Review – Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man
“Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man” is a wonderful book to read. Its author Marshall McLuhan seems to be searching for important issues such as the meaning of media, relationships between the media and the electronic age, and the psychic and social consequences of media in this age. The book gives the reader a complete view on all aspects of media. This book is mainly divided into two parts. The first part sheds light on the meaning of the media, its effects and characteristics. The second part is deals with evolution of media, its innovation and its social and cultural impacts on human society.
In this book McLuhan tries to explain a very important concept. He explains how “the medium is the message”. This is because; a new environment is gradually created by technology. In addition, environments are not passive wrappings but active processes. However, in the electronic age of today, a completely new environment is emerges due to technological advancement. The advancement of technology in the form of new innovations and automations does have negative and positive effects on society and on the nation as a whole. McLuhan further divides the media as ‘hot’ and ‘cool’. ‘Hot’ medium was defined as low in participation. On the other hand, the audience defined ‘cool’ medium as high in participation or completion. Hence the first axiom of this book was that ‘the medium is the message’.
The author then goes on and elaborates on hot media such as radio and newspapers. These media gave us a wealth of information such as bargains in second-hand cars, the great books and the weather. Radio and newspapers were quite effective and aggressive in communicating information. On the other hand, the cool medium, like television was not as aggressive. The author further tried to explain the meaning of hot and cool media in a society as a whole and its constituent units.
The book touches upon another concept and says that the effects of the media on the human psyche stay between fact and metaphor. The mediums such as transistors and other instruments have an effect on our body as well as minds, as words, images and human signals reach us. He further suggests that one medium always used another medium as its subject matter. For example, the content of the movies is the novel. McLauhan says, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, in the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind… “(p. 18).
The author explains the print media and its importance. He says that the spoken word is the oral expression of human desires and printing is a pictorial statement that can be repeated precisely. Handicraft wad mechanized with the advent of typography. This has had various social as well as psychic repercussions. Previous boundaries and patterns of culture have changed. The social impacts of typography have been an increase in nationalism and industrialism etc. besides literacy and education.
An important observation of the author is that the portability of books has allowed ‘alphabetic man’ to feed his intellect in isolation from others. This has in turn introduced individualism and conflict between ego and its environment, besides an intensification of perspectives and points of views. The phonetic alphabet has in itself been a wonderful invention. It is a technology that has created the ‘civilized man’. According to McLuhan this “civilized man” is identified as “the separate individual”. This is also the chief characteristic of civilized societies that are literate and civilized. The phonetic alphabet also carried man from tribalism to individuality and freedom. On the other hand, the electronic media has brought about another form of transformation. It has taken man beyond visual individualism.
Regarding the future, McLuhan arrived at happy conclusions. He wrote that, the packaged cultural commodities are not impoverishing man. Instead it is the split personality shaped by the book that denies sensual self-realization. The power of media has not only affected our sense organs but also our physical structure as a whole.
McLuhan further gives examples to explain his point. He gives reference to the innovation of the horseshoe in 13th Century changing town life. The evolution of wheel from the middle to the modern age is also interesting. It was the wheel that spurred growth and developed the human society resulting in many forms of transportation such as the bus and the airplane. He beautifully says that the wheel made the road and the motorcar made the highway. Thus many of the inventions further caused newer inventions and growth and development of the society. While explaining this phenomenon he seems philosophical. He also explains how these innovations affected the human behavior. He said: “Every technology creates new stresses and needs in the human beings who have engendered it. The new need and the new technological responses are born of our embrace of the already existed technology – a ceaseless process” (p. 183).
McLuhan also discussed the meaning of art and literature. He regarded the human habitation as a huge art pile. Human beings according to him are things that communicate, and they try to make themselves comprehensible by means of mosaic of exhibits. He also tried to imitate in his writing the form of the TV image, which he described as ‘mosaic’.
This book was very useful as it offered a number of keen observations about media. The author did a fairly good job by explaining to the reader, various aspects in media and the historical development of various media. Often sounding philosophical, he explains the social effects of the development of media. However, the book fails to keep the reader’s interest in the subject matter. Although McLauhan had important points to make, but his style of writing could have been better. At various points in the book, one observes repetitions. The book mainly concentrates on the historical aspects of media and its development.