Understanding Media  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is a 1964 book by Marshall McLuhan.

The book is the source of the well-known phrase "The medium is the message". It was a leading indicator of the upheaval of local cultures by increasingly globalized values. The book greatly influenced academics, writers, and social theorists.


In Part One, McLuhan discusses the differences between hot and cool media and the ways that one medium translates the content of another medium. Briefly, "the content of a medium is always another medium."

In Part Two, McLuhan analyzes each medium (circa 1964) in a manner that exposes the form, rather than the content of each medium. In order, McLuhan covers The Spoken Word, The Written Word (as in a manuscript or incunabulum), Roads and Paper Routes, Numbers, Clothing, Housing, Money, Clocks, The Print (as in pictorial lithograph or woodcut), Comics, The Printed Word (as in Typography), Wheel, Bicycle and Airplane, The Photograph, The Press, Motorcar, Ads, Games, Telegraph, The Typewriter, The Telephone, The Phonograph, Movies, Radio, Television, Weapons, and Automation.

Throughout Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan uses historical quotes and anecdotes to explain the ways in which new forms of media change the perceptions of societies, with specific focus on the form of each medium as opposed to the information that is transmitted by each medium. McLuhan identified two types of media: "hot" media and "cool" media. This terminology does not refer to the temperature or emotional intensity, but to the degree of participation. Hot media are those that require low participation from users, since they foster detachment. Conversely, cool media are those that require strong user participation, since they urge users to engage themselves completely in their use. Radio, for example, is defined as a hot medium, since listening does not require complete involvement from the user. While television is a cool medium, since it requires more user participation.

Electric-technology modularizes our minds

Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase, "the medium is the message", was first introduced in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and further explored in his playfully titled book The Medium is the Massage. McLuhan's thesis, that electric-technology modularizes our minds, whereas the river-of-story-we-evolved-in formed our minds differently, has been so often quoted and misunderstood that, "You understand nothing of my work", has become a catchphrase for the Canadian philosopher (viz. his cameo in Woody Allen's film, Annie Hall). While summarizing McLuhan's argument is fraught with danger, it is safe to claim that the general understanding (perhaps not McLuhan's intended meaning) of the phrase is that the study of media rather than media content will provide more substantive research results. An extreme version of this idea proposes that the effect of media is unrelated to its content. Therefore, any two radio shows will have an identical effect on their audiences, regardless of what the radio shows may be. If one were to seek contrast, it would not be between radio shows, but between radio and television, for example. There is substantial research demonstrating that media has considerably more effect on audiences than message-oriented artists generally concede. Nonetheless, the extreme perspective is widely disregarded. The effect media has on audiences continues to be explored, and the precise nature of the relationship between media and message continues to elude philosophers.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Understanding Media" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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