50th Anniversary Review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

With the new year nearly upon us it is time to post my 50th anniversary review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  If I delay much longer it won’t be a golden anniversary.

50th Anniversary Book Review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964)

by Christopher Nowlin



He is deceased, a fact that reassures me the man himself won’t appear in a movie line-up any time soon to tell me how little I IMG_1302 (2)understand of his writings. I will, however, tentatively venture a guess that he really would have enjoyed Her, Spike Jonze’s latest film about a professional letter-writer who becomes romantically attached to the dulcet female voice of his computer’s personalized operating system. After all, Herbert Marshall McLuhan understood well just how wedded to technology man could become. A full fifty years have passed since he wrote about the motorcar as “the mechanical bride” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, but we are as bound to that spouse today as Theodore Twombly is to his digital girlfriend in Her.

It is fitting that the central character in the McLuhanesque Her is a writer-for-hire because McLuhan, perhaps more than any other intellectual in the 1960s, seriously imagined a future world that would not be as literate as his own. In a recent New York Times exchange with Dana Stevens, Rivka Galchen answered the question, “Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?” with an unequivocal affirmation that the written word “is dying.”[1] Galchen is “pretty sad” about this state of affairs, but she seems pleased that a “late strange renaissance” of pictorial forms of communication and expression might well emerge from cursive’s ashes.

In terms of style and content, Understanding Media was a rebellious tour de force, a work of historical revisionism par excellence, and a first-rate genre-bender that surely rattled literary and academic orthodoxy. Chapters are typically addressed to particular types of technology or “mediums” such as “Clocks,” “The Photograph,” “Comics,” “The Telegraph,” and the “Motorcar.” All are connected by a freehand historical pastiche, by the predominant theme of the book – the medium is the message – and by temperature: are they “hot” or “cool” mediums?   One would be hard-pressed to find a book of its kind today, freely and wildly interrelating, as it did, the high of a Cambridge doctoral education and the low of MAD Magazine, ad copy, and prime-time TV.

To get a taste of how wonderfully and provocatively McLuhan worked his brush, the following excerpt from “The Telegraph” should suffice:

“In the same year, 1844…that men were playing chess and lotteries on the first American telegraph, Soren Kierkegaard published The Concept of Dread. The Age of Anxiety had begun…. …Whenever any new medium or extension occurs, it creates a new myth for itself, usually associated with a major figure: Aretino, the Scourge of Princes and the Puppet of Printing; Napoleon and the trauma of industrial change; Chaplin, the public conscience of the movie; Hitler, the tribal totem of radio; and Florence Nightingale, the first singer of human woe by telegraph wire.”

With such loping etiologies as these, Understanding Media was not always cited by those writers with an interest in broader questions around technology. Notable Canadian peers do not appear to pay the book much mind. In Technology and Justice, a 1986 collection of George Grant’s essays, Grant considered the impact of the automobile on social organization in a distinctly McLuhanesque vein, but without any reference to the man himself.[2] In 1989 Ursula Franklin, an eminent scientist, gave a number of lectures entitled The Real World of Technology. She mentioned a popular collection of technological forecasts published as The World in 1984[3] but she made no reference to Understanding Media, which was published the same year as Nigel Calder’s collection. Franklin did consider what McLuhan wrote in The Mechanical Bride about the motorcar, and effectively conveyed the “message” of the mass-produced automobile as McLuhan perceived it in Understanding Media, but she made no reference to the later and more formidable work.


The Message of a Provocateur

The tag line for Peter Bradshaw’s review of Her in The Guardian reads: In Spike Jonze’s postmodern pastoral about a man who dates his operating system, digital affairs are as sensual – and heartbreaking – as the real thing.[4] For McLuhan, of course, man’s various relationships to technology are not analogous to real relationships. They are not metaphors.   They are ‘the real thing.’ A broken technological relationship can realistically be more debilitating to some than a broken heart might be to another.   Internet providers profusely apologize when they accidently cut off service to their customers for only an hour or two. They know how maddening, painful or costly their breakdown can be. Such is the important “message” of technology, as McLuhan saw it in terms of “operational and practical fact,” namely “the change of scale or pace or pattern that [technology] introduces into human affairs.”

