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.