T V Dinner

Understanding Media

by Marshall McLuhan
McGraw Hill, 359 pp., $7.50

When Mr. McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy a year or so ago he announced the present volume, which is more supplement than sequel. Gutenberg was about the way it is now possible—since we have progressed some distance into a new era in which the major cultural determinants are electric and electronic technologies—to see how totally life and thought were formerly determined by typographical technologies. Thus we assumed without question that space was uniform and continuous, time linear and successive. We apprehended history, and everything else, visually. Many consequences flowed inevitably from this arbitrary, though apparently natural, arrangement: the growth of nation states, modern educational methods, our games, our economics, the mechanical processes which reached their apogee in the assembly line. We had a visual, linear, successive culture. Thus we were very different from tribal man, who is oral and tactile, not visual. And just at the moment when certain predominantly oral-tactile societies (the Chinese, for instance) are moving into a typographic, assembly-line technology, we are being hurried ignorantly into the electric galaxy and reverting to oral and instantaneous modes of understanding, with all their benefits and dangers.

The indices of this enormous and unnoticed change are the media appropriate to the new technologies, and the new book studies them in detail. It is uselessly old-hat, says McLuhan, uselessly literate, to ignore the media and concentrate one’s criticism on the messages they bear. “The medium is the message.” Just as nobody now asks what a painting is about, we should not ask what television communicates, unless we wish to be described as illustrating “the numb stance of the technological idiot.” Our urgent need is to learn what the media are, and what they are doing to us, not what they are saying.

It happens that there are classes of media. Some are hot, of high definition, and requiring little audience participation; some are cool, of low definition, and requiring much participation. A lecture and radio are hot, a seminar and television are cool. On the whole, oral is cool, and oral is good; so seminars are better than lectures, and television than radio. In one of his agreeable flourishes McLuhan says we will soon be able to program whole cultures to stabilize their emotional climates: if trouble is brewing in South Africa because of an overdose of hot radio, we might prescribe an increased dose of TV to cool everybody off. But these subtleties are for the future. At present our business is to understand the media and the changes they have made in our world. They have brought us near to oral decentralization, to an instantaneity diametrically opposed to the visual and linear organization of the typographical past. We have to get used to the dethronement of the eye and the extension of our sensoria. Just as tools were extensions of the hand, and the wheel of the feet, so electricity is an extension of the central nervous system, and will in time require us to live …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.