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Understanding Understanding Media

Paperback editions of ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.’ (photo: Andrew McLuhan)

Something you may not know about, and I only discovered very recently, is that for the second (paperback) edition of ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’ (1966), Marshall McLuhan wrote a short new introduction.

This second introduction is short, only five printed pages, but it is packed with goodies directed toward criticisms and misapprehensions of the original printing, notably ‘media hot and cool,’ and ‘the medium is the message.’

A few examples:

[After several paragraphs on changes in the popular use of the terms ‘hot’ and cool.’]

“The section on “media hot and cold” confused many readers of Understanding Media who were unable to recognize the very large structural changes in human outlook that are occurring today. Slang offers an immediate index to changing perception. Slang is based not on theories but on immediate experience. The student of media will not only value slang as a guide to changing perception, but he will also study media as bringing about new perceptual habits.”
[Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Introduction to the Second Edition, p.viii]

I am struck by how often what Marshall wrote half a century ago holds up today. I am not talking about so-called prophesy or prediction. Marshall wasn’t so much ahead of his time as ahead of contemporaries who were behind their time. As he said ‘I’m very careful to only predict things which have already happened.’

A technique such as this — studying slang as a guide to changing sensibility in individuals and cultures — is still worth employing if one is interested in noting change. This tool is one of many Marshall gives “the student of media” who cares to take it.

“The section on “the medium is the message” can, perhaps, be clarified by pointing out that any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes. … “The medium is the message” means, in terms of the electronic age, that a totally new environment has been created. The “content” of this new environment is the old mechanized environment of the industrial age. The new environment reprocesses the old one as radically as TV is reprocessing the film. For the “content” of TV is the movie. TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments. We are aware only of the “content” or the old environment. … Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.”
[Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Introduction to the Second Edition, pp. viii-ix]

Substitute terms and we could say today: “The new environment reprocesses the old one as radically as Netflix is reprocessing TV.”

In the class I gave recently at Carleton University, I answered the question “Why study media?” with “because the medium is the message.” In the 90 minutes between the question and the answer, I led the class through the definitions of ‘medium’ (singular) and ‘media’ (plural) as 1) instrument, technology, ‘figure’, and 2) environment, ‘ground.’ We then chose the smartphone as our ‘figure’ and as a group, with myself at the chalkboard, mapped out the environment or ground. It became clear very fast how the medium, or environment, is much more important than the content. More important to study, pay attention to.

As Marshall patiently said in an interview a decade later, when asked whether the message wasn’t really the message: “Where would you look for the message in an electric light?”

The message is in the psychic, sensory, and social effects of technologies.

“As our proliferating technologies have created a whole series of new environments, men have become aware of the arts as “anti-environments” or “counter-environments” that provide us with the means of perceiving the environment itself. For, as Edward T. Hall has explained in ‘The Silent Language,’ men are never aware of the ground rules of their environmental systems or cultures. Today, technologies and their consequent environments succeed each other so rapidly that one environment makes us aware of the next. Technologies begin to perform the function of art in making us aware of the psychic and social consequences of technology.

Art as anti-environment becomes more than ever a means of training perception and judgement. Art offered as a consumer commodity rather than as a means of training perception is as ludicrous and snobbish as always.

Media study at once opens the doors to perception. And here it is that the young can do top-level research work. The teacher has only to invite the student to do as complete an inventory as possible. Any child can list the effects of the telephone or the radio or the motor car in shaping the life and work of his friends and his society. An inclusive list of media effects opens many unexpected avenues of awareness and investigation.”
[Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Introduction to the Second Edition, pp. ix-x]

That last paragraph, which I isolated from its original longer paragraph, encapsulates the ‘figure/ground’ exercise I teach — rather lead as a participatory workshop — to people as young as grades 5/6, and most recently to a 4th year class at Carleton University. It takes a complicated subject and makes it both fun and dead simple.

Typical of his work, Marshall appropriated the terms ‘figure’ and ground’ from Edgar Rubin and Gestalt psychology, used to “assist the study of structure in visible phenomena.” [‘City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media;’ Marshall McLuhan, Kathryn Hutchon, Eric McLuhan; The Book Society of Canada Limited, 1977] and repurposed them to assist the study of structure in invisible phenomena — the artificial environments which are the consequence of human technologies.

A last note, on the arts:

“The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century, Ezra Pound called the artist “the antennae of the race.” Art as radar acts as “an early alarm system,” as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as being mere self-expression. If art is an “early warning system,” to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls.

… Art as a radar environment takes on the function of the indispensable perceptual training rather than the role of a privileged diet for the elite. While the arts as radar feedback provide a dynamic and changing corporate image, their purpose may be not to enable us to change but rather to maintain an even course toward permanent goals, even amidst the most disrupting innovations. We have already discovered the futility of changing our goals as often as we change our technologies.”
[Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Introduction to the Second Edition, p. xi]

With that, the short on words but long on ideas 1966 introduction to the second edition of UM closes, and opens several doors.

Marshall McLuhan’s work is riddled with references to the practical utility of the arts in the study of media. And though he doesn’t explicitly self-identify as such, he fits his definition of the ideal artist as radar: one who perceives the invisible environments, a person who made a concerted and deliberate effort to wake up the world to what we are doing to ourselves. [tip: keep that in mind when you read his work, watch interviews or recordings.]

He was constantly nudging us, “needling the somnambulists,” and he left us several tools like ‘figure and ground’ analysis, the tetrad, ways of studying art and popular culture, (and many more) to help us on our way.

This last section on the arts as radar is the reason why a large part of The McLuhan Institute will involve permanent artist’s residencies. TMI is dedicated to studying the effects of technologies, and will support artists whose work pushes the frontier and boundaries of perception. Our definition of ‘arts’ goes well beyond traditional categories of visual and audio arts, and includes design, engineering, science — essentially anyone with a contribution to make in the study of the effects of technologies.

Put a little more simply, TMI is being built to continue McLuhan Studies in the McLuhan Tradition. [Albeit at times by non-traditional means.]

Thanks for reading, for being here with me.

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