Marshall Mcluhan’s Predictions, Ideas and Works

No discussion on global communication can be complete without mentioning the role played by Herbert Marshal McLuhan in the entire process. The implication of Global Communication was first brought to limelight by Marshal McLuhan who predicted the shrinking of the world into global village in 1964. He looked at technologies and ICTs the way they were going and predicted that ICTs would turn the world into a global village in the future. Marshal McLuhan’s predictions could be described as ideas premised on the perceived improvement of interaction at global level – global communication.

Eclipse of the Print Media by the Electronic Media

In the early 1960s, McLuhan predicted that the electronic media would replace print culture and aural/oral culture (which means preference for spoken communication through the broadcast media). This has not happened in view of the fact that the print media (and indeed print culture) have remained influential and relevant in modern society despite the existence of the electronic media.

The Global Village (1989)

In his book, The Global Village, another major work of his, published posthumously in 1989, McLuhan provided a strong conceptual framework which explains the cultural implications of the technological advances ushered in by the rise of a worldwide electronic network. This was also where he presented his arguments on the concepts of visual and acoustic space (McLuhan, 1989, p.75).

McLuhan predicted in the early 1960s, that the world will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity. He described this single identity as the global village. Precisely in 1962, McLuhan predicted the World Wide Web which in fact, is central to the shrinking of the world into a single social organization he called the global village. McLuhan had argued that the shrinking of the world into a global village will lead to peace around the world. This postulation has been attacked by scholars who see the global village as a development that has stirred up more crisis than the peace predicted by McLuhan. However, one scholar suggests that in the absence of a more egalitarian world, Marshall McLuhan’s global village has proved to be a place not of harmony but of colliding moral spaces and sporadic violence (Tehranian, nd).

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man published in 1962, McLuhan argued basically that the invention of the movable type popularized by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century ushered in a print culture that elevated the visual over the aural/oral. The main thrust of his argument is that print technology changes our perceptual habits, which hi turn affects social interactions. According to McLuhan, the emergence of print technology largely led to important developments in the modem world among which are democracy, capitalism, nationalism, etc. (McLuhan, 1962). Print technology, according to McLuhan, facilitated the emergence of these developments hi the Western world.

Understanding Media (1964)

In his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man which is a pioneering study in media theory published in 1964, McLuhan wrote that media themselves, not the content of the media, should be the focus of study. This postulation was popularly quoted as “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964, p.8). McLuhan argued that the characteristics of a medium influence the society more than the contents of the medium. He controversially averred that media content had minimal effect on society (no matter the nature of a television station content, whether it is violent, religious, or children’s programme, the effect of television on the society will be similar) (p.22).

This postulation in McLuhan’s work has been heavily criticized by communication scholars who argue that McLuhan was too simplistic in his definition of the concept “medium”. These critics believe that McLuhan over-emphasized the technology more man the cultural changes brought about in the society by its contents.

By arguing that the medium is the message, McLuhan is saying that what really influences the audience is the characteristics, efficacy, nature, and environment of a medium, not really the content. McLuhan’s arguments in his work ultimately conclude that only the message is of social significance (Carlson, 2011), a postulation which scholars view as problematic. Despite the attacks against McLuhan’s arguments in his work Understanding Media, one scholar opines that “although McLuhan’s name is no longer a buzzword in the popular vernacular or even in the communications classroom, we are living in an era when the predictions of Understanding Media are in evidence all around us” (Mullen, 2006, p. 379).

Hot and Cool Media

The concepts of Hot and Cool media were among the postulations put forward by McLuhan in his pioneering study, Understanding Media. These concepts are derived from the level of participation of the audience. McLuhan argues that hot media most times completely engage the audience requiring high level concentration and thought process for the message to be understood while cool media allow for less participation of the audience because the message may not require relatively active or high level concentration to make out meaning. Hot media, according to McLuhan, enhance a specific sense to the extent that the audience does not need much effort to understand the message. For instance, a movie enhances a sense which in this instance is vision and engrosses the viewers in the content of the movie so that he can understand or make sense out of the content. On the other hand, cool media most often do not enhance a single sense but require more active participation of the audience in order to understand message content. McLuhan therefore claims television, seminar, and cartoons are cool media. Examples of hot media are newspapers, magazines and books which require a lot of audience involvement and concentration to comprehend the message.

In summary, a hot medium requires a high degree of thinking for the audience to make meaning out of a message while a cool medium allows for the audience to be passive spectators because some other people have made the creative effort required to comprehend the message. Some television contents make television a hot medium while some other television contents make it a cool medium. So McLuhan was actually looking at media content, not the channel, while discussing hot and cool media. For instance, radio drama makes radio a hot medium when the drama engrosses the audience who concentrate and think in order to understand the message. But when cool music is played on radio, then radio becomes a cool medium, according to McLuhan’s argument. So in one instance, radio drama is a hot medium, in another instance, radio itself is a cool medium, separating radio drama (content) from radio (channel). This is one of the points critics attacked in McLuhan’s postulations.

