Marshall Mc Luhan: What If He Was Right?

A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on March 12, 2014, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois

Leo Segedin   |   March 14, 2014 |   Print this essay


Although most people born during the last 50 years probably never heard of him — Marshall McLuhan's early, insightful predictions about the dramatic impact of communication technology on culture during the last several years have revived interest in his ideas. Marshal McLuhan was the most popular, cultural guru in the United States, Canada and England during the late 1960s. He was also the most controversial. Many viewed him as the prophet of the coming, “electronic age” — predicting new technological media would bring us all together in what he called a “global village”. But he also thought that these new media would replace the book — and — for this reason — he was anathema to intellectuals. No other contemporary social provocateur —not even Norman Brown in “Life Against Death” and C. S. Mills in “The Power Elite” — raised such passionate responses. Public confrontations between the book people and the communications people during that time were notorious for their hyperbole and vitriol. To his enthusiastic supporters — he was the most important thinker since Newton, — Darwin — Freud — Einstein and Pavlov. On the other hand — book based intellectuals regarded him as a distorter of immature minds and a high priest of Popthink — accusing him of creating “the myth of our time” — and — in his efforts to explain his ideas — of confusing obscurity for authority. They attacked him for belittling the content of books — for promoting sensuality in place of intellectual rigor — for misusing science and for misinterpreting and distorting his sources.

While both media and book people were guilty of misrepresenting McLuhan — the greatest misrepresenter of his ideas was probably McLuhan himself. In trying to popularize his ideas — he pushed them to ridiculous extremes — contradicting himself — and misquoting and misinterpreting his sources. In his efforts to be catchy — he used language that was obscure and confusing. He was wrong on some issues — and avoided those which might have challenged his ideas. On the other hand — he is responsible for expressions which we still use — such as “global village” — “hot—cool media” — “surfing” (before there was a net) and “the medium is the message”. He did predict the “World Wide Web” thirty years before it was invented. And as far back as 1962 — 15 years before the first home computer hit the market — he wrote — “A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval — obsolesce mass library organization — retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function “ and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” Thus, despite his questionable methods — and his flamboyant metaphors — some of his predictions did come true. Are there then important insights that we might extract from his work? In these papers — I would like to present some of his fundamental assumptions and consider their validity.


A major idea underlying McLuha's theory is his concept of 'technologies”. By “technologies” — he does not mean machinery or technical support for other social activities. In fact — for McLuhan — technologies are — quite simply — any method of organization which has a purpose. Although his definition is broad enough to include railroads — money and clocks — most important for him are the communication media. By media — he does not mean mass or popular entertainment which we can choose to enjoy or ignore. For McLuhan — communication media are our primary means of organizing our experiences — and — as such — they are a determining factor in establishing social character and change. “These technologies” — he says — “affect our outlook and attitudes — our feelings about culture — schools — politics — studies — moral values and societal norms.” Specifically — he sees them as “extensions of some human faculty — psychic or physical.” Just as the wheel is an extension of the foot and the book is an extension of the eye — communication technology is an extension of thought — of consciousness — and of man's unique perceptual capacities. Since we think in language — our thoughts are formed in words. In order to communicate thoughts — words are spoken — written — printed or electronic. Thus, speech — manuscripts — books and the Internet are technologies of communication media. For McLuhan — media includes all such modes of symbolic representation.

The characteristics of the medium itself — rather than its content — dominate society — and involve people in these different ways. This is what he means by his often quoted statement — “the medium is the message”. Like our unawareness of air — we are generally oblivious to the psychological influence of the dominant medium — because — as McLuhan says — “the present is always invisible because it's environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly… In this environment — content is irrelevant; — children's shows and violent programs ultimately have the same effect. It is the influence of TV itself rather than the content of any particular program they see that affects viewers. People who saw the debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 reacted differently than those who heard it on radio. The TV viewers thought that Kennedy had won — while the radio listeners gave the victory to Nixon. As another example — Hitler was a powerfully effective speaker on radio — but he might have appeared as a buffoon on TV. There are many other examples to support the importance McLuhan gives to the medium. Although in the following examples, the literal content may be the same…

Hearing “Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech on the mall in Washington in 1963 would affect us differently than hearing it in a black and white TV screen projection in 2013 — or reading it in a book. Hearing a professor give a lecture in a classroom is different from reading it on a handout or in a text — seeing it on a TV screen — or listening to it on a car radio.
Seeing a painting in a museum is different from seeing it in a book — projected on a screen in an auditorium — on an iPad —or a TV screen. Seeing a movie in a theater is a different experience than seeing on a TV screen or on an IPad or iPhone. Reading a novel in book form is different than reading it on an IPad — listening to it being read on a car radio — or at a reading — or seeing it dramatized in a movie.

