Marshall McLuhan ~ Technology: Effects on Man and our Future   Leave a comment


…actually, the title was a mistake. When the book came back from the typesetter’s, it had on the cover “Massage” as it still does. The title was supposed to have read “The Medium is the Message” but the typesetter had made an error. When Marshall McLuhan saw the typo he exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!” Now there are possible four readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: “Message” and “Mess Age,” “Massage” and “Mass Age.[1]

McLuhan contends that all media—in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate—exert a compelling influence on man and society…[2]

In researching Marshall McLuhan and his writings it was obvious that he had shaped the way we look at media today. He left his mark as a philosopher of communication, poet, and Life magazine called him “The Oracle of the Electronic Age” while critics ridiculed and described him using the phase, “The bringer of doom.” His eccentric thinking could be seen for example, when discussing literacy, he commented, “Literacy is on the skids” hence his reputation.[3] McLuhan was a genius with his command of the English language using metaphors, analogies and aphorisms as he introduced wordplay into his writing and lectures. The media, which McLuhan predicted would shrink the world and our intellectual systems which seemed to be the foundation of his theories.

In order to understand the controversial theory on the topic of understanding the media, I would like to examine two metaphors for McLuhan’s life. The first will be Edgar Allan Poe’s story, A Descent into the Maelstrom, in which McLuhan referred to numerous times.



[3] McLuhan’s Wake video:

Throughout his career he presented the story by evoking the effects of technology on all aspects of life such as our social values, homes and bodies. Wanczyk (2004) described the connection as being, “…one of his guiding metaphors…the visceral image of information and innovation swirling around us with uncontrollable force is a theme McLuhan taps into in his writings, and lectures” (p.14). The second metaphor connected with the fisherman’s solution on how to survive the lethal situation. McLuhan coined the phrase “Escape into understanding” yet, understanding was only half the battle.  Media was an extension of man and therefore man was able to gain control over the media. It is true that the medium is the message but, in order to understand the message we must first understand the medium. In utilizing the second metaphor it  related to the fisherman who viewed the nautical vortex of the storm as did McLuhan view our chaos within society regarding various media and the effect on man with a glimmer of, how to survive it. According to Strate (2002) who reflected on McLuhan’s sentiment:

The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with similar possibilities of            evasion, or consequences of distraction. By studying the pattern of the effects of this huge           vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of         evasion and survival.[1]

As we escape into a deeper understanding of media we see the most famous McLuhanism, “the medium is the message” which was the cornerstone of his theories and was the title of the first chapter of his book, Understanding Media: The extensions of man.  McLuhan, a prophet in his own time explored the concept of human societies being shaped by


the nature of their communications media. He spoke on the division of media for instance, television was a cool medium that would be the dominant form of communication in the twentieth century and therefore, the media itself which society communicated through had more impact than the content of the messages being sent. McLuhan explained this concept by stating, “By stressing that the medium is the message rather than the content, I’m not suggesting that content plays no role—merely that it plays a distinctly subordinate role.” (as cited in McLuhan, 1969, p.9). It is the cool medium that McLuhan described as being one that the audience filled in informational gaps or low definition and was multisensory whereas, hot media or high definition such as, books or radio concentrated on one sensory organ for instance, the eyes or ears.

As Berger (2008) commented, “It is this difference between the amount of data given by the television image and the screen image that led McLuhan to suggest that differences in media are more important than the differences in the programs or genres they carry” (p.170). This idea of examining the media itself rather than what its message had been the first step in understanding the effects on society. McLuhan’s (1969) hypothesis was that the media drastically altered contemporary lifestyles and initiated new and observable stages in human development:

…television is primarily an extension of the sense of touch rather than of sight, and it is  the tactile sense that demands the greatest interplay of all the senses. The secret of TV’s tactile power is that the video image is one of low intensity or definition and thus, unlike either photograph or film, offers no detailed information about specific objects but instead involves the active participation of the viewer3 (p.8).

