12 February 2013

Understanding Mr. McLuhan

abstract and contemplative image courtesy of Gingko Press
"The medium is the message." Enough said. Right?

Well, not quite. Arguably his most famous aphorism, this is (unfortunately) the extent to which many people are familiar with the scholarly and cultural contributions of Marshall McLuhan. Undoubtedly catchy, McLuhan's memorable phrase finds its way into various conversations, but not always in the way in which the author intended. Well, maybe that's not quite right.

As Woody Allen so poignantly demonstrates, many people miss the mark when it come to McLuhan.

As satisfying as that moment may have been for Alvy Singer, maybe it doesn't really matter if people don't fully understand what "The medium is the message" means. (Although, inaccurate parroting of the phrase certainly doesn't help disseminate McLuhan's insightful contributions to media studies.) McLuhan was quite aware of how his rhizomatic mode of thinking and  writing style posed a challenge to readers. A venerable treasure trove of aphorisms and witticisms (some more insightful, others mostly playful), Marshall McLuhan was more interested in probing than explaining. As such McLuhan relies on a prose style that explores rather than explains. Although sometimes frustrating for readers, this style and its heavy reliance on aphorisms is one of the great lasting benefits of McLuhan's writing. The style as well as the substance are indispensable tools with which McLuhan sought to prompt and prod  readers into developing an "understanding of how media operate" and to provoking reflection. Maybe, in the midst of the confusion some readers will dig into McLuhan and explore the connecting thoughts/scholarship and piece together a more complete understanding of how each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message.

It's intriguing to speculate what McLuhan might have to say today, nearly 50 years after publishing Understanding Media. With chapters devoted to topics such as "The Photograph: The Brothel-without-Walls," "Movies: The Reel World," "Radio: The Tribal Drum," "Television: The Timid Giant," and "Automation: Learning a Living," McLuhan had volumes to say about mass media's grip on everyday life. Thanks to the never-ending reach of mass media, McLuhan actually still says a lot about the relationship between culture and technology. In addition to numerous websites and digital archives, Marshall McLuhan continue to participate with active Twitter feeds (of the nearly 40 McLuhan-specific Twitter profiles, I favor @marshallmcluhan and @mcluhanspeaks) and thousands of YouTube clips (the Marshall McLuhan Speaks channel is particularly robust). From beyond the grave McLuhan provides his perspective on "the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves."


You cannot help but be intrigued by a guy so prodigious that he continues to guide the conversation posthumously. McLuhan was so prolific that there is a term (McLuhanisms) to signify all the catch phrases and witticisms he added to the popular lexicon. Sure he was a bit obtuse and sometimes heavy-handed, but one cannot discount McLuhan's contributions to our understanding of how mass media affect human behavior. In an era of new forms and tropes of advertising, rapidly increasing communicative connectivity, and changing cultural dynamics McLuhan was both a scholar concerned with mass media's grip on everyday life as well as himself an object of mass media attention. While McLuhan hoped his writing would facilitate exploration and the reliance of aphorisms would expedite the intellectual probing, he and his stylistic devices often led to confusion. Owing to his radical view of media, technology, and culture as well as his cryptic style, McLuhan achieved a certain level of pop culture celebrity. In addition to his Annie Hall cameo, McLuhan routinely appeared on talk shows, conducted radio interviews, and became a well-known public intellectual who weighed in on all matter tangental to media. Although Tom Brokaw is quick to point out McLuhan's lack of political credentials and McLuhan's theories receive some tongue-in-cheek treatment or even outright dismissal, McLuhan's presence on a morning television program is significant. That particular medium, at that particular cultural moment (the morning timing is also important), provides McLuhan with an opportunity to both explain and illustrate how "The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs." McLuhan's analysis of the Ford-Carter debate is a useful example of what McLuhan is saying about the necessity of understanding a particular medium in order to fully interpret a message. Illustrating the crux of McLuhan's theories, this clip should reverberate loudly in the 21st century. No longer are we merely a "television-conscious society," but a media-inundated and communicatively-saturated society, thus understanding various mediums (as separate, but also interconnected) will help us to better understand the messages we are constantly receiving and sending.


