Half a century has passed since the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It’s a difficult, important book — important yet difficult. Sample chapter titles include: “The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear,” “Ads: Keeping Upset With the Joneses,” “Radio: The Tribal Drum,” “Money: The Poor Man’s Credit Card,” and “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.”
Much has changed since the 1960s, McLuhan’s decade of popularity: Two members of the Beatles are dead, the Cold War is over, and television — one of McLuhan’s favorite sparring partners — is no longer the principle medium through which our society sends and receives information. Today, we’re online. We work on the internet, play on the internet, shop on the internet, date on the internet. We are the clickers, swipers, and likers. As Douglas Haddow put it in a recent essay on Adbusters, the world now belongs to the engineers of Silicon Valley — the rest of us are “just supplying the data for it.” Everything is, and always has been, experienced IRL.
And yet McLuhan’s ideas remain as vital as ever, if not more.
While Understanding Media is sometimes hard to understand, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (published 1967) is pretty accessible. According to the McLuhan Estate, the book was supposed to be titled after McLuhan’s most famous aphorism, the medium is the message, but the typesetter made a mistake. McLuhan didn’t mind, though. He said, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!” Now, apparently, the title can be interpreted in four (or more!) different ways: The Medium Is the Message, Mess Age, Massage, or Mass Age. Continue Reading →