Different communication media invite different degrees of involvement. Some media — like a book — are “hot”— that is — they enhance one single sense — in this case — the eye. They are dense with information — and need little additional contribution from the viewer to determine their meanings. In contrast — a “cool” medium — such as a cartoon — has minimal detail. It requires the viewer to use more of his senses to fill in the missing information. As a result — a cool medium is more involving than a hot medium. Words heard are more involving than words seen; written words are more involving than printed words. For the same reason — a lecture is less involving than a seminar — and a book — less than a dialogue.


Particular communication media dominate historical periods. Since people think within the grammar and logic of media — media become their means for organizing experiences. They create unconscious environments which control the way they think and — therefore — the way they act and perceive the world. They determine a society's world view and the forms of its knowledge — thus dictating what that society defines as truth. From this point of view — media not only transmits information — but also determines what kind of world exists for these societies. Thus — anything which determines the nature of media — like alphabets — printing presses and electronic circuitry — affect cognition and perceptual habits — which in turn — affect social organization and interactions. Mc Luhan divides media history into four periods.
  • Tribal culture
  • Manuscript culture
  • Book culture
  • Electronic culture
According to his theory — traditional, tribal cultures are aural. For them — the world does not exist outside the range of voice communication — thereby limiting the size of communities. Baring outside interference — communities not distant from each other may have different forms of social life and expression — but the patterns of their lives do not change much over time and between generations. Ordinary speech requires face to face contact. It is enhanced by the speaker's voice modulation — facial expressions and manual gestures. Speech — therefore — creates a more encompassing experience than the sound of the voice alone because it involves responses to other senses. It “activates all the sensory faculties through which men acquire knowledge and share feeling”. Man&'s sense of reality in tribal cultures then was based on his total sensory experience — not limited to the appearance of things. Aural societies have no physical means of recording their speech — so they preserve experiences in ritually repeated, spoken words — often with a rhythmic structure that makes the words easier to remember. Knowledge is what can be passed on by speech. Hearing is believing. People believe what they are told. Prodigious memory may be necessary — and — since memory is not an objective record — it is transformed over time by influential, cultural experiences. In such societies then — history is memory that is repeated and remembered as spoken myth.

Language, of course, has practical uses — but many natural events — birth — life — death — weather — disasters — are inexplicable. In aural societies — naming such phenomena objectifies them — and — by speaking their names out loud correctly in appropriate rituals — gives them an existence which people believe can be controlled. Thus — some words — like certain objects — become sacred — and must not be spoken in everyday speech.

The oral tradition has not disappeared. When children are taught to learn “by heart” — or to memorize prayers — nursery rhymes — poems or songs — they are participating in the oral tradition. Prayers still embody belief in the power of words. We believe that by naming things — they exist — that we understand and — perhaps control them. We still argue with labels.


As soon as man began to record his ideas — to give them objective, visual form — everything changed. With the development of the phonetic alphabet — the multi—sensory knowledge of the aural was reduced to what can be represented as visual symbols on physical surfaces. For those who understood the meanings of these marks — what the eye sees became more important — more likely to be conceptualized — than what the ear hears. Speech had become depersonalized and no longer required the sound of a voice — expressions or gestures to make it believable. Only information which can be seen and read became “objective”. Representation of memory was no longer speech which has to be heard. History is what is seen on a manuscript — a scroll — a tablet or a wall. Seeing is believing. To make a statement legitimate — we say, “Put it in writing”. If it is in writing — we can look it up and check it out to confirm its validity. This is not to say that “the goose quill put an end to talk” — as McLuhan dramatically writes in one place — and then contradicts in another. Man, of course, continued to talk and to hear.