When published in 1964, Understanding Media presented a radical view of electronic communications that rattled the scholarly establishment and ignited popular conversations. With much to say about society and technology, McLuhan's introduced his theories during a period of transition marked by growing skepticism about the promise of better living through science and technology. Given the historical circumstances and long reputation attributed to the book, it is unsurprising to find a wealth of material about modes of communication, culture, technological systems, etc. What I did not anticipate when beginning with McLuhan was his attentiveness to education. In hindsight, the educational component makes complete sense. McLuhan writes at length about the need for continuity, complete involvement, creativity, exploration, simultaneousness, interdisciplinarity (often when referring to the shortcomings of specialization).

In fact, part of the impetus for McLuhan's dedication to media analysis stemmed from his experience in the classroom. When conducting courses as a young faculty member at UW-Madison, McLuhan felt there was a gap inhibiting him from fully connecting with his students. Not much older than his students at that time, McLuhan determined the gap wasn't generational nor intellectual, but was the consequence of  different modes of learning and understanding. This is exactly why I see my proposed project as so important. We must strive to understand students, technology, and the relationship between the two is we are to develop a pedagogy (suited [yet adaptable, evolvable, scalable] for the 21st century educational and sociocultural environment) that encourages creativity and deep learning.

Regardless of how McLuhan's theories were initially received, I think few would dispute that mass media have undoubtedly decentralized our 21st century lifestyles and helped turn the world into an interconnected global village. What McLuhan writes about the "Wheel, Bicycle, and Airplane" applies with equal validity to computers, internet, and mobile devices. “The medium is the message” because it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”

If we consider (as McLuhan does), media as any and all technological extensions of human bodies and minds, what does this mean for contemporary (and future) education? One thing is certain, we must not dwell solely on the impact of media, but also consider the whys, hows, and consequences -- Why might we [knowingly] introduce a particular media into education (there is a whole other level to deal with when considering unknowing introduction of media)? How are media introduced, integrated, leveraged for learning and creativity? What are the consequences after initial impact?

During our age of electronic communications (although I am primarily interested in digital media, I do admit [as McLuhan also discusses] that there is long history of non-electronic communication media that shaped human interaction; what is particularly interesting/significant/different about electronic [and now digital] communication is the speed and scope of its shaping power), it is important to understand how media influence our (individual and collective) experience of the world. Not just the physical world or the social world, but also the educational world. Aren't they all overlapping and interconnected anyway? We must examine how media affect experience in the world(s) of higher education.

The "mass" of McLuhan's famous mass media* refers not (only) to the massive size of communication empires (although this still holds true), but to the involvement of the masses. It's simple. Media is everywhere and connects all types of people, places, things, ideas, etc. Nevertheless, "Media, or the extensions of man, are 'make happen' agents, but not 'make aware' agents." This for me is a critical point when talking about technology in higher education. In fact, this statement forms the crux of my approach to technology use in education. Media can definitely extend and amplify us (as individuals, as learners, as societies, as various conceptions), but media at the same time can amputate and silence us. Regardless of the name, media, technology, etc. create an opportunities to open new doors, boost creativity, inspire learning, etc. At the same time, these same tools, technologies, concepts can dull the learning experience, create rout activities, minimize exploration. Through understanding and critical utilization we (educators, learners, thinkers, etc.) can leverage the amplification and minimize the amputation. McLuhan saw it in the 1960s, "Education has become everybody's business in our society. The globe has become a community of learning." We certainly aren't any less of a global community of learners in 2013 than in 1964. The constant and co-existing media matter at least as much now as 50 years ago. So, "With teaching becoming the business of everybody, round-the-clock, and round-the-globe, what becomes of the older roles and relations of teacher and student?" We have a tremendous opportunity (and a wee bit of an obligation) to rethink the dynamics of learning.

Excited to see what forms the ghost of McLuhan assumes in the upcoming parallel read of Turkle and Postman.

And just in case you want to know more about McLuhan's aphoristic style, here's another memorable clarification from the man himself...







*granted McLuhan did not invent the term "mass media" but he is primarily responsible for its popularization and addition to everyday conversation