Marshall McLuhan is best known for his theories on the impact of media apart from the specific content/messages they convey. McLuhan linked major historical shifts, social trends, and changes in psychological and sensory orientations to the influence of changes in communication media and other technologies. McLuhan ridiculed typical concerns about message imitation and persuasion in his most famous pun: “The medium is the message.”
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1911 to a Scottish-Irish Baptist family. He earned degrees at the University of Manitoba and Cambridge University. He converted to Catholicism in 1937. His early training and lifelong passion were in English literature. But in trying to bridge the gap he perceived between himself and his students at his first US teaching job at the University of Wisconsin, he turned his attention to pop culture. His first book, The mechanical bride (1951), was on the content of advertising, a message-based approach he later rejected in favor of studying media environments. McLuhan began teaching at the University of Toronto in 1946 and founded the Centre for Culture and Technology there in 1963. He died in Toronto in 1980.
At the University of Toronto, McLuhan was influenced by the work of political economist Harold Innis, who argued that communication media have a major impact on societies by shaping patterns of information flow. Yet, while Innis was very concerned with issues of media monopolies and political power and control, McLuhan focused more on the ways in which new media experiences lead to perceptual shifts, such as a changing ratio of the senses. Citing Innis’s work in a proposal to the Ford Foundation, McLuhan and anthropologist Edmund Carpenter used part of the resulting grant to publish Explorations (1953–1959), an eclectic journal concerned with changes in media.
In 1962, McLuhan published The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man, which describes the ways in which writing, and especially print, transformed oral cultures, encouraging linear thinking, categorization, and individualism. In 1964, he published his best-known book, Understanding media: The extensions of man. In it, he focused primarily on the shift from print culture to electronic culture, which he saw as entailing a “retribalization” of society. McLuhan did not envision (or desire) that books and printing would disappear, but he argued that print-encouraged forms of perception and social organization were in dramatic decline. Understanding media also defines “media” broadly to include inventions such as clothing, houses, money, and the automobile.
McLuhan coined the phrase “the global village” to describe the ways in which electronic media involve people in each other’s experiences across vast distances, leading to new connections, but also to new forms of tension and violence. He explored media as extensions of human senses or processes (e.g., the wheel extends the foot, the microphone extends the ear, electronic media extend the nervous system) to describe how we can be transformed by our own creations. He described how different types of content and behavioral styles succeed in different media and how people react differently based on whether a medium is hot (high definition) or cool (low definition). In talks and articles in the 1970s, McLuhan developed a tetrad model (published posthumously as the 1988 book Laws of the media, co-authored by his son Eric) to describe a medium’s impact by answering four questions: What processes does the medium enhance? What does it retrieve from a deeper past? What does it reverse into when pushed to its limits? What does it obsolesce?
Late in his career, McLuhan became increasingly interested in the functions of the left and right brain hemispheres and how their differences related to forms of human expression, media, and art. In a tragic irony, a stroke a year before his death left him unable to read, speak, or write.
McLuhan’s skyrocketing fame in the 1960s was accompanied by withering attacks from critics that he was a charlatan. McLuhan’s fans saw him as an “oracle of the electronic age,” while his critics saw him as a dangerous denigrator of literacy, rationality, and other hallmarks of western civilization. The praise and condemnation often grew from the same foundations. McLuhan promulgated the notions of “media” and “information” in an era when books and other communication forms (such as radio, movies, and TV) were not generally grouped together as one sort of thing. McLuhan’s employed an unusual “oral,” nonlinear, aphoristic style of writing in presenting what he called “probes” about media, where being absolutely correct concerned him less than being insightfully provocative. Consistent with his theories about the influence of new media on the organization of knowledge, he also ignored the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines, to the delight of some and to the horror of many “experts.”
Citations of McLuhan’s work are filled with mischaracterizations of his theories by both fans and critics, some of whom believe incorrectly that McLuhan was advocating an end to literacy or presenting a utopian thesis of global harmony. McLuhan has been criticized more legitimately for downplaying issues of power, propaganda, and class conflicts. Many scholars have dismissed McLuhan for presenting an overly deterministic model of single-factor and unidirectional causation. But defenders of his work, such as Donna Flayhan and Paul Grosswiler, discern in it an underlying dialectical method.
McLuhan’s reputation declined significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, most of his books went out of print, and his name disappeared from the majority of media textbooks. A major revival of interest in his work occurred following the rise of the world wide web and the recognition of social changes that resemble what McLuhan had predicted. McLuhan is now seen as an early postmodernist theorist and a prime heralder of the “information age” and “globalization”. McLuhan’s reputation is solid as a central figure in a larger interdisciplinary area of research called Medium Theory.
- Gordon, W. T. (1997). Marshall McLuhan: Escape into understanding. New York: Basic Books.
- Grosswiler, P. (1998). The method is the message: Rethinking McLuhan through critical theory. Montreal: Black Rose.
- Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A guide to the information millennium. New York: Routledge.
- Marchand, P. (1989/1998). Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Meyrowitz, J. (2003). Canonic anti-text: Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding media. In E. Katz, J. D. Peters, T. Liebes, & A. Orloff (eds.), Canonic texts in media research: Are there any? Should there be? How about these? Cambridge: Polity, pp. 191–212.
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