In Understanding Media McLuhan was interested to show how different technologies or mediums empowered man while simultaneously confining him to different ‘operating systems’ writ large, physically and socially. He wrote, “Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology.”[5]   On the subject or “medium” of Money, McLuhan made an intriguing reference to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, which was published in 1872. A reading of Butler’s fantastic book might give some readers a fair impression that Understanding Media was far more influenced by Erewhon than would appear from McLuhan’s fleeting reference to it in his chapter on “Money.” Butler wrote fictionally of “The Book of the Machines” that “Its author said that machines were to be regarded as a part of man’s own physical nature, being really nothing but extra-corporeal limbs….Observe a man digging with a spade; his right fore-arm has become artificially lengthened, and his hand has become a joint. The handle of the spade is like the knob at the end of the humerus…” et cetera. Compare this imagery from 1872, for example, with McLuhan’s discussion “of the case of the wheel as an extension of the foot” in his chapter on “The Gadget Lover.” McLuhan takes the notion of an “extension of man” further than Butler did – from “machine” to “message” – but one cannot help but conclude that McLuhan was deeply inspired by Butler’s way of thinking.


Literacy and Education

Understanding Media established McLuhan as a maverick among the intelligentsia at large, like Ludwig Wittgenstein (who skewered the pretenses of philosophers’ ‘language games’) and Jacques Derrida (who ‘deconstructed’ them). The latter, who was McLuhan’s contemporary, eventually voiced disagreement with the Canadian on the matter of literacy, broadly construed. Derrida disagreed with McLuhan that the written word was on its way out – that the electronic age was heralding a return to “tribal” forms of communication. In 1982 Paul Brennan interviewed Derrida and said to the celebrity philosopher,

You’ve suggested we should stop thinking about various media – speech and writin[g] – that we should stop thinking about them ethically and that the two media of language are beyond good and evil. This obviously puts you at variation with someone like Marshall McLuhan who talks about the medium in very ethical terms – “the microphone created Hitler” and so on.

Derrida replied:

…. I think that there is an ideology in McLuhan’s discourse that I don’t agree with, because he’s an optimist as to the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines and so on. I think that’s a very traditional myth which goes back to… let’s say Plato, Rousseau… And instead of thinking that we are living at the end of writing, I think that in another sense we are living in the extension – the overwhelming extension – of writing…[6]

McLuhan was indeed a clear advocate of an adventurous education of the kind Jean Jacques Rousseau wished for Emile, but Derrida was skeptical about the social benefits of writing’s demise.

Perhaps in the land of belles lettres there was and is nothing to worry about, in terms of the long-term health of the written word, but McLuhan might have been prescient about North America. Here the situation is not so rosy. In his 1965 Introduction to Understanding Media McLuhan addressed the subject of education, a topic he had addressed earlier in The Mechanical Bride. In 1965 McLuhan noted an emerging drop-out problem in the public school system and what today might be called a ‘disconnect’ between the way a young person normally acquires experience and learning in the world – “mythically and in depth” – and the way that student acquires knowledge in the classroom – by means of classification and “blueprint.” McLuhan suggested that the student could not find “involvement for himself” and could not discover” how book information relates to lived experience.[7] He surmised that TV was part of the problem as it had become a normal source of home entertainment and news. McLuhan correctly observed that the standard TV image does not require its viewer to concentrate on particular objects, or to focus his or her attention on discreet objects.[8] Movement on TV programs can be fluid, the pace can be quick, but traditional classroom education is mechanical, fragmented, and slow. He noted that attention paid to the lecturer and the chalk board is more akin to that given to the stage performer and the set, of which all the pieces are observed. Even words spoken by theatre actors are enunciated and projected like those of a teacher, unlike those on TV.