In my opinion, the relationship between the medium and the message is one of full circle. They live, breathe and fuel each other to the point of becoming extensions of our own abilities  that reshape the same society which created these technological advancements as seen throughout history.  I agree with Logan’s (2009) concept of extensions, “If we accept McLuhan’s notions that media are extensions of man and man is the servomechanism of his media then it follows that humans and media are extensions of each other and share certain similarities” (p. 8).

In addition, this was narrowed down to three basic technological innovations which revealed societal changes, “the invention of the phonetic alphabet…the introduction of movable type in the 16th Century…and the invention of the telegraph in 1844.” (as cited in McLuhan, 1969, p.1). We are the content of our media via the way we receive information and since we take in this information through a medium which gives a new message, the results have the potential to create a new individual and emotional responses as Berger (1995) stated, “Print, he suggests, leads to uniformity, continuity, individualism, and nationalism. Electronic media leads us in the opposite directions” (p.155).  McLuhan’s theory reflected on the print revolution beginning by Gutenberg as the forerunner of the industrial revolution resulting in fragmentation. He observed the powers of technology and its consequences while studying the effect on uniformity and repeatability which were complimentary to individualism and nationalism. (as cited in McLuhan, 1960, para 2). It was through these advancements that technology began to change the thought process, of how people acted, dressed or even felt. Through our history we have gone through four “ages” according to  McLuhan; the tribal age representing an audio community, the age of literacy incorporating the alphabet leading to detachment rather then collective actions, the print age and printing press leading to an individual being reliant on images which produced nationalism/fragmentation, and the electronic age which created a global village.

Change and transformation were inevitable for society as McLuhan stated (1969), “Because all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment.” The onset of new technologies described by McLuhan concluded that, “We shape our tools and they in turn shape us.[1] Within this interaction of man and technology, he and his son revealed The McLuhan’s Laws of Media where simultaneously four things happen in media: enhance, reverse, retrieve and obsolescence. McLuhan felt these laws represented the best method for exposing the effect technologies had on individuals.

The tetrad of the effects of technologies were related to the laws of media and ranged from enhancement, meaning that all technology was an extension of the user. Another effect was obsolescence since there was balance as one experience had been heightened while the other was diminished. Reversal could be seen in all forms being pushed to the limit as it reversed individuality. And last, retrieval where behind the content of every medium was an older medium. An example of these laws being applied could be seen in reviewing the internet: the enhancement is obvious through electronic communications and virtual communities; the obsolescence could be seen as distance and face to face interactions. The reverse might be isolation and information overload. And last, retrieval could be seen through tribes or villages and writing.


McLuhan’s theories connected the electric media and the concept of a global village as a utopian return to community, stability, and interdependence. This was considered his version of the United Nations exhibiting representatives sitting around in a circle listening to one another before making decisions of global importance. (Soules, 2007, para 3). He felt that the global village would be created due to the old fading and the new taking its place, “The electric media will create a world of dropouts from the old fragmented society, with its neatly compartmentalized analytic functions, and cause people to drop in to the new integrated global-village community.” (as cited in McLuhan, 1969, 18). His forecast spoke of the internet in detail and how it would be possible to link individuals from all over the world as Berger (2008) explained, “It seems that Marshall McLuhan’s prediction that communication technologies were creating a “global village” has come true” (p.229).

In my opinion, as well as McLuhan, there was one case in which a message was not affected, in significant ways, by the medium that carried it. McLuhan’s concept of the content over the medium playing a subordinate role could be heard as he remarked, “By placing all the stress on content and practically none on the medium, we lose all chance of perceiving and influencing the impact of new technologies on man, and thus we are always dumfounded by—and unprepared for—the revolutionary environmental transformations induced by new media.”(p.11)[1] He discussed the medium as being invisible and compared it to electric light as it was also invisible to the naked eye, “The electric light is pure information.” As Theall (2001) explained, “In Understanding Media McLuhan stresses the unique role of electric light in being


“pure information” and thus a medium without a message” (p.180). Therefore, light is information without content. It is a medium without a message as McLuhan declared, “The content of electric light is anything it happens to be shining on…whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference” (as cited in McLuhan, 1964, 10).

