Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reading, Thinking, and Reflecting #5

Understanding Media: The Extensions of ManChapters 1-11:
Marshall McLuhan ... "McLuhan wrote with no knowledge of galvanic skin response technology, terminal node controllers, or the Apple Newton. He might not have been able even to imagine what a biomouse is. But he pointed the way to understanding all of these, not in themselves, but in their relation to each other, to older technologies, and above all in relation to ourselves our bodies, our physical senses, our psychic balance. When he published Understanding Media in 1964, he was disturbed about mankind’s shuffling toward the twenty-first century in the shackles of nineteenth century perceptions. He might be no less disturbed today. And he would continue to issue the challenge that confronts the reader at every page of his writings to cast off those shackles" (Gordon).

Where do I possibly begin with such a thinker? By trying to put together the puzzle pieces of his book ... a book that reads like none other I have read. The chapters are in many ways entities in and of themselves, pieces of his thinking whose connections are surely clear to him yet unformed to me, a first reader.

So, I have made myself a list of the pieces as I see them:

  • "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" (19).
  • The example that helped me understand this the most was the shift to train travel from cars and how this redefined travel (and we often overlook the train's effects as the medium here) (20). "For the 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs" (20).
  • McLuhan even quotes the Pope ... "the future ... and the stability of [modern society's] inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual's own reaction" (33-34).
  • Hot = high definition, low participation such as a photograph (39)
  • Cool = low definition, high participation such as a cartoon, telephone, or speech which all require a great deal to be filled in by the audience (39)
  • "Electric power, equally available in the farmhouse and the Executive Suite, permits any place to be a center, and does not require large aggregations" (56).
  • "at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes" (58)
  • "One of the most common causes of breaks in any system is the cross-fertilization with another system, such as happened to print with the steam press" (59).
  • numbness comes when we accept a technology as an extension of ourselves (narcotic from Narcissus)
  • "To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it. To listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the 'closure' or displacement of perception that follows automatically" (68).
  • "Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man's love by expediting his wishes and desires ..." (68-69). Fascinating prediction of why we are all so conscious of our social connections now
So what puzzle have I started putting together. Not quite sure myself, but I am left pondering two things ...
  • What medium could I explore for its message? FaceBook? The way that it pushes new "friends" at us all of the time is the message that we need more and more of such "friends." I believe the medium of FaceBook has actually changed the meaning of "friend" in our society -- how many friends you have is certainly more important than what these "friends" mean to your actual life.
  • I am also fascinated by the numbness and extensions he explores in chapter 4 ("Narcissus as Narcosis"). McLuhan is predicting the overly self-exposed nature of today's world: "With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body ... With such awareness, the subliminal life, private and social, has been hoicked* up into full view, with the result that we have 'social consciousness' presented to us as a cause of guilt-feelings" (69). McLuhan never even needed to post a status update or tweet to understand the coming over-exposure of social media.
Pulling all of this together ... that is for another blog and another day.
* I am taking this word into my daily vocabulary ... Hoicked ... unintended and fabulous onomatopoeia.
Gordon, Terrence. "Marshall Who?" MM – Celebrating 100 Years of McLuhan – Marshall McLuhan. The Estate of Corinne & Marshall McLuhan. Web. 07 Feb. 2012.
Karsh, Yousuf. "Portrait of Marshall McLuhan." MM – Celebrating 100 Years of McLuhan – Marshall McLuhan. The Estate of Corinne & Marshall McLuhan. Web. 07 Feb. 2012.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon, Terrence. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2003. Print.
Puzzle Image from City of Citrus Heights


  1. Susanne - I'm studying McLuhan's "The Medium is the Massage," so I was especially interested in this post. I empathize with your reaction to McLuhan's writing style. It's very different, and I find myself greatly enjoying it for that reason alone. He really does present a variety of "puzzle pieces" and lets the reader put them together. Some reviewers from the 60s hated this style, but later reviewers seem to embrace it as a deliberate appeal to the "post-modern reader." In a sense, the different reactions to McLuhan's style actually prove his arguments. Readers who expect or want a linear style might as well put the book down. Once they get used to TV sound-bites, Internet pop-ups and hyperlinks, social media, and a generally fragmented sea of information, then maybe they can return to it.

    More to your point, I agree that there are clear connections among McLuhan, Brooke's "perspective," and Gane and Beer's interface. We're shaped by the human-computer interface in terms of our perspective on information and our thinking/processing of information. You're on the right track with trying to tie these ideas together.

  2. First, beautiful job playing with your format and colors to help process your thinking. I think you are grabbing the "good" stuff and are struggling along at a normal pace.
    I have to admit, his "hot"/"cool" media have never quite stuck with me (like when I say qualitative or quantitative...I have to pause and think exactly which one I mean).
    I like where you are going with your medium/message and Facebook. And I can't wait to see where you and Jennifer go with the numbness piece (since you've mentioned it and Jennifer is definitely engaging with it).