Thus McLuhan surmised that, if the TV could be used in the classroom to present the curricula as it had typically been taught, the two worlds of the student might be more effectively wed or bridged.[9] PowerPoint and its more versatile successors might be this antidote, on-line education might be another,[10] but McLuhan suggested that more would be necessary. He wrote, “We would be foolish not to ease our transition from the fragmented visual world of the existing educational establishment by every possible means.”[11] Here McLuhan advocated a move away from a classification or categorization system of learning – in broad strokes, a text-book or “bookish” style of education – toward a more practical or experiential style of learning. Field trips come to mind, as should Rousseau’s Emile.

Little could McLuhan have known that the cognitive condition he linked to TV viewing and school attrition in the early 60s would acquire a quasi-medical status decades later, namely “attention deficit disorder” (ADD) or “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD).   No college teacher in North America today who has reliable powers of perspicacity would deny that “attention span” in the classroom has become a serious, even systemic problem.  Of course, this problem might only be perceived as a “problem” for the reason McLuhan noted in 1964 – that traditional modes of teaching, rooted as they are in the mechanical age, have not kept pace with the ever-increasing impact or influence of electric and digital media on the lives of young students. Here teachers are a drag on progress, so they attend instructional media skills workshops and update their IT skills. They are trying to make the blueprints of yesterday amenable to the messages of today – those created by commonplace texting, digital game playing, Tweeting, social networking, YouTube watching, et cetera.   In doing so they are contributing to a growing problem of illiteracy.   The illiteracy problem in the United States is exacerbated, of course, by the fact that certain states have ended standardized writing assessments. Illinois cut these assessments for elementary and middle school students in 2010, and for high school students in 2011.

McLuhan obtained his PhD in literature from Cambridge University.   However many comic books he read beforehand, Understanding Media demonstrates his ready familiarity with an array of great works of literature and philosophy.   The average college and university student today is reluctant to read an essay that has any of the intellectual complication or rigor of the books McLuhan routinely read (when he wasn’t enjoying pop culture).   Teachers know this and complain about it to one another behind closed-door staff meetings or they pontificate out loud at conferences. Those instructors who go against the tide or grain, those who are ‘principled,’ those who insist upon being old-fashioned by imposing ‘onerous’ reading requirements on their students, and by giving grades commensurate with evidence that the materials have been read and considered, they soon receive formal disapproval, first from their students, then from their administrative superiors.

Thus, an unnerving question in educational policy today is, Is resistance futile? Perhaps traditionalists are simply impeding a “renaissance” of pictorial communication of the kind that excites Galchen in her New York Times discussion of Japanese wood prints.[12] As many people in society, young and elderly alike, become more impatient, more distracted, and more accustomed to expedited and iconic communication, one may fairly ask, what broad “good” is served by forcing the long form – the complete sentence, the formal paragraph, the essay, the novel – on pupils of today? In what ways would society be “better off,” for lack of a better expression, by a return to a situation in which communication is predominantly hieroglyphic, pictorial, cryptic, iconic, truncated, abbreviated, auditory or “tribal”?

As a matter of fact the written word is far from dead, but its condition might well be terminal, a possibility that is hardly a cause for celebration, even if it means that pictures and the spoken word will once again come to play a greater role in everyday communication. Before one gets too excited about the obsolescence of the complete written sentence one should note that McLuhan believed in 1951 that education was “by far the best means of improving one’s social status” and “earning power”.[13] The economist Thomas Piketty would appear to agree.[14] McLuhan also believed that the education system in 1951 tended to produce individuals who collectively served corporate or bureaucratic interests, or at least this was the case for those pupils who approached their schooling precisely as means or ticket to success in the private or public sector.[15] In an image befitting the 1982 animated film, Pink Floyd The Wall, McLuhan was concerned that the education system simply prepared its students for “the technological meat grinder” of the business and political world. He seemed sure that the overarching purpose of education and advertising was conformity of thought and an absence of what today would be called “critical thinking.” For him, society had been living in a collective “nightmare” for which “consciousness [would] come as a relief”, but thankfully there were “actually emerging a large number of independent critical minds” at the time.[16] Today, of course, corporate involvement in North American higher education is unabashed.

