Tag Archives: McLuhan


Of course, in light of the present educational crisis, I’m not sure there isn’t something to be said for making possession of an LL.D. a felony.

Marshall McLuhan (1969)

In his 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan talks about a crisis in education that was driven largely by a clash between the then current TV generation of children and their predecessors, inheritors of visual, print-literate culture. McLuhan (1969) sees education as an “instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age” (p. 249). He goes further to describe the educational system as “totally review mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation” (pp. 249-50). The children of the television generation – a generation of which I am a member since I was entering kindergarten in 1969 – encounter great difficulties within the educational system. As McLuhan puts it:

The TV child finds it difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electric media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns. But suddenly and without preparation, he is snatched from the cool inclusive womb of television and exposed – within a vast bureaucratic structure of courses and credits – to the hot medium of print. (p. 250)

Herein lies the problem for McLuhan, for the TV generation and, of course, for the authorities who are struggling to reproduce in the next generation the dominant values of visual culture: the clash between visual and electric cultures is not something that can be addressed with more of the same techniques in schools. According to McLuhan (1969) “the sensory and attitudinal revolution has already taken place before the child ever reaches school, altering his sensory existence and his mental processes in profound ways” (p. 251).

Despite the passage of 40 years, and almost two generations since McLuhan made these comments, the same tension between visual and electronic ages seems to be in play, though it has perhaps been recast in the terminology of the digital age, an age that sees the convergence of all media (as McLuhan predicted), and a remarkable shift to a world where consumers become producers of all manner of content (from video to audio to writing) on the Internet (something that MLuhan also predicted before the arrival of this contemporary global nervous system). Donald Prensky (2001), for instance, talks about a division between the ages similar to the one identified by McLuhan in his essay Digital Natives Digital Immigrants.” In some rather harsh criticism of the contemporary education system, Prensky identifies “Digital Natives”, youth who have grown up with digital technologies, and “Digital Immigrants”, older people who were born before the advent of digital technologies (particularly the Internet). According to Prensky, “our digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (p. 2). And while it is possible for digital immigrants to learn to become digitally literate, it is unlikely that they lose their pre-digital accents.

Curiously, while a lot of tensions still exist within most levels of the education system concerning traditional notions of, say literacy and goals of education cast in the stone age of the industrial revolution and its dependence on specialist knowledge, whole fields of research and scholarship are undergoing quite dramatic changes as a result of digital and communications technologies. The medium of modern scholarly discourse is now digital, and while a vanity press still cranks out printed texts and articles (particularly in those fields that have made a fetish of the printed book), increasingly, the fields in which researchers play are defined by the tools of digital culture. Training students to be bookish will hardly do if we actually want them to have critical and practical tools to engage with the modern world.

I’m sure McLuhan would still characterize a lot of the attempts by digital immigrant educators to use digital techniques as desperate glances into the rearview mirror, with a focus on replaying literate cultural heritage through the frames of digital media. That said, multimodalities and multiliteracies are increasingly defining philosophical and research approaches to teaching and learning, so perhaps there is a growing possibility of some kind of hybrid culture in education spanning the generational, technological gaps that define the divergent cultures of print/TV, TV/digital cultures.

McLuhan, Marshall (1969). “Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan — A Candid Conversation with the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media,” Playboy (March, 1969) in Essential McLuhan, eds., Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Basic Books: New York, 1995), pp. 245-269.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. NCB University Press, 9(5), 1-6.

Laws of Media

“The goal of science and the arts and of education for the next generation must be to decipher not the genetic but the perceptual code.  In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer-finding is of no avail: one is surrounded by answers, millions of them, moving and mutating at electric speed.  Survival and control will depend on the ability to probe and to question in the proper way and place.  As the information that constitutes the environment is perpetually in flux, so the need is not for fixed concepts but rather for the ancient skill of reading that book, for navigating through an ever uncharted and uncharitable milieu.  Else we will have no more control of this technology and environment than we have of the wind and the tides.”

