McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society

Marshall McLuhan explored the ways electronic media were transforming the values, lifestyles, and institutions of Western civilization, looking ahead to what would come to be known as the “information age.”

Summary of Event

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan put forward a radical analysis of social change. “The medium is the message,” he wrote, meaning that society is shaped as well as reflected by communications media and that media’s effects are the result of form more than of content. His commentary on various forms of print and electronic media amounted to a comprehensive explanation of society, past and future. Cultural criticism
Understanding Media (McLuhan)
Television;social effects
Mass mediation, social effects of
[kw]McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society (1964)[Macluhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society]
[kw]Mass Media on Society, McLuhan Probes the Impact of (1964)
[kw]Media on Society, McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass (1964)
Cultural criticism
Understanding Media (McLuhan)
Television;social effects
Mass mediation, social effects of
[g]North America;1964: McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society[07820]
[g]Canada;1964: McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society[07820]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1964: McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society[07820]
[c]Communications and media;1964: McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society[07820]
McLuhan, Marshall

Media can be viewed as extensions of human faculties: radio as an extension of the tongue, the book as an extension of the eye, and electronic circuitry as an extension of the nervous system. Extending one sense alters the others accordingly. For example, before the invention of writing, information was exchanged by speech, so the ear was the dominant organ of sensory and social orientation. With the invention of the alphabet, humans learned to speak to the eye, which gained ascendancy over the ear. Writing changed ways of thinking and acting, for sounds are not like letters, which are arbitrary visual symbols with a meaning that depends upon their lineal sequence. The tribal world of the ear—primordial, intuitive, directionless, and emotional—was overthrown by the literate eye, with its fixed point of view, perspective, linear precision, and sequential logic. The mighty pen produced roads, architecture, bureaucracies, and standing armies, though it corroded memory and oral tradition.

When writing was all done in manuscript, few were literate. The invention of the printing press, however, put books into the hands of a broad public. Many were dominated by the literate eye, which, isolated from other senses and used in private on the printed page, conferred upon the mind a precision, toleration, disengagement, and perspective foreign to the ear. It reformed emotions and ways of perceiving. As detached observers, literate people gained a private, noninvolved, fixed point of view. The human mind craved categorization, fragmentation, specialization, individualism, sequence, and repetition as never before.

The invention of the telegraph, telephone, and radio reestablished the importance of sound in communication, and humanity was once again enveloped in the auditory web of the preliterate tribe. Instantaneous electronic communication erased barriers of time and space. Detachment, fixed points of view, and the step-by-step techniques of literate, mechanical humanity were drowned in a sea of flowing consciousness, social awareness, and in-depth involvement.

Television activated the senses as no other medium could. Unlike print, which isolates the visual sense, television excited the visual and auditory senses simultaneously. Television demanded participation and involvement of the whole being.

McLuhan described media as “hot” or “cool” according to the degree of participation needed to extract meaning. For example, the telephone is “hotter” than the telegraph, since the telephone presents words ready-made for the hearing, whereas the telegraph’s code of blips must be deciphered. Generally, hot media impart more information and generate a more private, intense response than cool media, which convey less detail and foster more sympathetic social interaction. Television was the “coolest” medium, for its picture had to be assembled in a viewer’s head; the television picture was an optical illusion built up by the brain as an electrical “dot” scanned the screen.

Unlike print, television calls forth a flowing, empathetic, unified consciousness. War stories in newspapers provoke angry, patriotic reactions; the same stories on television, however, leave viewers siding with victims, feeling the pain as their own. By unifying feeling with thought, television softens individualism and encourages collective social involvement.

McLuhan’s views on the vast social changes wrought by electronic media were ambivalent. He scorned moralizing as an obstacle to the exploration of social phenomena. Steeped in the study of literature, he was wary of cataclysmic cultural upheaval; yet he thought the isolation of the literate eye was neurotic, and he disapproved of the selfish greed and violent nationalism such isolation spawned. McLuhan welcomed the new consciousness and sensibility of what he called the “global village,” where people could be peaceful, involved, and free. He viewed the individualistic liberty of literate persons as a fragmentation of a social unity that television would restore. His enthusiasm for the young and his zest for the new at times amounted to a euphoria for the new possibilities of postliterate civilization.

