McLuhan's Philosophy

"There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions."

-- Marshall McLuhan

"When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity...So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what's called the masked man. The masked man has no identity. He is so deeply involved in other people that he doesn't have any personal identity."

-- McLuhan, quoted in Forward Through The Rearview Mirror

I. Our Mediated Life

II. An Overview of McLuhan's Thinking

III. Passages From Understanding Media

IV. Passages From Forward Through The Rearview Mirror

V. An Extensive Bibliography, Including TV Interviews

II. An Overview Of McLuhan's Thinking

1. The method of communicating information influences societies far more than the content of the information itself. The distinction here is between form and content. Print, telegraph, radio, and TV all have "content" (sentences and paragraphs, code, speech, programming) but it is the medium itself that alters human perception and affects human consciousness. This is what McLuhan means by "the medium is the message."

2. Media are extensions of human beings and affect our outlook and attitudes, our feelings about culture, schools, politics, studies, moral values, societal norms. They can totally disrupt our social existence and equilibrium.

3. Print culture, for instance, fostered individualism and a private point of view and developed linear habits of thought. We read a book all alone, one line of type at a time, left to right, following a sequence and logical pattern. Only the sense of sight is used; there is not that much participation with a book. It is thus a "hot" medium. Television, by contrast, is emotionally involving, requires use of both hearing and sight, and is inclusive whereas print is private. McLuhan described the television medium as "cool".

4. Hot media are high-definition and usually emphasize only one of our senses: examples other than print include radio and photographs. Cool media are low-definition, inclusive rather than exclusive, and involve people totally in it (TV, the telephone).

5. It is wrong and utterly foolish to say something like, "It's how we use ______(e.g., television, the Internet) that matters." As McLuhan put it in Understanding Media,

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the 'content' of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind...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 resistance.

6. The electronic media (telegraph, radio, TV, and now the Internet) have decentralized life and turned the world into a global village. They have had what McLuhan described as a "retribalizing" effect. The boundaries between "here" and "there" have been obliterated. We see, read and hear what is happening in the world all the time, all at once. Something happening a continent away from us feels just as relevant and important as something happening in our own neighborhood. A "friend" on television will be just as important to us as a "real-life" friend. The person we instant message on the Internet will "matter" as much as someone we just met at a dinner party. And so on.

7. The only way not to feel alienated in the new media environment, McLuhan said, is to understand what is going on in the present, to be keenly aware of one's environment. Most people, however, do not do this: they live in the past. They suffer from a "rear-view mirror" mentality. Their thoughts and feelings belong to the preceding generation (we've all met people who are "still living in the 1960s or 1980s," still talking about former presidents, the "good old days," the innocent past).

III. Passages From Understanding Media (New American Library, 1964)

"The ultimate conflict between sight and sound, between written and oral kinds of perception and organization of existence is upon us. Since understanding stops action, as Nietzsche observed, we can moderate the fierceness of this conflict by understanding the media that extend us and raise these wars within and without us."

"Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of information...In our own world as we become more aware of the effects of technology on psychic formation and manifestation, we are losing all confidence in our right to assign guilt."

" medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with our media. The new electric structuring and configuring of life more and more encounters the old lineal and fragmentary procedures and tools of analysis from the mechanical age. More and more we turn from the content of messages to study total effect."

"Involvement that goes with our instant technologies transforms the most 'socially conscious' people into conservatives."

"Electricity does not centralize, but decentralizes. It is like the difference between a railway system and an electric grid system: the one requires railheads and big urban centers. Electric power, equally available in the farmhouse and the Executive Suite, permits any place to be a center, and does not require large aggregations."

"Fragmented, literate, and visual individualism is not possible in an electrically patterned and imploded society. So what is to be done? Do we dare to confront such facts at the conscious level, or is it best to becloud and repress such matters until some violence releases us from the entire burden?"

"Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must serve his electronic technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs. But there is this difference, that previous technologies were partial and fragmentary, and the electric is total and inclusive."

"Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth's atmosphere to a company as a monopoly."

"When information moves at the speed of signals in the central nervous system, man is confronted with the obsolescence of all earlier forms of acceleration, such as road and rail. What emerges is a total field of inclusive awareness. The old patterns of psychic and social adjustment become irrelevant."

"On a planet reduced to village size by new media, cities themselves appear quaint and odd, like archaic forms already overlaid with new patterns of culture."

"The clock and the alphabet, by hacking the universe into visual segments, ended the music of interrelation. The visual desacralizes the universe and produces the 'nonreligious man of modern societies.'"

"An extension appears to be an amplification of an organ, a sense or a function, that inspires the central nervous system to a self-protective gesture of numbing of the extended area, at least so far as direct inspection and awareness are concerned."

