Understanding Media – Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan is one of the leading perspectives on media and there have been many occasions when his writing has been recommended to me, therefore when I identified that I needed to research media and mass image culture, I chose McLuhan’s book Understanding Media. My notes and evaluation can be seen below:

  • The Western World is imploding, in the mechanical age we extended out and now the digital age we have retracted in to tech
  • Are we approaching technological simulation of consciousness?
  • The modern Western man is fragmented, acting without reacting
  • The machine and automation has changed how we react and interact with each other
  • The content of each medium is a different medium in itself (written word is speech, written word is print)
  • The electric light is a communication medium but it doesn’t receive attention as this because it has no ‘content’
  • The mechanical status of film/photography is sequential in the medium, we have now gone from sequential and connections to creative configuration and structure
  • Is digital/conceptual the ‘cubism’ of photography
  • The artist is the person to encompass and use technology creatively because of their knowledge of changing perceptions
  • Hot medium is the high definition aspect/element – photography is hot, cartoon is cold, radio is hot, telephone is cold, movie is hot and TV is cold
  • Hot mediums do not allow so much action from the audience, less participation
  • Freudian ‘censor’ – we naturally censor to learn, if we took on fully all information presented to us we would be shocked
  • What would happen if we used a hot medium to distribute /produce hot content
  • Mechanical to instant electric form reverses explosion to implosion, we still think of it as explosive
  • In the electric age, information is the commodity
  • Greek myth Narcissus (narcosis = dumbness) was obsessed with the extension of himself (in this case, his reflection)
  • Electric technology allows this extension of self and in turn it modifies the user, the machine ‘reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires’ – we now have ‘social constructions’
  • Media – being extensions of ourselves depend on us for interplay and evolution
  • ‘As the printing press cried our for nationalism, so did the radio cry out for tribalism’
  • Western man is now a complex, self-aware person who knows his interdependence with others
  • Media is extension of our senses
  • Artists can mix their media diet in this age
  • Hybrid intensity (meeting of the media forms) is the birth of a new media form
  • Lyman Bryson ‘technology is explicitness’
  • In the electric age we are being translated more into information, moving towards technological extension of consciousness
  • Technology is the raw emotion where the inner thoughts are always exposed
  • We use media to amplify and extend ourselves – huge collective surgery of ourselves as society
  • Media is a ‘place to stand’ we have sold our places to private corporations
  • Spoken word is the extension of man in speech – allows intellect to be set apart more with greater ease, language extends and amplifies man
  • New global technology extends our senses and nerves – has implications for language as the technology doesn’t need words
  • There is more written word printed now, however electric technology does threaten the written word
  • Electric technology favours the spoken word
  • The phonetic alphabet is unique technology
  • When the telegraph was invented it was the first instance of messaging that was quicker than using an actual messenger
  • Communication is ‘information movement in the digital age’
  • War is accelerated technological change – happens when notable disequilibrium among existence structure occurs
  • Now that information is traffic, the need for advanced knowledge has manifested
  • There is a sheer power in a crowd and drive – the ‘mass mind’ has been created
  • In society, the separation of the individual in space is privacy, in thought it is point-of-view and in work in specialism
  • There is a tribal nature when society acts as a group
  • Writing is the principal manifestation of the extension of our visual self
  • Clothing can be used to define the self socially – more of a direct extension
  • Movement towards new equilibrium as we have new clothing preferences
  • Housing is a collective extension of the self as a group – initially it is shelter and survival
  • Literate man encloses and separates different spaces for different functions
  • Literate man doesn’t want to lose tribal order, he likes speciality
  • Laser is a new possibility for light as opposed to ‘painting with light’
  • Money was the original commodity which placed value on transaction – it has retained this status of commodity
  • It is a staple and it is a natural resources, an outward urge to change and exchange
  • Money has become a metaphor it is so prominent in society
  • Power is shaped by latent values of money where electric technology is the key to exchanging/paying/transferring
  • Money is also an extension of the self – acts also as a translator and transmitter
  • Not a closed system and has the power to substitute things
  • The clock is a piece of technology, a machine that dictates time – has changed in essence from analogue to digital
  • The clock preceded the printing press in the mechanisation of society (Lewis Mumford)
  • The clock is a tool in society – speed up and defined the progression in society
  • Media stores and expedites information
  • Print is a casual/obvious existence, the full effect is lost on us
  • Prints can be segmented and fragmented
  • Increasing precision and quantity of visual information in digital could displace our need for print


McLuhan’s theory that media is an extension of self is very interesting and can definitely be applied to photography as people use photography as a tool of self expression. This has been identified by other practitioners such as Stephen Mayes who described a new experiential medium being formed through an increasing number of citizens using the photography to document their life and express their personality. McLuhan’s ideology compliments Mayes ideas when he states that technology is used to express the individual’s raw thoughts. These links between Marshall McLuhan can be drawn on in my research paper and in my subsequent blog posts around citizen participation and mass image culture. In addition to this there are links between McLuhan and Walter Benjamin when he explores the idea that technology and media have worked to create a ‘mass mind’, I can relate this to Benjamin stating that the mass mind is looking for a collective, distraction. McLuhan’s main idea of media being an extension of the self can be explored in relation to representation in photography and photojournalism as identity and representation is mainly explored through the photographic medium. However it must be the subject who is represented in the photograph, not the photographer as this is the dynamic of photojournalism. If a photojournalist was to represent their own self in the photograph it would be manipulating the purpose of the image. Although there will always be some sense of identity through the style, the photojournalist should prioritise the representation of the subject. Overall as expected this book has given me a good perspective on media and mass image culture with definite links between other writers such as Walter Benjamin and Stephen Mayes which will mean my research paper is comprehensive and informed.


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