McLuhan’s writings in the 1930’s and 1940’s were largely academic works on English language and literature, especially that of Renaissance dramatist Thomas Nashe and modernist novelist James Joyce. Studying the changeover from Middle English to Modern English, he noticed how poetry had been reformed to appeal to the eye instead of the ear. From early insights grew his more elaborate theories about media and culture. In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
Gutenberg Galaxy, The (McLuhan) (1962), he documented his analysis of the printing press. Understanding Media focused on the electronic media, as did The Medium Is the Massage (1967), War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), and Through the Vanishing Point: Space and Poetry in Painting (1968). Controversial though it was—the book was snubbed by academic specialists and New York literary elites whom McLuhan criticized—Understanding Media remains McLuhan’s masterpiece, the most incisive and readable exposition of his philosophy of the mass media. It made America media-conscious.


Understanding Media was published during an era of youthful rebellion, when Americans were divided by a “generation gap.” McLuhan considered this gap a turning point in history, as significant as the transition from the Middle Ages to the European Renaissance. As Johann Gutenberg’s printing press had inaugurated an age of enlightenment, so the electronic media were supplanting literate culture and ushering in a postindustrial, postmodern epoch. Youngsters who grew up with television would not share the values and cultural assumptions of their parents, whose worldview was shaped by typography.

So radical and shocking was his analysis that, for a time, McLuhan was recognized as a celebrity, a guru with an esoteric philosophy grasped by an intellectual cult. Woody Allen gave him a cameo role in the 1977 motion picture Annie Hall. Annie Hall (1977) Some of McLuhan’s catchy phrases, such as “cool media,” “the global village,” and “the medium is the message,” passed into the vernacular.

In vogue for a while, McLuhan was misunderstood or ignored by many academics and literati, yet he was heard by many artists, businesspeople, network executives, and the young. His impact was felt in advertising, management, sociology, psychology, history, fashion design, the media, and the arts. The perceptive powers of artists and thinkers were stimulated by his bold idea that media alter the balance of the five senses. A world fashioned after the linear eye was giving way to sound and the sense of touch newly extended by television. For reasons he explained, music got a lot louder. As McLuhan predicted, young people demanded new styles: sculptured haircuts, layered clothing of varied textures, round collars, and small cars. Straight lines, which please the eye, receded in fashion, architecture, and automobile design and were replaced by wraparound designs. The tribal lifestyles of the hippies were not the first manifestation of McLuhan’s global village, nor the last.

Continuity and sequence are properties of space and time as conceived by the literate eye, but an artist’s sensorium dominated by the sense of touch or of hearing produces unexpected effects. Continuity and sequence were handled with the irascible, nervy abruptness of the tribal era by McLuhan’s early followers, among them musician John Cage, painter Larry Rivers, and filmmaker Stanley Vander Beeck.

Businesspeople watched as McLuhan’s predictions came true: The automobile industry faltered, films were packaged and sold like books on videotape, broadcasting networks lost their monopoly over television, and newspapers minimized print and line in favor of color and picture before going out of business in droves. Managements downsized products and executive hierarchies, streamlining management around systems design and systems analysis. McLuhan urged educators to forge a transition from the fragmented, visual realm of print, which thrives on the indoctrination of texts, and to rebuild education around discovery rather than instruction. With computers, audiovisual aids, and holistic approaches, educational reformers did indeed desegment curricula to make learning more associative and participatory, although the mixed effects of such reforms are still being debated.

The political ramifications of McLuhan’s ideas surfaced in the decades that followed Understanding Media. His analysis of the 1960 presidential debates Television;televised debates
Kennedy-Nixon debates (1960)[Kennedy Nixon debates] has guided political campaign strategies ever since. McLuhan noted that people who heard the debates on radio (a “hot” medium) thought Richard M. Nixon the winner, but those who watched on television (a “cool” medium) thought John F. Kennedy came across better. From that moment, the art of politics in America became very largely a matter of manipulating images of candidates in the media.

Politically and economically, the world became smaller and smaller, increasingly like the global village McLuhan envisioned. Businesses became more interdependent on foreign markets and labor. Political crises in faraway places became big issues in the local politics of distant nations. Tribal animosities flared, and national unities crumbled, as McLuhan predicted. Understanding Media explained to historians how Rome fell when the supply of papyrus failed. Without being able to give orders in writing from the central government, military leaders could not secure distant borders on the margins of the empire. Since the political unity of empires and nations depends upon a command structure rooted in literacy, the decline of literacy loosens the hold of distant capitals. Having explained how political unity dissolves in less literate societies than America, McLuhan did not live to see the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union.

