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Marshall McLuhan

Page history last edited by ajsmith@iwc.edu 12 years, 7 months ago


            Photo: Marshall McLuhan

                  Marshall McLuhan

          July 21, 1911-December 31, 1980


Born Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  McLuhan was a leading voice in the interdiscplinary field of media ecology.  He coined the controversial phrases "the medium is the massage" and the "global village" to probe into the cultural shifts caused by the electronic revolution, focusing mainly upon TV.  McLuhan held several degrees in English, including a PhD.  He taught at several colleges and universities throughout Canada and the United States and was highly sought after by both religious and world leaders as well as major corporations for his insights. He was the receipient of many honorary Literary degrees and awards in Cutural and Communications studies.  While he had many detractors, his influence is still recognized by media ecologists and in the formatting of popular reality TV shows today.   


McLuhan married (elopement) Corinne Lewis naive of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1939.  Together they had six children.  [12]  


1932 B.A., University of Manitoba

1934 M.A., University of Manitoba

1936 B.A., Cambridge University

1943 Ph.D., Cambridge University  



1936-37 Taught at University of Wisconsin

1937-44 Taught at University of St. Louis

1944-46 Taught at Assumption College, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

1946-79 Taught at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto 


Published Books

1951 The Mechanical Bride

1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man

1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

1967 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (co-written by Quentin Fiore)

1967 War and Peace in the Global Village

1968 Through The Vanishing Point: Space In Poetry and Painting (co-written by Harley Parker) 


Influential Theorists 

Harold Innis a Political Economist Professor at the University of Toronto was Mcluhan's colleague and his work regarding time and space greatly impacted McLuhan's theories.[11]



McLuhan’s Beliefs and Theories


Phonetic Alphabet and Literacy

Literacy has created private identity and specialists of information since reading is a primarily independent, non-social activity allowing people to develop individual goals and interests without requiring input from other people.  Literacy promotes order, lines, and sequences which structure our daily life. [9]



McLuhan believed: "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." 


Laws of Media

This theory states that every technology has four common effects upon human behavior and environment.  The Laws of Media theory is best illustrated as a Tetrad and posed as questions with the outcome of developing people's critical thinking skills.  There is no particular order to the Laws of Media as the effects occur simultaneously.  It was McLuhan's hope that through the understanding and application of the Laws of Media people would be able to prepare for and prevent the 'social and physical chaos' which accompanies every technologial development.  McLuhan developed this theory later in his career with the contributions of his son Eric McLuhan. [9]


The four effects of every technology are:

  • Enhance (or Extends) some human characteristic, sense, or experience 

  • Obsolesces an established mood of operation or technique

  • Retrieves an outdated method or experience

  • Reverses into its opposite if overly developed or used.




                                           The Laws of Media Tetrad  


What does it


What will it


What does it


What does it




Global Village


"You no longer have to be anywhere in order to do everything." -McLuhan [9] 


The invention of print by Gutenberg created independent learning apart from the 'tribe' as well as the idea of mass media.  T.V., the most influencial development of electronic media, has reconnected people with the instant and all-at-once form of information circulation as humans once experienced in tribal cultures.  McLuhan's "global village" theory envisioned electronic media as having the ability to unify and 'retribalize' humanity.  This is more fully realized with the advent of the Internet where print and T.V. media are combined into one format. [10] 



Hot vs. Cool Media


McLuhan developed the idea of hot and cool media.  Hot media, like radio, books, and lectures require very little participation from the audience.  Hot media concentrates on one sensory organ at a time (The ear for radio listening or the eye for reading a book, for example.).  These types of media give the audience all of the information necessary to comprehend the content presented without requiring audience interpretation of the message/content. [1]  


Cool media requires the audience to fill in the informational gaps as they experience a multisensory media such as T.V. or one-on-one conversation.  Even as the viewer is required to mentally participate, ironically, McLuhan believed that the viewer becomes passive.  


The births of the remote control and channel surfing could only come from T.V.'s participatory yet passive sensory retraining of the central nervous system.  Cool media cultures thrive on repetition and in this way become mythical in nature.  McLuhan pointed out the growth in cult religions as an example of this mythical based reorientation in our electronic culture. [7]



Media as a Sensory Extension of the Body


It was his claim that every form of media is an extension of the senses and that focused use of an individual sensory organ causes an imbalance of an organism.  This relates to the Laws of Media.  A car is an extension of the human foot for example and clothes are an extension of skin.  McLuhan asserted that as we further develop our electronic culture, our nervous systems are on the outside of our bodies.  Advertisers have the ability to manipulate every emotion through the use of the electronic media we interect with and are constantly surrounded by. [9]  These ideas are further developed in McLuhan's 1967 book,

The Medium is the Massage.      



Implications for Media Ecology


Marshall McLuhan was a pivotal figure in the development and continuation of the media ecology field. He was at the peak of popularity in the 1960s and 70s [6], but fell out of favor for many years. In the modern, digital world, his ideas have been resurrected.  


