By; Patrick O’Shea
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshal McLuhan, is a book published in 1964 concerning media and how it spreads through society and culture. McLuhan attempts to stretch the readers mind and makes them think critically. Considered to be the father of communications and media studies, McLuhan is one of the most captivating and controversial thinkers of our time. Graduate work at Cambridge University was a big influence on McLuhan. It was the start of his eventual drive to media analysis. During his time as a teacher at the University of Wisconsin, McLuhan felt very disconnected from his students; he was only 5-8 years older than them. He blamed this detachment from his students on the different ways people learn. His investigation into this subject led him back to his learning at Cambridge. McLuhan was motivated to write his own book after studying work by his old Cambridge professors such as I.A. Richards (The Meaning of Meaning, Practical Criticism).
The book can be summed up in four major areas: media as extensions of ourselves, hot and cold media, the reversal of the overheated medium, and antidotes to the narcotic effects of media. Furthermore, he analyzes these ideas and applies them to specific media. Additionally, McLuhan focuses on how new forms of media change the perception of whole societies. He says they have effects on the human body as well. It wasn’t the content of the media, but the characteristics that it holds that has an effect on society. McLuhan is the origin of the phrase “The medium is the message”. He claims that technology has an impact on the mind of humans. The norms, ways of doing things change because of technology. Mediums change our society and culture. He writes in his book “It is the persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous system to increase power and speed” (90).
It was very difficult to unravel the message that McLuhan was trying to send. In the first part of his book, he has a section on media being an extension of ourselves. McLuhan tries to examine the intentions of the technological advancements that our society has made. Additionally, he wants to examine how these changes in society develop the mind and conscious of the human body. It’s not based on whether or not the technological extensions were beneficial or not. Hot and cool media seems to concern how a certain medium is used in society. For example, whether it has high audience involvement. Media combines with each other and overlaps. As McLuhan writes “no media has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media” (26). Certain types of media have influence on other categories of media. Hot media is media that can be highly developed in the future and make huge steps in improvement. For example, photography has made drastic improvements with the introduction of high definition and other affects. For his third key idea, McLuhan discusses break boundaries; the reversal of overheated medium. At some point during its evolution, there is a breaking point that reverses the process and there is no longer development. McLuhan makes a reference to highways, explaining that highways were built for cars to move freely. However, as time progressed and more cars were developed, the highways became congested from time to time. Lastly, one of McLuhan’s primary final ideas is how to counteract the pattern of media. Society tends to go along with the technological changes that are being made. For example, McLuhan makes a reference to television. People are starting to watch more and more television during the period of time that he wrote this book. In order to counteract that numbness of media, it’s good to experience other types of media such as books, or talking with another person.
McLuhan’s book gives a new interesting focus on the effects of media. It’s not about whether the effects of a certain type of media were good or bad, but what those effects actually are and how they impact society. In McLuhan’s view, media is a technological extension of the body. When reading this book, I had a very difficult time understanding McLuhan’s complicated phrasing. It contained a lot of statements that needed to be interpreted; I had to read a lot of passaged over again to try to get a better meaning. Overall, if you would like a challenging read, I recommend this book. It’s an interesting book that influences how we think about media. It offers a perspective from the 1960’s when technology was in the early stages of development of what it is today. This book can be easily rented at the Loyola Notre Dame Library or bought used for $14.54 and new for $20.96 on Amazon.