It is worth contrasting the optimism McLuhan expressed in 1951 about “independent critical minds” with his observation of increasing educational truancy in 1965. Most schools today tout “critical thinking” as an important educational objective or outcome, but many teachers know that this aspiration is becoming more pious with each passing year. Literacy, certainly of the level achieved by McLuhan, is not acquired simply by exposure to words, PowerPoint presentations, or books. Literacy is an ability to comprehend the interplay of constituent parts of a language, and each part must first be understood to some degree in order for the effect to be recognized. The tools for achieving literacy are typically established in elementary or grade school. Learning an alphabet is usually the starting place. Learning to spell words follows. Learning the constituent components of a sentence – subject, verb, object – is a further skill. Punctuation is also important. All such skills prepare students for the capacity to write a comprehensible thought.   Eventually students are taught to combine sentences into paragraphs, and to organize paragraphs into essays.

However mechanical and fragmentary the above process is, it is essential for “critical thinking” about visual-friendly PowerPoint presentations.   It is also essential for understanding what McLuhan and others had to say about advertising and market research, for those students interested only in visual communications and media literacy. Some might consider it far-fetched to propose, as McLuhan did, that the emergence of a man like Hitler somehow depended on the “message” of radio.[17] Without doubt, however, McLuhan could not have offered his readers this very thought without the prevailing “messages” of the written word and book during his time. In short, today’s pedagogical tendency away from long-form literacy might be at cross-purposes with the institutional desire for critical thinkers. Of course, bearing McLuhan’s general 1951 observations in mind, the latter desire might be more putative than genuine.


Spidermen, Superman and Linus van Pelt

In 1964 McLuhan saw himself as writing in the electric age, one that had moved beyond the machine age. It was also “the Age of Anxiety,” not simply because of Kierkegaard, but because the great reach of electrical forms of communication made for few hiding places. McLuhan thus wrote famously, “As electronically contracted, the globe is no more than a village.”[18] In more poetic terms he remarked, “In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.”[19] For better or worse regional problems and perspectives had become parts of a whole.   Today Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and Edward Snowdon’s National Security Agency revelations remind everyone how dangerously inclusive the global web can be, and that digital webs are sometimes spun by spidermen with dubious motives. Whatever one’s moral view of Assange or Snowdon might be, there can be no doubt that these two men “wear” much of “mankind as [their] skin.”

McLuhan believed that technological advance and mankind’s untiring drive toward ever-increasing power and speed was part of a human (or at least male) wish to be superhuman.   For McLuhan, this was the primary message of the automobile, that “more than any horse, it is an extension of man that turns the rider into a superman.”[20] McLuhan was as interested in what motivated man to achieve ever-greater super powers as he was in the powers themselves. Thus, for McLuhan in 1951, the average, sober man understood himself as Clark Kent, ”a nobody” – “[a] third-rate reporter whose incompetence wins him the pity and contempt of the virile Lois Lane, his hidden superself is an adolescent dream of imaginary triumphs.”[21]   This depiction might readily bring to mind Cervantes’ Don Quixotes or Dostoyesky’s Underground Man. In each case the insecure protagonist, the perpetual romantic, is male. Travis Bickle, the modern taxi driver of Martin Scorsese’s eponymous film, would also fit the bill, as McLuhan was concerned that Superman, the comic book hero, appealed to “a restless eagerness to embrace violent solutions.”[22] In Understanding Media McLuhan wrote that “War and the fear of war have always been considered the main incentives to the technological extension of our bodies.” This is an overgeneralization, but even so McLuhan did not mention that the Superman comic strip was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, both late teenagers, on the eve of World War II, and that in the earliest days of that war Superman battled Hitler and Germans.23]

McLuhan did not directly address the fact that the superhuman powers men aspire to achieve through technology tend to be the physical capabilities of animals: the sustained flight of birds, the underwater mobility of fish, the strength of ants, the ground speed of cheetahs, the invisibility of chameleons, or the height of giraffes.   He incidentally likened the automobile body to the protective shell of “shiny-backed insects” and observed that the car had become “the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man.”   The car ‘bugged’ the pedestrian, he quipped.[24] But more seriously, man’s technological extensions continue to decimate the animal world, a world of which man is so deeply envious.