 “Media Poetics” in Laws of Media, McLuhan and McLuhan


As far back as the Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan (1962) was interested in the manner in which technologies represented extensions of the human body, new organs through which we perceived the world.  Much of his critique of literacy focused on how visual space (as structured by the phonetic alphabet, Euclidean geometry and accelerated by print technology) biased the eye and, with this bias, lead to a reconfiguration of human sense ratios.  Thus outered into the eye, the other senses were necessarily reconfigured, leading to a new balance, one that locked the eye on lines of perspective that ran deeply into the horizon of progress.  What was lost when the visual became a closed system unto itself was a previous state of interplay between the senses, a synesthetic correspondence that involved all of the senses that McLuhan associated with acoustic space.  This same issue comes up in Laws of Media, where McLuhan (1964) states that “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (p. 57).  What started as an outering of one organ, the eye, now becomes an outering of all of our organs through electronic media.  McLuhan sees quite important (and great risks) associated with this situation:

By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls – all such extensions of our bodies, including cities – will be translated into information systems.(p. 57)

There is a key difference here for McLuhan.  Whereas previous media fragmented and isolated our senses, electronic media by allowing for the extension of our nervous system itself, has the potential of returning us to a more acoustic state of interplay.

            Thirteen years later, in his essay “Laws of Media” McLuhan (1977) once more focuses on the idea of technologies as extensions of human organs and technologies as metaphors.  The play on Robert Browning returns (from Understanding Media), “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor” (p. 7).  With this aphorism,  McLuhan points to the idea that metaphors, through their bridging of one thing across to another, create a resonating gap, an interval that has characteristics of tactility:

Each “side” of the resonating interval is an area of “touch,” and in the sensory experience of “touch” there is never a connection but always a gap or an interval.  Between the wheel and the axle, the interval (and not the connection) is “where the action is.”  That is to say, there is a large acoustic factor in touch and in metaphor alike – the audile-tactile” (p. 7)

The audile-tactile space, the gap between things created by technologies (by metaphors or by words – the outerances and utterances of ourselves) defines nature for McLuhan. Living at the speed of light requires us to think where the action is, to maintain the resonating interval, the gap between two sides that actually defines touch.  It is much like McLuhan suggests concerning the goal of science, arts and education to decipher the perceptual code, i.e., the information system that we receive via our outered senses.  In the book Laws of Media published after McLuhan’s death that grew out of his essay, McLuhan and McLuhan (1988) emphasize the significance of the audile-tactile space that we now inhabit due to electronic media and the interplay of our extended nervous system:

Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of coexistence among out technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history.  Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience that demands that they become collectively conscious….Now, sight and sound and touch and movement are simultaneous and global in extent.  A ratio of interplay among these extensions of our human functions is now necessary collectively as it has always been for private and personal rationality. (p. 226)

We’ve moved beyond the isolated extensions of individual senses, to a total system, one that is global and moving at the speed of light.  Such a state certainly demands a new science, one that is capable of responding to the variation in the organs of perception.


McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M. (1974). “The Laws of Media” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound.  Eds. Eric McLuhan & W. Terrence Gordon.  Corte Madre, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.



Living at the speed of light

“I should always add that anything I say is the way it seems at the moment.”

“Living at the Speed of Light,” McLuhan (1974) 

          McLuhan’s public lecture makes for entertaining reading, in part because he seems to be having such fun “playing the old story backwards” to his audience made up of the general public and students and teachers from the Faculty of Education in the University of South Florida.  Sprinkled through his address are a series of playful pokes, bad (and really bad) jokes, and deftly launched series of probes concerning various commonly experienced aspects of life at the speed of light such as literacy, education, politics, entertainment and work.  McLuhan is poised on the edge, flipping from old to new, from mechanical to electrical, from visual to acoustic, to reveal the true focus of his approach to media studies, which is on the transformative effects of media, not on mere transportation of messages between Shannon and Weaver.  This lecture also provides one of McLuhan’s clearest descriptions of his famous aphorism, the medium is the message.  In describing the transformation brought upon society by the motor car, McLuhan  offers this description:

When I say that the medium is the message, I’m saying that the motor car is not a medium.  The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil companies.  That is the medium.  In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car.  When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone.  The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects.  The car is a figure in a ground of services.  It’s when you change the ground that you change the car.  The car does not operate as the medium, but rather as one of the major effects of the medium.  So “the medium is the message” is not a simple remark….It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people.  IT is the environment that changes people, not the technology. (p. 242)

Those that would claim that McLuhan’s critique is overly technologically deterministic would benefit from considering the transformative focus of McLuhan’s approach, particularly as his analysis of medium is, by his description of the hidden environment of services, really a focus on the socio-cultural and economic ground within which particular technologies are effects.

