Response: Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

I remember having to read excerpts of this in undergrad. My program at Butler University was, at the time, primarily focused on television production; thus, all discussion revolved around how television today was changing society vs. how TV and electronic media was changing Western culture in McLuhan’s day. Of course (and I’m dating myself here), the web and new media today are very different than they were in 1999-2000. Thus, relating McLuhan’s thoughts to the culture of media today is different….kind of. A lot of the same arguments still apply, which I guess, in turn, makes McLuhan right on a lot of things.

The first passage in the intro that struck me was McLuhan’s assertion that “…the action and the reaction occur almost at the same time. We actually live mythically and integrally, as it were, but we continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age.” I think it’s important to note the context – the early 60’s, in the time of the Vietnam war. As he says in the next paragraph, “we necessarily participate…in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner.” Public reaction (especially negative) to the Vietnam war, outside of it’s moral context, was obviously shaped by electronic media which was not nearly as present and prevalent in prior conflicts. It could be said that McLuhan was making the argument that a lot of the domestic unrest was spurred not by reaction to the real situation in Southeast Asia, but rather in response to the medium.

McLuhan’s assertion that “As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together…has heightened human awareness… It…alters the position of the Negro, the teenager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained…they are now involved in our lives,” hearkens back to the social dimension that Turnley detailed in “Towards a Mediological Method,” The advent of electronic media, as both have pointed out, gave voice to previously under-served groups. Of course, as electronic media has progressed, the global village has not turned out to be as inclusive as many had thought (or hoped), but nevertheless has changed the dimension of how we communicate and interact with other cultures around the world and in own communities.

One of the more interesting points that I found is “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” And, as electronic media becomes richer and more involved, the mediums keep getting deeper and deeper. But where McLuhan says that the content of speech is an actual process of nonverbal thought is where I think he strays. It would appear to me that he holds speech in the highest regard as far as extensions of man. But aren’t all extensions, electronic media or otherwise, based on a nonverbal process of thought?

Another area where I think McLuhan is a bit off is electronic media’s initial impact on culture. If De Tocqueville believes (and McLuhan backs up) that print homogenizes culture, then McLuhan’s argument regarding the “remote natives” sounds a bit fishy. “But with electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native… We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture.” Even if, as both point out, printed media homogenizes small cultures, was Western culture not prepared for this particular extension?

As someone who has worked in radio for about 7 years, I found it odd that radio is referred to as a “hot”medium, where other auditory means of communication are referred to as “cool”. I think there’s just as much left open to interpretation with radio as with a telephone conversation or speech, as McLuhan asserts.

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