One of the most obvious technological extensions of man today is the smartphone or messaging device. One only need board a bus or subway car, stand on a street corner, cross the street, or dine with friends, to be in the company of Linus van Pelt. Superman remains a fantasy, but Linus is real, and he has made it very difficult for Clark Kent to find a phone booth. Linus van Pelt is everywhere today, gripping his security blanket, taking photos with it, sending or scrolling for updates: he’ll be a bit late; he’s only a minute away; where R U? he texts his friend. He doesn’t want to suck his thumb in public, so he puts it in his pockets for few minutes, but he cannot help himself so he pulls it out again. There must be an update already, but there isn’t one so he sends another message that will hopefully get a quick reply.   More exclamation marks are perhaps needed. This is the McLuhanesque “message” of the smartphone. It has restored to many adults and adolescents the security blanket that their parents weaned them from, but today their plastic-molded ‘blanky’ is not so soothing. It has a hard, moulded edge. It simultaneously soothes and unnerves. It keeps one always checking.


Consumerism and the Resurrection of the Door-to-Door Salesman

McLuhan was very interested in the ways that advertising influenced consumer behavior in manners that served corporate self-interest. He was as concerned about the capacity of corporations to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes as he was about the tendency of public education to produce intellectual conformity. As he saw it, the advertisement was a particularly powerful weapon in the corporate arsenal. In 1964 he proclaimed that the door-to-door salesman had suffered his last doorway rejection because “the simple faith of the salesman in the irresistibility of his line (both talk and goods)” so poignantly portrayed by Arthur Miller had been supplanted by TV ads. Now, he noted,

[advertisements] are deserting the individual consumer-product in favor of the all-inclusive and never-ending process that is the Image of any great corporate enterprise. The Container Corporation of America does not feature paper bags and paper cups in its ads, but the container function, by means of great art.[25]

Jean Baudrillard wrote similarly in 1988, “The truth about consumption is that it is a function of production and not a function of pleasure, and therefore, like material production, is not an individual function but one that is directly and totally collective.”[26] Indeed, consistent with his belief that life in the electric age was one of anxiety, McLuhan shared with Baudrillard the belief that individuals cannot recognize or identify themselves except through the loaded cultural associations of their material worlds. Insofar as technological extensions are continually shifting and the cultural connotations of material goods are always changing (advertising plays a limited role in this), unmediated “self” identity is necessarily illusive. This universal predicament, for McLuhan, explained the Narcissus myth. [27] For Baudrillard, it explains why a modern consumer does not shop for pleasure, but rather to fulfil a longing that comes naturally in a world where identity is effectively manufactured.[28]

More than anyone, however, McLuhan should have guessed in Understanding Media that the door-knocking salesman would arise from the dead one day, in another extension, faster, and more penetrating than ever. He predicted that in a decade “the electronic successors to the car” would be “manifest” as the motor car’s story had “not much longer to run.”[29] For him, highways would become an antiquated form of social interconnection and commerce. His prediction might have been a little impatient but has been realized to a degree.   Industrial and consumer goods are still moved en masse by ground or air. Many products and services today, however, are bought and provided on-line.   Websites have replaced stock business cards and are much more informative than their wallet-size predecessors, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of them. Thus, the digital door-to-door salesman has arisen from the ashes well-polished and with vigor, pitching a great variety of good and services of his and her own creation. He or she is no longer necessarily a corporate puppet and in some cases can be a genuine competitor.



