Response to chapters 1 & 2 of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

First of all, I think McLuhan is brilliant.  I love the way he effortly brings together seemingly disparate references like Greek antiquity to Shakespeare to pop culture to make his arguments.  He has been on my “to read” list for a long time now, but I never got around to it until it was assigned for Comm Lab.

It is important to note that the subtitle of Understanding Media is “The Extensions of Man”.  For McLuhan, media are not simply forms of communication such as TV, radio, newspapers, etc., but but any technology that extends the human body or mind.  Clothing, cars, houses, are all media according to this broad definition.  McLuhan gives an example of axes as media.  When metal axes were introduced to an aboriginal community in Austrialia that previously only had stone tools, the entire patriarchal social order was disrupted.

This brings us to another point that media are agents of change.  By extending the human body – the senses and the mind – media have both a prosthetic and an amputational effect.  In encountering new media, we both gain and lose something.

McLuhan divides media into high definition/low definition, hot and cool.  High definition is hot.  It gives a lot of information and requires little interaction from the user.  Low definition is cool.  It provides little information and requires the user to make an effort to fill in the gaps.  For example, the telephone is cool, while the radio is hot.  Television is cool, while movies are hot.

Of course we need to talk about McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.”  I’m still trying to grapple with the full meaning of the phrase since I haven’t gotten through the whole book yet.  But from what I understand, McLuhan seems to be saying that there is an inherent message embedded in media themselves, that transcends the explicit message transmitted by the media, and creates social change over time.  If we return to the metal ax example, we could infer that the metal axes were not just about cutting things, but that their introduction to a stone age society represented a message of social upheaval that turned the hierachical order upside down.

Here is another quote that really resonated with me (page 31 of the Critical Edition of Understanding Media, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, 2003):

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.  The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.

The mixing of art and technology – hmm, sounds just like ITP!  It seems that the work we do here all relates to putting McLuhan’s theories into practice.  Not that I presume to be a “serious artist,” although I certainly aspire to be one.

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  • Larry

    Unfortunately, you got it wrong. McLuhan’s paradigm was the level of interactivity of a means of communication. TV, Movies, Radio were “cold” because there was no interactivity, information moved in one direction only. Telephone was hot because it allowed 2-way (or in the case of party lines) multi-way communication. Interactivity was his key. Thus “the medium was the message” meant that the broadcaster’s message was to be paid attention to because control of the medium gave power and control. Remember, McLuhan did not have Hi-Def TV or the internet when he wrote his thoughts down to be published, these did not exist even in theory!
    Please re-read (and FINISH) his book before you comment.
    Remember the old saying: one’s level of intelligence is unknown until one opens one’s mouth.

  • McLuhan also didn’t have the Internet or video games when he was writing, so his understanding of interactivity is different from what we have today. Perhaps a better way to describe “hot” and “cold” is the level of participation needed by the viewer/user. This encompasses both the level of interactivity of a given medium and how much a viewer/listener has to “fill in the blanks” to understand the message. That is what I meant by “high def/low def.”