Summary

  • McLuhan’s project is ethical, which is something I think gets little remark. This is a definitional project, one that seeks to understand “the coutours of our own extended beings in our technologies” such that we might “bring them into orderly service” (6). Understand, control, and explain away the “the never-explained numbness that each extension brings about in the individual and society” (6).

Keywords

  • “extensions”: a definition of media as extending various physical, sensual, intellectual capacities of the human
  • “the globe is no more than a village”: the “global village” metaphor would become potent in the corporate take-over of McLuhan, but in its original formation it’s about ethical responsibilities: “a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree” (5).
  • “break boundary”: inherent to a medium, a moment at which the medium suddenly passes beyond a point of no return (38).

Notes

Part 1

  • We begin with notes of apocalypse: “the Western world is imploding”; “we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time”; “we approach the final phase of the extension of man—the technological simulation of consciousness” (3).
  • Media fragments the self, severing action from reaction: “we acquired the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment” (4).
  • Here’s Innis: “Every culture and every age has its favorite model of perception and knowledge that it is inclined to prescribe for everybody and everything” (5).
  • “The medium is the message.” What does he mean by this? “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium-that is, of any extension of ourselves-result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (7). This isn’t a form/content argument, but rather the simple observation that media are not neutral and that we can read their form as affecting/effecting the world around us.
  • “The ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium,” by which McLuhan reminds us that media are never reducible to pure utterance or information: information comes to us always already contained after some fashion (8).
  • The “message” “of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (8). Messages are about space and time (more Innis).
  • A strike against technological neutrality; this is a lesson we’re still failing to learn today (11).
  • Medium-message is the heralding of the “structural approach” to all things (13).
  • The idea of money as a medium (after all, an extension of man) is provocative and I wonder if it pushes at the limits of what is useful to call a medium (19). For McLuhan, it seems that literally every built object (tool) has mediatic qualities.
  • “hot” and “cold” media: “A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in ‘high definition,’” whereas a “cold medium” is the opposite (22–23). What the fuck does this mean? It’s about being filled with information or empty for interpretation: “hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience” (23). Television is a cool medium, to McLuhan, but then again he existed in a time before fandom (the ultimate hot process).
  • But then how is a steel axe a “hot technology,” as on pp. 24? I suppose it’s hot for McLuhan b/c it triggers a preponderance of societal change?
  • In Innis and McLuhan we find also the tendency for media and communications studies toward grandiose and unsubstantiated claims based on mythic ideas of “oral” and “printed” culture (e.g. 34).
  • Electricity does not centralize, but decentralizes. It is like the difference between a railway system and an electric grid system: the one requires railways and big urban centers. Electric power . . . permits any place to be a center, and does not require large aggregations” (36).
  • “In the new electric Age of Information and programmed production, commodities themselves assume more and more the character of information, although this trend appears mainly in the increasing advertising budget” (36).
  • “self-amputation”: we respond to the stress of accelerating pace (crisis) by numbing ourselves through externalization (45).
  • AI was such a huge anxiety in the mid-60’s, interesting to see how it kind of dips out for a while and then has come back in full force now (57).
  • The drop-in of Heisenberg on pp. 63 also speaks to the role of quantum physics in developing media studies: the sense that physics and media are engaged in a similar project of form.

Part 2

  • Part 1 is the theory; Part 2 is the case studies. I’m going to bop around and read the ones that bear most on my work.

11. Number

  • “Throughout Western history we have traditionally and rightly regarded letters as the source of civilization, and looked to our literatures as the hallmark of civilized attainment. Yet all along, there has been with us a shadow of number, the language of science” (107). Is this a false two-cultures divide? How do we understand numbers (and computability) from the perspective of language? And vice versa?
  • McLuhan argues that numbers are an extension of the sense of touch (107); exactly why is a little vague but seems to have something to do with the power of abstraction?
  • This entire section is organized around some noble savage racism and I am not here for it.

24. Games

  • Once again, we start with a contract b/t the “intensely individualist and fragmented Western world” and the “closely knit tribal society.” I have to admit, while I was skeptical on Innis, I do now agree with those who hold that McLuhan substitutes a dimension of historical specificity with spooky woo-woo anthropological claims (234).
  • “A game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time” (238).
  • “The form of any game is of first importance. Game theory, like information theory, has ignored this aspect of game and information movement. Both theories have dealt with the information content of systems, and have observed the ‘noise’ and ‘deception’ factors that divert data” (242).

25. Telegraph

  • Electricity produces authoritarianism: “The tendency of electric media is to create a kind of organic interdependence among all the institutions of society, emphasizing de Chardin’s view that the discovery of electromagnetism is to be regarded as ‘a prodigious biological event’” (247).

26. Typewriter

  • Much of this section is about labor and freedom and is exquisitely sexist but fascinating to put into dialogue w/ early parts of Hicks.

32. Weapons

  • Informatics as the weapon of choice in a “cold” war (of course we have to open w/ some more sexism) (339).
  • “If the cold war in 1964 is being fought by informational technology, that is because all wars have been fought by the latest technology available in any culture” (339).
  • “Literacy remains even now the base and model of all programs of industrial mechanization; but, at the same time, it locks the minds and senses of its users in the mechanical and fragmentary matrix that is so necessary to the maintenance of mechanized society. That is why the transition from mechanical to electric technology is so very traumatic and severe for us all” (342)

33. Automation

  • “Automation is information and it not only ends jobs in the world of work, it ends subjects in the world of learning. It does not end the world of learning. The future of work consists of earning a living in the automation age” (346).
  • (This chapter is probably one of the more useful ones: all about the material qualities of electricity and their effect on the structuring of labor and goods.)

Archive and Impact

  • McLuhan is foundational to media and communications studies, for reasons that are pretty obvious: he offers one of the first models for studying media in and of themselves . . .
  • I note that McLuhan’s pseudo-mystic style seems to inspire generations of scholars of media theory; like Innis, he seems to be willing theory into existence. How else to read sentences like “Nothing follows from following, except change” (12)?
  • So much is drawn directly from Innis; idea of “bias”, claims like “Namely, that technological media are staples or natural resources, exactly as are coal and cotton and oil” (21);
  • Worth trying to make some connection between McLuhan and Liu on the level of “cool.”
  • While Innis’ method is chronological, McLuhan argues by the concrescence of example. No one example sticks around long enough to make an impact; he jumps around text, image, and tradition piecing together a vision of a “total society.”
  • What’s with the obsession with a kind of weak anthropology in these foundational media texts? So much reference to Greeks, “orientals,” nomadic cultures—it’s all a sort of mediatic evolutionary biology explanatory project.
  • Worth thinking about media studies as having birthed from a rhetoric of apocalypse: all of Understanding Media is about our accelerating race toward the edge of dissolution.