Marshall McLuhan



Peeks into a 1960s University of Toronto classroom as the world-renowned communications theorist fascinates students with his insights about mass media

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian professor of English literature who burst into world prominence as a media guru in the 1960s. Working with the ideas of Harold Innis, another Canadian communications expert, McLuhan popularized the idea that our technologies have a profound effect upon our lives, culture, and history.

Countering the commonly accepted attitude that the content of a message is more important than its form, McLuhan pointed out that the means of communication itself creates an impact, regardless of what is being said. He claimed, for example, that a story has different meanings depending upon whether it is related orally, written in a book, acted out on the stage, heard on radio, presented on film, viewed on television, or depicted in a comic book. Each of these media has its own inherent bias and language, or, to put that principle into its now popular form: "the medium is the message." McLuhan's first major work, Gutenberg Galaxy, dealt with the effect of literacy on history. The invention of the alphabet, and then the printing press, resulted in the transition from oral to written culture. As the eye became the principal organ for taking in information, linear patterns and repeatable forms began to dominate our thinking and behaviour.

In his second major study, Understanding Media, McLuhan pointed out how electronic communication was again changing the way we perceive ourselves and our world. Technologies such as telephone, radio, and television were shrinking distances, accelerating communication, and giving us a world far different from that which previous generations had experienced.

"We shape our tools," he said, "and then our tools shape us." Technology, according to McLuhan, is an extension of our own natural faculties. Just as a knife is an extension of the hand, and the wheel an extension of the leg, writing is an extension of speech and of memory. In this general metaphor, automobiles become extensions of our personal bodies, and the city an extension of our collective skin. Electronic communication is an extension of our nervous system, just as computers are extensions of our brains. Once extended, however, these technologies are "amputated." They exist as external and independent objects, though we remain dependent upon them.

As a public figure, McLuhan came across as a kind of straight-faced stand-up comic. He would deliver his lectures [without the aid of notes or script] as a series of ironic, sometimes outrageous, one-liners, which he occasionally explained and expanded with an additional sentence or two. His insights and observations seemed to occur spontaneously, as he free-associated in a kind of one-sided conversation with his audience. His writing style was also nontraditional in its disregard for the expected conventions of linear development and logical transition.

McLuhan defended his style by saying that his statements were intended to be "probes" rather than truths. His role, as he saw it, was to awaken his audience from their hypnotic trance, to jolt them into seeing things in a new light. Emphasizing individual observation and analysis, he taught his students not to take anything for granted. In particular, he wanted them to try to understand how their environment was affecting them. That, of course, is not an easy task: we always have trouble perceiving the objective details of a situation in which we are completely immersed.

"We don't know who discovered water," McLuhan would say, "but we know it wasn't the fish." McLuhan played an important role in the development of contemporary communications theory. Thanks to him, we are a little less naive about technology and the way it impacts our lives.

  • McLuhan – Cedric Smith
  • Student – Hamish McEwan
  • Student – Catherine Jackson
  • Student – Theo Ward
  • Student – Joy Tanner
  • Student – Mark Polley