The general direction in which the processes McLuhan so remarkably and creatively brought to light in Understanding Media are headed is global impatience. The physical and mental indicia of this trend are obvious and ubiquitous, so more than ever state actors must keep cool heads.   Their early failures to constrain the “message” of the cell phone have contributed to a great many vehicular deaths.   Now they can’t wait to make the global village wireless so that geography imposes virtually no restrictions on commerce. With such a development no public place will provide refuge from the signals of private enterprise. Indeed, if the Canadian government has its way, one will find Internet traffic even in the country’s densely forested national parks.

In 1965 McLuhan noted that “any child” could make an inventory of a new medium, and he recommended as a matter of “media study” that teachers invite students to undertake this type of exercise.   The results would be highly worthwhile, he believed, for they would reveal “many unexpected avenues of awareness and investigation.”[30]   Only time will tell if the collective trend toward digital stenography (texting and Tweeting) and away from the long-hand of literacy will in any way improve life in the global village, but in the meantime, before the soft curves of cursive writing become obsolete, before a full sentence become incomprehensible, and before patience becomes a pious virtue, governments would do well to take a seat in McCluhan’s media study class and take as complete an inventory as possible of the technologies that so entice them.

[1]  Stevens, D. and Galchen, R.  “Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 22, 2014)  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/books/review/what-would-marshall-mcluhan-have-made-of-the-internet-age.html?_r=0

[2] Grant, G. Technology & Justice (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Limited, 1986).

[3] Franklin, U.  The Real World of Technology (Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press, 1990).  The World in 1984, ed. Nigel Calder (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964).

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/13/her-review

[5] McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions or Man (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company 1964; 1965 Paperback Edition), p.46.

[6] Jacques Derrida. “Excuse me, but I never said exactly so: Yet Another Derridean Interview” in: On The Beach. Autumn 1983. (English). http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jacques-derrida/articles/excuse-me-but-i-never-said-exactly-so/

[7] Understanding Media, p.vii, p.ix.

[8] Understanding Media, p.ix, and p.317.

[9] Understanding Media, p.ix.

[10] The textbook equivalent to the on-line course was available as of 1951, when McLuhan published The Mechanical Bride.  At p.127 of The Mechanical Bride he displayed an advertisement for “High School Subjects Self-Taught.”

[11] Understanding Media, p.ix.

[12] Stevens, D. and Galchen, R.  “Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 22, 2014)  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/books/review/what-would-marshall-mcluhan-have-made-of-the-internet-age.html?_r=0

[13] McLuhan, M. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Berkeley, CA: Ginko Press, 2001; 50th Anniversary Reprint), p.126.

[14] Piketty, T. Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. A. Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), p.22.

[15] The Mechanical Bride, p.126.

[16] The Mechanical Bride, p.128.

[17] See Understanding Media, Chapter 30.

[18] Understanding Media, p.5.

[19] Understanding Media, p.47.

[20] Understanding Media, p.221.

[21] The Mechanical Bride, p.102.

[22] The Mechanical Bride, p.102.

[23] Foran, C.  Mordecai: The Life & Times (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), pp.43-44.

[24] Understanding Media, pp.224-225.

[25] Understanding Media, p.232.

[26] Baudrillard, J.  Selected Writings.  Ed. M. Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p.46.

[27] For McLuhan, in the Narcissus myth “the young man’s image is a self-amputation or extension introduced by irritating pressures.” Understanding Media, p.43.

[28] Baudrillard, J.  Selected Writings.  Ed. M. Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p.46. Baudrillard wrote, “Consumer behavior, which appears to be focused and directed at the object and at pleasure, in fact responds to quite different objectives: the metaphoric or displaced expression of desire, and the production of a code of social values through the use of differentiating signs.”

[29] Understanding Media, pp.224-225.

[30] Understanding Media, p.viii.


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2 responses to “50th Anniversary Review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

  1. An article dense with insight on McLuhan. Much appreciated. I don’t believe that he held that the emergence of someone like Hitler somehow depended on the message of TV. I believe he wrote the rise of such a tyrant depended on the medium of radio. Thanks for the blog.

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