"A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the old media until it finds new shapes and positions for them."

"All electric forms whatsoever have a decentralizing effect, cutting across the older mechanical patterns like a bagpipe in a symphony."

"On a moving highway the vehicle that backs up is accelerating in relation to the highway situation. Such would seem to be the ironical status of the cultural reactionary...Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it."

"Electric media...abolish the spatial dimension, rather than enlarge it. By electricity, we everywhere resume person-to-person relations as if on the smallest village scale. It is a relation in depth, and without delegation of functions or powers."

"The introspective life of long, long thoughts and distant goals...cannot coexist with the mosaic form of the TV image that commands immediate participation in depth and admits of no delays."

"TV has changed our sense-lives and our mental processes. It has created a taste for all experience in depth...Since TV, nobody is happy with a mere book, knowledge of French or English poetry. The unanimous cry now is, 'Let's talk French,' and 'Let the bard be heard.'"

IV. Passages From Forward Through The Rearview Mirror, edited by Paul Benedetti & Nancy DeHart (MIT Press, 1997)

"He repeated insistently that we should stop saying 'Is this a good thing or bad thing?' and start saying, 'What's going on?'"

-- Liss Jeffrey

"The electronic age...angelizes man, disembodies him. Turns him into software."

-- Marshall McLuhan

"Unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes."

-- Marshall McLuhan

"Electrically speaking, there's nothing but nuzzling and cuddling and cooing, alternating with wild yells for love and food and help. It's always May Day in the global nursery."

-- Marshall McLuhan

"Violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence."

-- Marshall McLuhan

"He threw out these paragraphs, probes, bits and pieces. His whole life was like a seminar with a brilliant professor who sits there surrounded by students throwing out this idea and that idea. Some of the students go off and write a wonderful paper based on one of those ideas, another one goes off and maybe writes a masterpiece based on it. Another one doesn't get anything, doesn't understand what the professor is talking about, thinks he is erratic and crazy. That's what McLuhan was."

-- Robert Fulford

"Jobs are finished; role-playing has taken over; the job is a passe entity. The job belonged to the specialist. The kids know that they no longer live in a specialist world; you cannot have a goal today. You cannot say, 'I'm going to start here and I'm going to work for the next three years and I'm going to go all that distance.' Every kid knows that within three years, everything will have changed -- including himself and the goal."

-- Marshall McLuhan

"The wired planet has no boundaries and no monopolies of knowledge. The affairs of the world are now dependent upon the highest information of which man is capable...The boundaries between the world of affairs and the community of learning have ceased to exist. The workaday world now demands encyclopedic wisdom."

-- Marshall McLuhan

"At what point is man going to recognize that this power of innovation may have to be restrained and that just as economically it may not be desirable to grow indefinitely, so that technologically it may not be necessary or desirable to innovate indefinitely? We're the first culture in the history of the world that ever regarded innovation as a friendly act."

-- Marshall McLuhan

V. An Extensive Bibliography

TV Interviews:

1. Canadian Broadcasting Archives

2. "The world is a global village"

3. "Oracle of the Electric Age"

4. A debate with Norman Mailer

McLuhan's Major Works:

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore & Industrial Man

Explorations In Communication (edited by McLuhan and Edmund Carptenter)

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

The Medium Is The Massage (with Quentin Fiore)

War And Peace In The Global Village (with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Angel)

Through The Vanishing Point (with Harley Parker)

Counter-Blast (with Harley Parker)

Culture Is Our Business

Other Works Of Interest:

Travels In Hyperreality, by Umberto Eco. (See the chapter "Cogito Interruptus.")

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman

Being Digital, by Nicholas Negroponte

Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan, by Sidney Finkelstein

Marshall McLuhan, by Dennis Duffy

The Bias of Communication, by Harold Innis

The Medium Is the Rearview Mirror, by D. Theall

The Critical Twilight, by J. Fekete

Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan, by D. Czitrom

Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, by Philip Marchand

History and Communications, by Graeme Patterson

Clarifying McLuhan, by S.D. Neill

Understanding Media Cultures, by Nick Stevenson

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror, ed. by Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart

Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding: A Biography, by W. Terrence Gordon (1997)

Simulacrum And Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander.

The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2, by Lewis Mumford. (McLuhan was highly influenced by the writings of Mumford, but on pp.293-297 and 338-339 of this work, Mumford criticizes McLuhan's theories.)

On The Web:

1. James Morrison, Jr., "Marshall McLuhan: No Prophet Without Honor."

2. Marshall McLuhan: Canadian Media Theorist.

3. Tom Wolfe, a chapter from The New Life Out There.

4. Gary Wolf, "The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, The Holy Fool," Wired Magazine, January 1996.

5. Tim Ruggiero (the editor of Philosophical, "TV Epistemology."