's now. ( 1965)
  • "Like primitive, we now live in a global village of our own making, a simultaneous happening. It doesn't necessarily mean harmony and peace and quiet but it does mean huge involvement in everybody else's affairs." (1966)
  • "The new environment of simultaneous and diversified information creates acoustic man. He is surrounded by sound - from behind, from the side, from above. His environment is made up of information in all kinds of simultaneous forms, and he puts on this electrical environment as we put on our clothes, or as the fish puts on water. "
  • "in the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin" (1964)
  • "our specialist and fragmented civilization of centre-margin structure is suddenly experiencing an instantaneous reassembling of all its mechanised bits into an organic whole. This is the new world of the global village" (1964)

McLuhan's Views

Quest for Identity

  • "I used to talk about it as the global village; I now speak of it more properly as the global theatre. Every kid is now concerned with acting. Doing his thing outside and raising a ruckus in a quest for identity. He has lost his identity. Every child on the planet since TV has lost his identity and so becomes a violent force - a lumpen-proletariat of Marxist violence." (1969)
  • "I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what's happening. Because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you're in favour of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly something I'm resolutely against.And it seems the best way to oppose it is to understand it. And then you know where to turn off the buttons." (1966)


  • "Violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful.The less identity, the more violence." (1976)
  • "This meaningless slaying all around our streets is the work of people who have lost all identity and who have to kill in order to know if they're real or if the other guy's real.
  • "What is very little understood about the electronic age is that it angelizes man, disembodies him. Turns him into software." (1971)
  • "The violence that all electric media inflict on their users is that they are instantly invaded and deprived of their physical bodies and are merged in a network of extensions of their own nervous systems."
  • In the 80's as we transfer our whole being to the data bank, privacy will become a ghost or echo of its former self and what remains of community will disappear. ( 1980)

Role of Media

  • "I have insisted that any new structure for codifying experience and moving information, be it alphabet or photography, has the power of imposing its structural character and assumptions upon all levels of our private and social lives - even without benefit of concepts or of conscious acceptance..that is what I've always meant by "the medium is the message". ( 1966)
  • "Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation and not a single level of information movement" (1964)
  • "Type, the prototype of all machines, ensured the primacy of the new visual bias and finally sealed the doom of tribal man. The new medium of linear, uniform, repeatable type produced information in unlimited quantities and at hitherto impossible speeds, thus assuring the eye a position of total predominance in man's sensorium. As a drastic extension of man, it shaped and transformed his entire environment, psychic and social, and was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution "( 1969)
  • "The power of radio to retribalize mankind, its almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism, fascist or Marxist, has gone unnoticed. So extraordinary is this unawareness that it is what needs to be explained. "

Role of Media, Education

  • "The book was the first teaching machine and also the first mass-produced commodity. In amplifying and extending the written word, typography revealed and greatly extended the structure of writing."
  • Our entire education system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies,..It's a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first TV generation. (1969)
  • "I would suggest that if you were to put the TV in the classroom, it would BLOW THE CLASSROOM TO BITS. The teaching processes would be totally transformed"
  • "The artist is the only person - his antennae pick up these messages before anybody. So he is always thought of as being way ahead of his time because he lives in the present. There are many reasons why most people prefer to live in the age just behind them. It's safer to live right on the shooting line, right on the frontier of change, is terrifying.(1970)
  • "The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.(1964)

Extensions [of Man]

  • Any extension, whether of skin, hand or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex (1964)
  • my main theme is the extension of the nervous system in the electric age, and thus the complete break with 5,000 years of mechanical technology.I do not say whether it is a good or bad thing. (1964)
  • "There is no one grand theory of communication in McLuhan. McLuhan didn't think that way. He thought like a poet; he thought in terms of individual ideas and images. (R. Fulford)


  • Use of Gestalt ideas- Figure-Ground.
  • "..the ordinary attention is fixed on the figure rather than the ground, on the wheel rather than the huge system of road services necessary to maintain the existence of a wheel or wheeled vehicles. With a motorcar, most people are interested in changing designs or patterns of the car. They pay only marginal attentions to the huge service environment of roads, oil companies, filling stations, and other allied services of manufacturing that are the ground of the car. ….By not looking at the ground around the automobile you miss the message of the car. For it is the ground of any technology that is the medium that changes everybody, and it is the medium that is the message of the technology, not the figure." (1972)
  • (comment:McLuhan did not believe in research; he did not believe in testing. If someone appeared to contradict his ideas, he would simply change the subject rather than testing it and pushing it and altering it. )

Hot and Cool Media

  • Radio - hot, Telephone - cool.
  • Movie - hot, TV- cool.
  • A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in high definition.
  • ..A photograph is, visually , high definition. A cartoon is low definition, little visual information is provided.
  • Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the amount of information.
  • And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is left to be filled in by the listener. One the other hand, hot means there is so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are low in participation, and cool media are high in participation by the audience. ..A hot medium like radio has a different impact on the user compared to a cool medium like the telephone.
  • "TV is a cool medium. It rejects hot figures. Had TV occurred during Hitler's reign he would have vanished quickly." "We may be approaching the time when political and executive have to be recruited on the same basis as was formerly stars. Alternatively, it might be possible to transfer or the John Wayne's from the entertainment sphere sphere directly in order to satisfy the need of people by images that remind them of all the people they been in some ideal existence. (1974)
  • McLuhan's categorization of hot and cool media
Hot Cool
Continuous Narrative Montage
Melody Tonal Intervals
Photography Mosaic
High Resolution Low Resolution
Novelistic Poetic
"girls who wear glasses" Woman behind sunglasses
Lecture Seminar
City slickers Rustics
Explanatory Allusive
Nylons Open-Meshed Silk Stockings
FDR Calvin Coolidge
Newspapers Comic Books
Engrossing Interactive
Radio Television
Literacy Conversation
Film Telephone
Paper Stone Tablets
Nuclear threat Cold War
Individualization Retribalization
Phonetic Alphabet Characters
Books Icons
Industrialized Society So-called "backward countries" (McLuhan's term)


  • "We are swiftly moving at present from an era when business was our culture into an era when culture will be our business. Between these poles stand the huge and ambiguous entertainment industries."
  • "The computer could become the basis of a cottage economy again…you could run the biggest factory in a kitchen by a computer. With telephones, telexes, and and all forms of hardware can be centralised. The computer, literally, could run the world from a cottage "
  • "There is a steady progression towards commercial exchange of information itself.

The Medium is the Message

  • "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."

The Medium is the Massage - An Inventory of Effects (1967)

  • mix of McLuhan quotes, pictures, mixed typography and layout..
  • "what he was delivering to the world was a set of metaphors that we had to wrestle with" (friend)
  • McLuhan adopted the term "massage" to denote the effect each medium has on the human sensorium, inventorying the "effects" of numerous media in terms of how they "massage" the sensorium.
  • rehashed the argument -- which first appeared in The Gutenberg Galaxy -- that media are "extensions" of our human senses, bodies and minds.
  • described key points of change in how man has viewed the world and how these views were changed by the adoption of new media. "The technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth [century]", brought on by the adoption of fixed points of view and perspective by typography, while "[t]he technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century", brought on by the bard abilities of radio, movies and television.



  • What did McLuhan mean with the famous phrase "the medium is the message"?
  • What was his attitude toward change and innovation?
  • What did he mean with the phrase "global village"?
  • Name three of the topics he expressed views about.
  • Why did McLuhan adopt the title "The medium is the massage" for his 1967 book?
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