Quoting McLuhan

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The following discussion is from the Introduction to the otherwise shallow non-fiction book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Pictures are not part of the book)

The Author is discussing the 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan, the book where the phrase “The medium is the message” originated.

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Professor Marshall McLuhan

Professor Marshall McLuhan

Understanding Media prophesied the dissolution of the linear mind. McLuhan declared that the “electric media” of the twentieth century—telephone, radio, movies, television—were breaking the tyranny of text over our thoughts and senses. Our isolated, fragmented selves, locked for centuries in the private reading of printed pages, were becoming whole again, merging into the global equivalent of a tribal village. We were approaching “the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.”

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However, McLuhan was not just acknowledging, and celebrating, the transformative power of new communication technologies. He was also sounding a warning about the threat the power poses—and the risk of being oblivious to that threat.

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In the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.

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“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself.

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“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot,” he wrote. The content of a medium is just “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

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3 thoughts on “Quoting McLuhan

    • Thank you for your comment Andrew. And setting me right on the origin of the phrase. Infact, the book I mentioned in the post, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, got it wrong as well.

      • No problem, Dr. Gonzo. Most people ‘get it wrong’ – but that’s really due to the fact that it’s only in the last two years, since I found an annotation by Marshall McLuhan in one of his books, that the origin can be traced back to 1958 – six years before the publishing of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

        What’s much less forgivable is the people who trust the incorrect Wikipedia definition of the phrase ‘the medium is the message’, rather than go to the source material for the (actually relatively easy to understand) explanation Marshall gives in the first chapter of UM.

        For the details of the origin of ‘the medium is the message’, see:
        http://inscriptorium.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/the-medium-is-the-message/

        Best,

        Andrew

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