McLuhan’s idea of Hot and Cool media was also heavily criticized by communication theorists who described his postulations in Understanding Media as simplistic perceptions of the concept “medium”. A number of theorists suggested that McLuhan was confusing vehicle (channel) with content (messages). They added that his Understanding Media was full of contradictions, exaggerations, rhetorical vagueness, unrealistic and distorted facts (Debray, 1997; Grossweiler, 1998; Levinson, 1999; Mullen, 2006; Carr, 2011). To further buttress these criticisms, one scholar, Brian Winston, wrote Misunderstanding Media published in 1986, where he argued against McLuhan’s postulations (Winston, 1986).

Tetrad of Media Effects

The tetrad of media effects is used to explain how every new medium operates and influences the society. McLuhan says the effect of every new medium or technology falls into four categories which exist simultaneously. These categories according to McLuhan, are depicted in four diamonds that form an X. These categories are Enhancement and Retrieval qualities of a medium which both constitute the Figure qualities on the left side of the tetrad, and the Obsolescence and Reversal qualities which both constitute the Ground qualities. McLuhan (1998, p.28) explains the meaning of these diamonds as follows: Enhancement (figure) refers to what the new medium amplifies or intensifies (for example, radio amplifies news and music through sound); Obsolescence (ground) consists of what the new medium relegates to the background (radio reduces the prominence of print and the visual, but this idea was heavily criticized because print media for instance are still waxing strong despite the existence of radio); Retrieval (figure) which refers to what the new medium recovers which was previously relegated to the background (radio returns the spoken word to the forefront); and Reversal (ground) which talks about what the medium turns into when pushed to its limits (acoustic radio transforms into audio­visual TV, that is, today, people watch radio programme presenters using online and mobile applications; also acoustic radio transforms into online/internet radio with audio/visual qualities).

The Medium is the Massage:  An Inventory of Effects (1967)

The medium is the massage is an expression Marshall McLuhan used to describe the gradual effect of a medium on perceptions of the audience. The media through message dissemination, “massage” the sensory organs used in message reception, until the message is comprehended and eventually affects the perception of a person about issues in the society. This postulation was the basic idea in his best-selling book, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects which was published in 1967.

The Medium is the Message

This is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan which he used to argue that the nature or form of any medium determines how a message will influence the audience. This is one of the expressions McLuhan emphasized in his most widely known book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, (discussed earlier). It was said that McLuhan’s book, The Medium is the Massage was originally titled The Medium is the Message, but an error was made in the printing of the book title which changed the word ‘message’ to ‘massage’ (McLuhan, 1964). It was said that McLuhan preferred the new title.

McLuhan uses this phrase “the medium is the message” to argue that a medium, through its characteristics, affects the society more than the contents of the medium. He said people tend to focus on content and forget the technology which facilitates the influence that content supposedly has on the audience. Without the technology making that possible and determining the magnitude of such impact, the message will not be felt. Among the examples he used to explain this was a newscast about a heinous crime which is less about the individual news story (content) and more about the change in public attitude towards crime made possible by the fact that television facilitated such newscast to be listened to in various homes while people were having dinner (McLuhan, 1964). McLuhan argues that the content of a medium is another medium itself. This is because he defines medium as “extensions of ourselves”, that is, anything that enables us to do more than our bodies can do on their own, which is a broad definition of medium. It is against this backdrop that he argues that the message of a newscast, for instance, is not the news story itself, but the effect of the newscast which is change in public attitude towards a crime, or creation of climate of fear in the environment of the audience (McLuhan, 1964).

Criticisms against this postulation have also been discussed earlier, where it was pointed out that McLuhan’s definition of a medium has been criticized as being too simplistic and that McLuhan confuses channels and message content in his analysis of the medium.

 Figure and Ground Media

Marshall McLuhan uses these two concepts – figure and ground – to refer to the form and environment of any new medium. He explains that the figure refers to the nature or form of communication technology called medium while ground represents the context or environment within which the medium (or figure) operates. This is part of the key concepts McLuhan used in explaining his coinage – the medium is the message. McLuhan says here that to understand the impact of a new technology in the society, both the medium itself and the environment or state of the society at the time the technology emerged, have to be analyzed together because the medium (figure) cannot be separated from the context or environment (ground) within which it operates. He says the media must be studied in relation to their historical context, that is, in relation to the technologies that preceded them because the present environment is as a result of the previous environment and the present environment will also give rise to new technologies that will eventually affect the audience and the society (McLuhan, 1964).

 

(Excerpt from the book Introduction to Mass Communication, Second Edition, by Chinenye Nwabueze, published 2021)

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *