Understanding McLuhan’s *Understanding Media*

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This week, in History of Communication Theory, our class it tackling Marshall McLuhan’s seminal text. I’m also leading discussion, so writing this ahead of time will hopefully give me an opportunity to think through some of my ideas about the text and digest some (’cause you know you’ll never understand all!) of his thoughts.

On the whole, this is a book that I’m struggling with, and not because of its size. Two reasons: one, he’s written the chapters in a very mosaic fashion, not linearly, as most books are. This is a different stream of thought to adjust to as the reader that really inhibits comprehension. Ultimately, I see this as a choice he made to further his argument about media. The bits and blurbs fit together sort of like television, and a lot like the way that we now read on the Internet: starting with one idea (browser tab), flitting to another (let’s say your inbox, when it pops up saying you have a new message), then back to your first idea (browser tab), and then following a new train of thought from one idea (let’s say to a hyperlink you open in a new browser tab to find out more about a specific term mentioned). We all do this! McLuhan was certainly ahead of his time with his assessment of how media impacts us. While he couldn’t have predicted what media would come out, he already knew how it would change our lives.

My second issue with McLuhan is his methodology and presentation of ideas (not to be confused with writing style). I’ve often been frustrated reading the book, wanting to shout out to him, “Where is your evidence?” or “Where did this information come from?” and “Did you just make this up, or did that really happen?” It seems that the book is semi-truth and semi-probing McLuhan’s mind with what he thinks happened historically or what construction of an event best works with his ideas. He’ll state what seems to be a fantastic idea at the end of the paragraph, and then – poof, onto another subject. Essentially, I always want to know more information than he’s provided. Part of this is my craving for well-structured writing – I never did well with James Joyce or Virginia Wolf in undergrad – because to me, as a researcher, those are the most valuable presentations of work, and well, because that’s how our faculty expect us to write. It’s not such a crazy concept!

So while there are structural issues that affect my perception of the text, I’m not totally criticizing the work. It’s not a widely-read book in Comm studies for no reason – the man had a lot of key insights into media issues that still ring true today, in a world where I can’t imagine how media could be any more pervasive in our lives. I can’t tell you how many times I noted in the margins that his ideas still applied, such as in chapter four where he describes technological somnambulism. In other areas, it is remarkable how he was able to predict effects that took place well into the future, including his quip in the introductory chapter for the first edition of how with electricity, “the globe is no more than a village” (6).

After 500+ pages of examples of it, I’m seeing how the medium is the message. While I think that media today made this concept more complex, there’s merit in his point. The message of the theatre is not the story line of the play, but the fact that what’s presented is a “high” art form that we should appreciate and likely can’t understand all of the ideas, unless we’re in the highly literate class. The internet, though, is not so easy to pin down. It’s clearly a medium with many media contained within it: television, radio, photograph, alphabet, etc. How does this affect the message? Can the messages from those media be contained within the message of the internet, or is it another idea entirely? McLuhan’s editors in the critical edition talk about how the message of a medium refers to the effect that it produces in its audience. Obviously, there cannot be one single effect that we understand as the message of the internet. One effect that I can see is the idea that everyone feels they now have information that is appropriate for the world to know (or to be preserved). With the advent of blogs a little over a decade ago, the message is that everyone’s private journal thoughts are fodder for discussion, that their ideas are important or relevant, and others should have a chance to read them, hence why people publish blogs. Same now with social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc.: The message is that everyone’s daily activities and special milestones are worth preserving digitally and being put out there for the world to see.

Work Cited:
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Critical Ed. Ed. W. Terrence Gordon. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003. Print.

2 thoughts on “Understanding McLuhan’s *Understanding Media*

  1. I think your difficulties arise because you haven’t taken McLuhan’s
    other works into account nor that the book arose out of his report
    for educators. A discussion UM should include his work with
    Wyndham Lewis – the High Modernist who described the
    Magnetic City ….

  2. Yes, you raise a good point – I’ve essentially read his work in a vacuum, not always the best way to approach a work. Thanks for the comment. We had a really productive conversation about it in class, and I think we all came away with a better understanding of his work by comparing notes. (This was written early in my process of thinking about the book.)

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