McLuhan's Continuing Influences Upon Media Ecology

Neil Postman, Porfessor of Media Ecology, Founder of the Department of Culture & Communications at New York Univeristy.  Studied McLuhan's Media Ecology theories, credited McLuhan for providing profound and lasting influence in shaping this interdisciplinary field of study, even recognizing McLuhan as the author of the phrase: 'Media Ecology".  Postman stated that McLuhan's questions (or probes) into the way the forms of media were changing our ecology were not new questions, but rather the right questions to ask at the very time American life was transforming due to electronic media.  McLuhan interested academics, news media, and the general public to investigate the effects of media upon daily life and thinking.    


McLuhan was driven by ideas, not ambition.  He was interested in making people think; to see how seemingly unrelated ideas were actually connected.


"He dropped the 20th century on my plate when I least expected it." -Frank Zingrone, Professor of Communication at York University, Toronto, Canada, commenting on his first encounter with McLuhan in 1958.[9]


Interview with Camille Paglia for Wired Magazine, 1993





Current theorists such as David Shenk builds on McLuhan's ideas in his 1997 book Data Smog: "T.V. and computer screens have been transformed into a hypnotic visual sizzle that MTV aptly calls 'eye candy'. "...straining our attention has become one of our most popular forms of entertainment."  "it is critical to realize that information doesn't have to be unwanted and unattractive to be harmful."  Even in Shenk's 2007 article: In Slate, called: The E Decade Was I right about the dangers of the Internet in 1997?, McLuhan's ideas are again presented.


McLuhan's 1957 article: "Classrooms Without Walls" http://www.tcpd.org/Thornburg/Handouts/McLuhan.pdfwould appear to be a major influence for Shenk again when he wrote: "..I had at some point made an important strategic decision about how to live in a world that more and more resembles a library without walls, containing more information than one person could ever hope to process." (p20) 


McLuhan's influence is also clearly seen in the New Media art movement which gained momentum in the late 1960's through the 1970's with the video installations of artist Nam Jun Paik who developed the idea: 'electronic superhighway' and the video art peice which aired on TV in 1974 entitled "Global Groove".  Paik was interested in the effects that TV was having upon culture.  Later, with the advent of the Internet, McLuhan's idea of the 'Global Village' became more fully realized as technology had advanced.  Artists now use the Internet to create international, collaberative art works engaging the skills of artists and media technicians alike. [13]    





The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village." (from The Medium is the Massage)


 "I have no theories whatever about anything.  I make observations by way of discovering contours, lines of force, and pressures.  I satirize at all times, and my hyperboles are as nothing compared to the events to which they refer." [1]


Rejecting himself as a Luddite McLuhan said: "Value judgements create smog in our culture and distract attention from processes." [1]


"There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understadning the processes in which we are involved."  "Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions." [1]


"You don't like those ideas?  I've got others." [1]





[1] Wolf, Gary. “The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool”. Wired. Jan 1996.



[2] Levinson, Paul. “McLuhan and Media Ecology”. Media Ecology Association. Vol 1. 2000


[3] Munday, Roderick. “Marshall McLuhan declared that “the medium is the message.” What did he mean and does this notion have any value?. Jan 2003. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/ram0202.html


[4] Carr, Nick. “McLuhan would blow hot and cool about today’s internet”. Nov 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/nov/01/commnet.internet/print


[5] Gossage, Howard. MacDonald, Dwight. McLuhan , Marshall. Rosenberg, Howard. Sontag, Susan. Steiner, George. Wolfe, Tom. McLuhan: Hot & Cool. New American Library, Inc. New York. 1969


[6] “(Herbert) Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)”. 2003. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/mcluhan.htm


[7] "ThePlayboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan, Playboy Magazine  March,1969) http://www.columbia.edu/~log2/mediablogs/McLuhanPBinterview.htm 


[8] Stearn, Gerald E. McLuhan: Hot & Cool. Signet Books. 1967


[9] McMahon,Kevin. 'Mcluhan's Wake', 2002 


[10]Regent University, http://www.regent.edu/acad/schcom/rojc/mdic/mcluhan.html




[12]Timeline source: McLuhan.ca Global Research Network http://mcluhan.ca/timeline.phtml 


[13] Nam June Paik / Global Groove (excerpt) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekHEQcYvgMI

Comments (18)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:03 pm on Sep 11, 2008


Our library just got a book called Television: Technology and Cultural Form by Raymond Williams (published in 1974). I just finished reading the book myself and noted that he offers an extended and very serious critique of Marshall McLuhan entire philosophy in the second-to-last chapter. This is definitely worth looking into as you consider McLuhans many critics.

