- Who is Marshall McLuhan (an introduction to McLuhan and why he is important to understand)
Born in 1911 and passing away in 1980, Herbert Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian academic and pop culture icon. His work focuses on how we relate to media, with his theories developing alongside the changing technology and culture of the 1960s and 70s. With the ideas and theories he proposed, he is often considered the ‘prophet of the digital age’, with his idea of the ‘global village’ [McLuhan. 1962], predicting the idea of our modern internet. Describing that “our specialist and fragmented civilization of center-margin structure is suddenly experiencing an instantaneous reassembling of all its mechanized bits into an organic whole. This is the new world of the global village” [McLuhan. 1964: 121].
His work touches pop culture, in ways you may not expect, including a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall [Allen. 1977], arguing his own theories against a lecturer that tries to use a miss reading of his work to explain why his view of a film is correct. He provides the basis for the character Professor Brian O’Blivion, in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome [Cronenberg. 1983], a celebrated media guru and personality within the films world. As well as Oliver Stone using his book Understanding Media [McLuhan. 1964], as a set piece in Jim Morrison’s love-den, in the 1990 film The Doors [Stone. 1990].
- The Medium is the Message
One of McLuhan’s most famous and well known phrases, is that of ‘The Medium is the Message’, first appearing in Understanding Media [McLuhan. 1964]. Opening the books first chapter with, “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message” [McLuhan. 1964: 19]. McLuhan use of ‘medium’ and ‘message’ take on an array of meanings in his work. The term medium, acts as an extension of the human body and mind, meaning that when he refers to things such as media, he is referring to not only television, films, radios, and books, but this also includes items such as clothing and cars.
According to McLuhan, media always extends at least one part of ourselves. Clothing are an extension of our skin, adding a second layer to us. Cars are an extension of our feet, allowing us to travel greater distances at a faster pace. A book or a magazine extends our eyes, allowing us to see more of the world. The Television or film, extends or eyes, ears and our sense of touch. The global village McLuhan describes, now known as the modern internet, extends our central nervous system, our minds, as we are able to access vast quantities of information, and extend our reach to ever corner of the world.
McLuhan’s use of ‘message’ in this sense, is not as straight forward as that of a text message or a written letter. McLuhan’s use of the term focuses on the effect or impact the medium has on our lives and our way of thinking. Similar to the study of semiotics, the medium in which a message is conveyed, hold just as much meaning as the way in which it is conveyed.
- Hot and Cool Media
As McLuhan describes the various ways in which media extends our bodies and minds, McLuhan also describes the two categories in which media can be sorted into, Hot and Cold. In Understanding Media, McLuhan uses the terms Hot and Cold media, to describe our levels of engagement with the media in question. McLuhan describes hot media as one that is full of information, feeding it clearly and directly to you, allowing for little input from the audience. While cool media allows for variation in information, so the audience has some form of interaction with the media. For example, a lecture is a hot media, because the information is being fed to students with no breaks, the information is prepared beforehand, and delivered as such. However a tutorial is cool, because while a general topic and subject is agreed upon beforehand, the actual content varies depending on the participants, it is highly interactive. When it comes to television vs. the cinema, TV is cool, while the cinema is hot. You have complete control over what you watch on the television, but in the cinema, you are placed in a dark room, unable to pause, rewind or change film during the presentation.
- Key Reading
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
War and Peace in the Global Village
- Bishop, R. (2014) I Sing the Senses Electric. Journal of Visual Culture. SAGE Publications: London.
- Bolter, J. (2014) McLuhan and the Legacy of Popular Modernism. Journal of Visual Culture. SAGE Publications: London.
- McLuhan, M. (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto: Toronto.
- McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill: New York.
- McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Penguin Books: Westminster.
- McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1968) War and Peace in the Global Village. Gingko Press: California.
- Annie Hall. (1977) Film. Directed by Woody Allen. [Blu-Ray] Rollins-Joffe Productions: USA.
- The Doors (1990) Film. Directed by Oliver Stone. [Blu-Ray]
- Videodrome (1983) Film. Directed by David Cronenberg. [Blu-Ray] Filmplan International: Canada.