Most people have viewed the late twentieth century as a period of cultural upheaval; McLuhan, though, was one of the few thinkers and artists who understood the dynamics of a culture radically transforming itself. He was a prophet of the postindustrial West’s being Easternized by a postliterate sensibility. He was a literary and philosophical exponent of the modern or postmodern consciousness shared by Pablo Picasso, Ludwig Wittgenstein, R. Buckminster Fuller, André Breton, Jean-Luc Godard, and Samuel Beckett.

A century earlier, Matthew Arnold had remarked that culture was based on art, which he considered a vehicle for moral, social, and political ideas. For McLuhan, art was an extension of life, with the active power to alter the modes of consciousness and perception that constitute culture. Thus, media are more than tools to use to transfer ideas; media make the culture in their own image, becoming the content as well as the conveyance. McLuhan’s continual emphasis upon process rather than product, context over text, form over content, and relation rather than entity prefigured advances in phenomenalist philosophy, poststructural criticism, and avant-garde art. Cultural criticism
Understanding Media (McLuhan)
Television;social effects
Mass mediation, social effects of

Further Reading

  • Grosswiler, Paul. The Method Is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan Through Critical Theory. New York: Black Rose Books, 1998. A reexamination of McLuhan’s work through the lens of Marxist cultural studies and developments in the field of cultural criticism in the last decades of the twentieth century.
  • Kuhns, William. “The Sage of Aquarius: Marshall McLuhan.” In The Post-Industrial Prophets: Interpretations of Technology. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1971. A balanced assessment of McLuhan’s theories. Kuhns finds McLuhan’s ideas stimulating and explanatory, though unproven and at odds with common sense. The chapter includes a glossary of McLuhan’s terminology. An index and bibliography show his relation to the postmodern tradition.
  • McCormack, Thelma. “Innocent Eye on Mass Society.” In Mass Media and Society, edited by Alan Wells. Palo Alto, Calif.: National Press Books, 1972. A negative review of Understanding Media typical of the misunderstanding McLuhan encountered among academics. Trying to force McLuhan into a category along with depth psychologists, McCormack finds him lacking a theory of motivation and other baggage of the trade. To her, he is no prophet but an ideologue misguided by “irrationalism, determinism, and folk romanticism.”
  • McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1962. The forerunner to Understanding Media, indispensable to serious students of McLuhan. This erudite, exhaustive survey of ancient and modern learning that tends to support McLuhan’s theories concentrates primarily on the printing press with movable type developed by Johann Gutenberg in the late fifteenth century.
  • Marchessault, Janine. Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2005. Connects McLuhan’s work to Romantic philosophy and related theories of consciousness as mediated through material forms of representation and production. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Rosenberg, Harold. “Philosophy in a Pop Key.” In McLuhan: Hot and Cool, edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn. New York: Dial Press, 1967. The first serious review of Understanding Media in America, this essay, first published in The New Yorker in February, 1965, introduced McLuhan to a wide audience. Rosenberg is an observer of popular culture and an expert on modern art. His sensible and cogent essay is still a useful introduction to McLuhan’s philosophy.
  • Sontag, Susan. “One Culture and the New Sensibility.” In Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. Sontag locates McLuhan squarely within the artistic and intellectual tradition of postmodernism. Against McCormack and other critics, she insists that McLuhan and the postmodern philosophers and artists are not amoral anti-intellectuals conniving at the demise of art and culture. Rather, she defends them as bold, original thinkers transforming the function of art.
  • Wolfe, Tom. “The New Life Out There.” In McLuhan: Hot and Cool, edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn. New York: Dial Press, 1967. On a jocular romp through the mind and times of Marshall McLuhan, Wolfe imparts a feeling for the 1960’s milieu of the guru-celebrity. Wolfe challenges businesspersons, professionals, and artists to rise to the level of McLuhan’s understanding of their walks of life, posing the question: “Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein . . . what if he is right?”

FCC Licenses Commercial Television

Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming

Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity

Golden Age of Television

Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are Westerns

Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming

First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched

Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program