Also, there are many McLuhan-related videos on my Media Ecology YouTube playlist here: http://www.youtube.com/my_playlists?p=C3DA1FFCADDEB831
-- AdmiN (2008-03-19 10:52:56)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:03 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Found and added McLuhan photo. Do you like it? -- JM
-- AdmiN (2008-04-04 16:30:02)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:03 pm on Sep 11, 2008


I think you can do a better job of providing a more straightforward, fact-based biography section at the beginning. Let us know the basic arc of his life, the high points of his career (teaching, publishing, etc.). Use the suggested models for "person" entries provided with the original instructional e-mail. Save the more interpretive material for the later sections.
-- AdmiN (2008-04-07 10:58:54)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:03 pm on Sep 11, 2008


Galenet has a nice comprehensive article on McLuhan that you may want to draw on, especially for basic factual information:

-- AdmiN (2008-04-07 12:27:40)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:03 pm on Sep 11, 2008


On reference #5, use the MLA citation form for "More than one work from the Same Anthology" (under section 4.6.7). Cite the anthology by editor and then cite individual pieces by author.
-- AdmiN (2008-04-07 12:32:39)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:04 pm on Sep 11, 2008


Use brackets (as I've done in my model entry) rather than parentheses for references.
-- AdmiN (2008-04-07 12:39:40)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:04 pm on Sep 11, 2008

In the 3rd paragraph, I think it was, about Marshall's claim that "media is not limited to the outward pursuit and reciprocation of communication...", I wasn't sure how the rest of it related to the media. What I got more out of reading it was how people have stereotypes in their minds that they refer to in new situations. I didn't make a clear connection between the claim at the beginning and the idea of how people's perceptions about appearances affect how they think about someone else. Unless you weren't trying to connect the two, then nevermind.
-- KathyRodine (2008-04-14 13:22:35)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:04 pm on Sep 11, 2008

I think if you make the heading bold, it will be easier to follow the topics, and easier to skim over one if you want to. You could also put a couple of your quotes in boxes to really enunciate them, especially the first one about his "passionate enemies." In the Hot and Cool section, you could link to TeleVision as soon as you talk about it, and then relate his ideas about bringing back multiple sensory requirements in one medium to my article on SecondaryOrality. And in the part about returning to community based society, link to the social networking article. That's all I've got for now.
-- RobynWilson (2008-04-15 20:38:07)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:04 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Zach, just a thought. When you are talking about McLuhan's theory, maybe you can relate him to Langer and Hayakawa in talking about "communicating about communicating." It seems to me like it would relate and create a greater connection to Media Ecology as a whole.
-- PriscillaMarlar (2008-04-26 11:21:07)

Jeff Martinek said

at 11:33 pm on Nov 18, 2008

Amy: The section called "McLuhan's theory" never made any sense to me. I would recommend getting rid of most of it and starting fresh.


Jeff Martinek said

at 11:36 pm on Nov 18, 2008

In my opinion, McLuhan's long interview with Playboy magazine is the clearest and most concise statement of his philosophy of communication. It could be an important source for this article. It's here:



Jeff Martinek said

at 4:29 pm on Nov 20, 2008

Amy: note that the title of his book is actually "The Medium is the MASSAGE" --- a punning further development of his original phrase. The idea being that electronic media "work us over" like a masseuse. He extended the pun even further (in the style of his hero, James Joyce) to "The Medium is the MASS-age."

Jeff Martinek said

at 8:11 pm on Dec 13, 2008

Little tidbit on McLuhan's famous scene in Annie Hall:

According to author Julian Fox in his biography, Woody: Movies From Manhattan, "There were difficulties with the famous scene where Marshall McLuhan in the New Yorker lobby 'annihilates' the bore who is waiting in line to see The Sorrow and the Pity. Woody had tried to persuade several different celebrities to fill the McLuhan spot, his first choice having been Fellini. This was logical 'casting,' as it linked up with a previous dialogue but, said Woody, Fellini was unwilling to come to the United States for just this one sequence. In the event, McLuhan was not very convincing, even playing himself, and the scene was later reshot. At which point, Woody, according to one observer, 'didn't want to talk to him any more. It was very embarrassing.'"


Jeff Martinek said

at 12:43 pm on Dec 14, 2008

Essay examining what McLuhan meant by "The Medium is the Message":


Jeff Martinek said

at 2:25 pm on Dec 14, 2008

"Spectres of McLuhan" site collects remarks on McLuhan through the years. VERY RICH in substantive content!


Jeff Martinek said

at 2:46 pm on Dec 14, 2008

Jeff Martinek said

at 6:02 pm on Dec 14, 2008


In regards to Shenk's use of McLuhan's ideas in Data Smog: McLuhan is cited three times in the index, and the following passage appears on page 40:

"Communications have been the lifeblood of civilization. But in our roaring technological prosperity, we have, so far, had the luxury to ignore the lessons Marshall McLuhan taught us decades ago: that every technology has 'service' effects and 'disservice' effects --- positive and negative consequences for society."

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