Seeing words representing ideas laid out in visual space allows the literate to recognize and analyze the ideas — to revise and develop them into more complicated organizations. The enumeration and classification of objects — which is important in commercial exchanges — is easier. Writing it down reduces personal variations and misrepresentations; — distortions are more easily detected. Writing makes commercial and political commitments as stated in written contracts legally binding. Thus, strategies for conducting such relations are more straightforward and less contentious. Such writing skills gave those who could read and write economic advantages over the illiterate. It thus created centers of economic power by objectifying central authority — and — since written messages can be carried over long distances — it extended this authority over large areas. At the same time — by accommodating greater complexity — writing in these power centers also facilitated the establishment of rank — and complex bureaucracies and thus — the development of empires with large armies — and religious institutions with consistent, widely shared dogmas. However, the literate authority in medieval, European society — the church and the princes — did not encourage popular literacy. If everyone could read — authority would lose its unique influence. Since the majority of the people were still illiterate — they had access to these texts only when they were referred to in public sermons by priests or friars of the Franciscan or Dominican orders. Thus — for these people — the world was still conceived aurally and their experiences of spoken information — multi sensory. As part of religious rituals — words were read out loud as enrichment for what was written. Words on scrolls such as the Torah in the Jewish religion were chanted in religious ceremonies — sometimes accompanied by expressive, body gestures. Reading the Torah publicly is still one of the bases for Jewish communal life and the only place where a scroll is still in public use. Oral support for written language — along with music — is also basic to the liturgy of the Catholic Church and other religions. Thus, rituals were made more emotionally effective by making the content of the written word multi sensory. Some languages and books — such as Hebrew — were used only in religious rituals. Religious books were treated with reverence and — as sacred objects — were often kissed or touched in rituals. If a book was considered to be heretical — it might be burned in an act of purification. As in aural cultures — certain words were sacred and could not be spelled completely in secular contexts. Often — substitute words were used.

Since texts also recorded secular information — knowledge about the world was what was in books. Consulting such texts was difficult and inconvenient because of their isolated locations — usually in monasteries. Reading manuscripts was laborious and slow, and so it encouraged memorization of what was read. The preferred modes of teaching and expression were oratorical and disputational. Thus, reading and learning occurred in small groups. In medieval culture — books were rare, precious objects — owned only by the religious institutions and wealthy, noble patrons. Each was unique — individually made — on contract — by skilled craftsmen. Texts were written on permanent materials, such as vellum. They were beautifully decorated with illustrations often painted with rare, expensive pigments like lapis lazuli, which was imported all the way from Afghanistan. Sometimes, even gold was used. When not in use — they were kept in special, safe places.


The development of print technology completed the detribalization of man by moving him from a manuscript to a book culture. Rapidly extending the transformation of the ear to the eye as a source of knowledge — print authenticates the experiences of the other senses — making them more impersonal and objective than written text. (Some of us confirm our impressions of Saturday's football game by reading about it in Sunday morning's paper.) Printing “provided the first uniformly repeatable commodity — the first assembly line—mass production. This had widespread consequences — allowing large numbers of copies of a work to be made rapidly”. It de—sacralized books and made them available to anyone who could read and afford them. In creating the portable book — it allowed the same information to be circulated across large, geographical spaces. This further availability of information enabled greater scientific advancement because now it meant that people's ideas were more readily shared.

Knowledge could be passed on in a consistently standardized form — allowing scientists to explore and develop the implications of the same “objective” information. This was especially true in the dissemination of exactly reproduced, scientific imagery.

Printing made human memory less important because information could be stored more safely and durably in a book. Because documents could be duplicated and data could circulate to the public — it was no longer necessary to secure important documents from loss by locking them up as was done during medieval times. Preserving valuable information by making it public was very effective — the loss of a book was no longer the loss of knowledge. Print imposes particular logic on the organization of visual experience. The mental set of print — the tendency to see reality in discrete units —like words — to find causal relations and linear order — to find structure in nature — reflecting the orderly geometry of the printed page — is transferred to all other social activities. These aspects of the print culture encouraged a need for maps and timetables — creating a lifestyle reflecting uniformity and rigidity — and resulting in complex systems of indexing and cataloguing. Thus — science — government — work and education became organized in terms of the implicit, rational assumptions built into the dominant medium of communication. The advent of print technology in the Western world contributed to and made possible most of the salient trends in this period. In this print culture — reality was based on the appearance of things. This emphasis on visual experience led literate scholars and artists to a rational, logical analysis of nature. As opposed to the multi directional perception of Medieval culture — it required a fixed, single point of view from which nature could be observed and so encouraged the development of optical expanding devises such as the microscope and telescope. This emphasis is also evident in Renaissance painting.

This extension of vision resulted in more knowledge of the physical world. It created a foundation for democracy. Protestantism — capitalism and nationalism would be impossible without print technology. It also led to an emphasis onÊrationalistic philosophy, dominated by dualism. Arguments about such issues as “mind” and “matter” — “spirit” and “body” — of “free will” and “determinism” — is a result of the categorization implicit in print technology. “It is no accident that the Age of Reason was co—existent with the growth of a print culture”. For 600 years — the Western world”s economic — social — religious — political character was built on this foundation. By making printed material easily accessible to individuals — print encouraged the development of individualism. It allowed people to withdraw — to contemplate and meditate outside of communal activities. Men could read silently and in isolation from others. Thus, literacy conferred the power of detachment and noninvolvement — but also created a context for alienation. The private, fixed point of view also encouraged the development of specialist technologies and occupations. It created 9—5 jobs separate from the rest of life practices rather than life—time, personal roles. An artisan, a nun and a farmer — like a mother — do not punch a clock at the end of a day's work and give up their public identity as does a drill press operator in a factory.