McLuhan’s theory can be applied to current issues in visual culture and communication or in creating a business or organization. There many factors to consider and developmental planning to be done from the beginning to end. But, its the effects that will never be truly understood to the fullest extent due to our limitations as Federman (n.d.) commented, “…we are completely unable to perceive all of the dynamics of our environment because our conception limits our perception. Our intense focus on precisely what we have been trained to do controls what we believe. And what we believe controls what we are able to  see.” (p.2) This can also be said for our contemporary visual culture and communication. As man and technology continue to search for a happy medium (no pun intended) so do we learn more about human nature and its internal as well as, external environment. In bringing together today’s technically advanced world and McLuhan’s theories the result could be the mixing of the hot and cold media bringing us to the next level of multimedia events. The School of Communication and the Arts (n.d.) posted on their website, “If print is hot and linear, and electronic broadcast media are cool and interactive, hypermedia on the Web is “freezing” and 3-D.” [1]

In conclusion, from the 1960’s up to today’s  electric media , McLuhan has opened the door not only to science, the arts and society as a whole to a new way of viewing the term,


“the medium is the message.” Not only does the media types effect society but, it’s the transitional journey we travel as man effects the media with its technological advancements.  With the explosion of electronic technologies and on line communication, his theories and countless others regarding culturally significant ideas, are more pertinent than ever as technology has evolved through the years.

We shape our tools and they in turn shape us…

~Marshall McLuhan~


  1. Facts on Marshall McLuhan:
  2. Playboy interview modified 1994:
  3. McLuhan’s Wake video:
  4. Playboy interview:
  5. School of Communication and the Arts:
  6. Playboy interview modified 1994:
  7. School of Communication and the Arts:


Berger, A. A. (1995). Cultural criticism: a primer of key concepts: Foundations of popular             culture. Retrieved December 12, 2010, from            LRjZcQBQC&pg=PA155&lpg=PA155&dq=What+effects+does+a+medium+have+on+t            he+messages+it+carries&source=bl&ots=9B4NAs4MUR&sig=qo2ONdaEIWrHeDfIlPA            6v6Wkb-            U&hl=en&ei=xcMTTf_qFML78AaW6JWBDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resn            um=5&ved=0CC4Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=What%20effects%20does%20a%20mediu          m%20have%20on%20the%20messages%20it%20carries&f=false

Berger, A. A. (2008). Seeing is believing: An introduction to visual communication.New             York: McGraw-Hill.

Federman, M. (n.d.) Creating a Culture of Innovation. Retrieved December 20, 2010, from   

Lance Strate, L. (2002). McLuhan’s Wake. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from

Logan, R. K. (2009). The Medium is the Message is the Content: Meaning, Media,             Communication and Information in Biosemiosis and Human Symbolic Communication.         Retrieved December 19, 2010, from               ontent2.pdf

McLuhan E. & Zingrone, F. (1995) Playboy interview from Essential.

McLuhan, M. (1960). Effects of the Improvements of Communication.  The Journal of Economic History, 20( 4), 566-575. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from

McLuhan, M. (1969, March).  The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan. Retrieved December 6, 2010, from

McLuhan. M. (1964) Understanding Media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: MIT             Press. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from   

School of Communication and the Arts. Retrieved December 22, 2010, from   

Soules, M. (2007). Resonance and the Global Village. Retrieved December 15, 2010, from

Theall, D. F. (2001). The virtual Marshall McLuhan. Retrieved December 21, 2010,             from            64+electric+light&hl=en&ei=i_UUTfLYD8G88gavl6jvDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=r            esult&resnum=1&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mcluhan%201964%20electric        %20light&f=false

Wanczyk, S. D. (2004). Wireless McLuhan: The medium and the message in a wi-fi world. Retrieved December 18, 2010, from   

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: