re-issue of classic 1960s media studies text
This is the book which made McLuhan famous with the phrase ‘The medium is the message’. Understanding Media was issued as a warning to the many pundits who refused to take seriously what we now call ‘media studies’ – though his range was much wider than just communication. The first part is a critique of contemporary culture – ‘electric’ as he calls it. Much of this is couched in rash generalisations and dressed up in some of his slightly batty distinctions – such as those he makes between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. All this is steeped in a rich soup of cultural references. On any single page you might be taken from Matthew Arnold and Edward Gibbon, to de Tocqueville, E.M. Forster, and the World Health Organisation.
The second part consists of meditations on cultural phenomena ranging from clothing and money, to transport, comics, radio, and the telephone. These tend to be thought-provoking and patchy rather than systematic – but it has to be remembered that reflections on the cultural significance of television shows, advertising and motor cars was something of a novelty forty years ago.
Since all media are extensions of ourselves, or translations of some parts of ourselves into various materials, any study of one medium helps us to understand all the others.
He has interesting observations to make on anything from clocks and bicycles to advertising and weapons – and these are often delivered in a witty and epigrammatic manner.
There’s a lot of generalising about the relationship between technology and history (or ‘civilization’ as it was still called back then) and he places a great deal of reliance on books such as Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and Louis Mumford’s The City in History.
His reflections on the typewriter made me wish he had lived long enough to comment on the word-processor and the computer – surely two of the most powerful and widely used devices of the ‘electronic age’. This is a lively and a thought-provoking book. If you didn’t read it first time round, this is a good chance to catch up.
© Roy Johnson 2003
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, (first published 1964) London: Routledge, 2001, pp.392, ISBN: 0415253977