Print also led to nationalism. What we call ‘nations’ could not exist without print technology. It allowed for the recognition and dissemination of a common, national language — which was universalized through education. This tendency was helped further by maps — mass produced by the printing press — which gave people on a large scale — for the first time — the capacity to visualize and appreciate the concept of a nation. Newspapers and magazines intensified these implications of print. Also, by establishing control over the media — a new instrument of political centralism and government control was created. Print — also — by encouraging both the consumption of literary material by individuals alone — and a greater public sense of nationalism simultaneously increased both individualism and uniformity. You could read privately — but you read what everyone else read.

The development of the printing press also encouraged religious reform — as it was a major factor in allowing the writings of Erasmus — Luther — and later Calvin to achieve high levels of circulation. The 95 Theses Martin Luther posted on his church door in Wittenberg — printed and passed from hand to hand — spread rapidly across Germany and within a month were known across Europe. Because everyone had access to such texts— every literate person could interpret the Bible in his own way. Thus, since the Catholic Church no longer had control over the content and interpretation of the Bible — print made Protestantism possible. It is estimated that 6 million books were printed between 1450 and 1500 — more than had been produced in the previous 1,000 years. Between 1517 and 1520 — about 300,000 copies of books and tracts by Martin Luther alone were printed. As a result — at the present time — it is estimated that there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations of varying degrees of significance.

Print gave lower class, literate people an opportunity for power previously held only by an elitist nobility. It encouraged the development of a capitalist, middle class — whose status was based on a literacy dependent commercialism. As a result — from the sixteenth century on — it became impossible for the illiterate to obtain either wealth or influence.

The invention of the printing press and the consequent literate society which it produced divided adults and children into the literate and the non—literate. Learning to read in this print culture became an integral part of growing up. An increasing familiarity with the book culture of the adult world was a key aspect of the transition from childhood to adulthood.


It has been argued that McLuhan”s theory ignores the possible influence of other social phenomena. Industrialization — urbanization — laws — bureaucratization — have all caused changes in society. Although it is true that McLuhan theory may not give sufficient significance to the impact of media”s content — it is ultimately impossible to conceive of such changes occurring as they did outside the overriding environment of written or print media. Without literacy — none of this could happen. Thought — in McLuhan”s sense — as formulated by the grammar and logic of media — must precede any action. Thus, it is media that gives such phenomena their form.

But there are shortcomings to even this revised and augmented version of McLuhan's theory of social change. While it may be true that such phenomena could not develop without print — it is also true that print does not always lead to such phenomena. For example — McLuhan seems to have overlooked the fact that making repeatable images (as distinct from prints), stamping an image on wax or another substance — was extremely familiar to the ancient world wherever seals were used. Also, the technique of making repeatable pictorial statements — that is — the woodcut — was known to the Chinese long before it was applied in Europe. Why then did a logical — rational — book culture occur in the West and not in the Far East? Why didn't print destroy the manuscript culture as it did in the West?

Although the Buddhists in China disseminated printed, religious texts — why didn't they use print to communicate scientific information? In fact — what causes differences and changes in media? McLuhan does not consider the possibility that while media may create the character of a society — society creates the character of the media. Since the function of media is to satisfy particular social needs — they do not develop in isolation — and — depending on the functions they serve in particular societies — have their own histories. The Western book culture developed out of the analytical — European — Classical tradition based on a phonetic alphabet; — print in the West — therefore — had an underlying, analytical capacity. There was little equivalent in China — its sign based alphabet — its many — mutually unintelligible languages — immaterialistic philosophies — and autocratic social structure did not encourage such development. The Chinese also invented paper and gunpowder — but never developed the potentials of either. Incidentally, without paper — a print culture would be impossible. McLuhan does not acknowledge that paper — far less costly than vellum and easy to mass produce — made inexpensive — distributable — printed books practical.

In conclusion — it may be that — as some critics say — that McLuhan is too reductionist — too simplistic, — that he includes too much in his concept — that he overemphasizes technology — and so forth — but it seems to me that his underlying assumption presents a valuable approach to the influence of the forms of communication on society — which have not been given appropriate consideration before. Whether a student coming out of a traditional academic curriculum — 'imposed from above” — and acquired by memorization and oral recitation — is better or worse than an education in which learning is based on social and interactive processes — in which students are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum or theory and political oriented curriculums — e.g. Black Studies — Woman's Studies — Latino Studies — post structural theories — is debatable. Next time, I will discuss whether technological media is an improvement.

To read Part 2 of this lecture click here.

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