Medium and message revisited: Was Marshall McLuhan a visionary?

July 25, 2003

Dear Cecil:

Marshall McLuhan was a media darling in the late 60s and early 70s. I aced quite a few college papers by explaining the world in terms of his theories about communication. It sure seems to me that his ideas are evident in the impact that the Internet and computers have had on society. But I haven't followed the field very closely since graduation, and so much about the 60s turned out to be hype. So I ask you: Was McLuhan really a seminal thinker? How are his theories regarded today?

I put McLuhan in the same category as Andy Warhol, who was described in a recent magazine article as a "honkie bullshitter." Most of the time that seems like an apt characterization of Warhol, but then I catch myself using some variation of his most famous dictum, "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," and I think: Well, the son of a bitch sure got that right. My take on McLuhan is pretty similar. Though 99 percent of what he wrote was horse manure, the remaining 1 percent was dead on.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-'80), an English professor at the University of Toronto for most of his career, was fascinated by the impact of the mass media on society. Of his many books, two attracted particularly wide notice: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), which some consider his masterpiece, and The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with Quentin Fiore, 1967). Both have recently been reissued, and the publisher claims the latter has sold more than a million copies to date.

Although McLuhan isn't a household name anymore, the astonishing growth of the Internet has burnished his reputation. He's listed as "patron saint" on the masthead of Wired magazine. The upper tier of academics didn't take him too seriously in the 1960s (this was a man who, during a public debate, allegedly told his interlocutor, "You don't like those ideas? I got others"), and I don't see much evidence that they do now. But to generations of grad students, as well as to the many publicists and popularizers of cyberspace (so named in 1982 by sci-fi writer William Gibson, a McLuhanesque writer if ever there was one), he's a prophet.

Some of McLuhan's key concepts:

  • The medium is the message. Never mind the content; what's important is the medium itself. The media are extensions of our senses; as they change, they utterly transform our environment and affect everything we do--they "massage" or reshape us.
  • Hot versus cool media. Hot media are high definition ("well filled with data") and demand a relatively passive audience; cool media are low definition and require intensive audience participation to fill in the blanks. Hot media intensely engage a single sense; cool media loosely engage multiple senses. According to McLuhan, movies and radio are hot media while television and conversation (on the phone or in person) are cool ones. Print is generally a hot medium (the eye must closely follow a linear arrangement of symbols) but can be cooler depending on context.
  • The global village. Today's instant communications have all but erased time and space and rendered national boundaries meaningless.

Even given a close reading, many of McLuhan's ideas seem simplistic, naive, or incoherent. (He liked to disarm detractors by saying, "You think my fallacy is all wrong?") The notion of a global village, while appealing to Web surfers and CNN junkies, is a dangerous illusion--witness the ongoing debacle in Iraq, which has come to pass in part because U.S. leaders kidded themselves into believing that Iraqis were just like us and would embrace democracy as soon as Saddam Hussein was gone. The hot/cool dichotomy has limited usefulness as an analytical tool. Consider a kid doing his homework while simultaneously watching TV, playing his stereo, and IMing with his friends, who pauses to rip and burn a few tracks for later listening, E-mail a photo, and send a text message via cell phone. Which part of this multimedia environment is cool and which hot, which interactive and which not?

Still, McLuhan was right about one thing: the central place media would assume in our daily lives. Less a systematic thinker than a provocateur (read: honkie bullshitter), he was among the first to raise the public's consciousness--another McLuhan-era term--about communications. No one doubts now that we live in a postindustrial age or that we traffic not so much in material goods as in information. It's a stretch to say that McLuhan predicted the contours of the modern world, but the extent to which it has evolved in directions he anticipated is remarkable. The global village, for example, may have been oversold, but a version thereof is definitely emerging: On the Straight Dope Message Board, for instance, we've got one moderator in Amsterdam and another in Bombay. Scoffers may say that McLuhan didn't have any grasp of what it all meant and was only pointing out the obvious. But how many would-be seers even manage that?

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