            Speaking as he is, in front of a group of educators, McLuhan’s comments on literacy, the education system and schools in general are quite provocative.  In the electronic age, the type of specialization that educational institutions have typically trained its students to achieve could well be problematic.  And viewing the story backwards from the vantage point of 2009 (35 years after this lecture), McLuhan seems to have been quite prescient about many things.  Interdisciplinary studies are increasingly important to the organization of education, particularly in the health sciences.  The idea of schools being driven by answers (or by content in the classroom), seems increasingly archaic and insufficiently critical.  McLuhan’s idea that we should be putting questions, not answers inside the school is one way to describe the increase in learner centred, constructivist, problem-based and situated learning theories that inform the practice of so many teachers.   And now, as the service environment of the university, the ground upon which the campus sits is being transformed by multiple modes of delivery, interdisciplinary studies, service learning, and fusion buildings that support informal and formal student spaces like the Ike Barber Learning commons, it is fair to predict that the classroom will change.  Whether or not “the ivory tower [will] become the control tower of human navigation” as McLuhan (1969) calls for in CounterBlast, is still not a decided question.  Just as many of the educators who were sitting in the room listening to McLuhan speak in 1974, many educators today are still morbidly staring at the flip from visual literacy to electronic acoustic spaces, and wondering to themselves if this is indeed, the end of the road!


McLuhan, M. (1969) Counter-Blast. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

McLuhan. M. (2005).  “Living at the Speed of Light.”  In (S. McLuhan & D. Staines, Eds.) Understanding Me (pp225-243).  Toronto: MIT Press.



The new media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature.

McLuhan (1969), Counter-Blast

Nature with a capital N, according to McLuhan, was a creation of literate Greeks, an act informed by the phonetic alphabet with its visual bias and the acts of classification by cultures that had exchanged an ear for an eye.  This visual world of Euclidean space and compartmentalized knowledge allowed for absolute control over perspective and thus enabled a detached point of view where abstracted continuous spaces could be extended to enframe the world and define all phenomena according to its “Natural Law”.  The civilized children of “Nature” lived in an environment “surrounded by an abstract explicit visual technology of uniform time and uniform continuous space in which “cause” is efficient and sequential, and things move and happen on single planes and in successive order” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p . 19). 

            Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth and, therefore, for McLuhan, the first extension of Earth, pushed aside Nature as laid out within the grid of visual space and retrieved the idea of ecology, or dynamic interplay and involvement as the key characteristics of the world. McLuhan associated such ecological thinking with tribal cultures, cultures that lived in an acoustic world immersed in and involved with one another.  In an elliptical orbit approximately 1000 kilometers above the Earth, Sputnik circled the planet every 96 minutes at a speed of 29,000 kilometers an hour.  For 22 days, Sputnik’s beeps were heard by people all around the world, and these sounds signaled the birth of the global village, a world where we are all involved, tribally, in one another on the planet.  As McLuhan put it, because of Sputnik, “ ‘Spaceship earth’ was recognized as having no passengers, but only crew.” Being all on the same ship makes a detached point of view seem positively irresponsible (if not downright dangerous!). 

            A further impact of Sputnik for McLuhan was how, by encircling the plant, the satellite turned the world into content or an information environment that could be programmed. First in a series of beeps and then, over the years, in an increasing data stream of information, these orbiting extensions fed back to the earth information about itself using a range of imaging and remote sensing technologies. And now, with public access to satellite imagery available in real time, it is possible to use applications like Google Earth to explore not only images of the Earth, but layers of data created by private and public groups to highlight local and global issues and experiences.  The planet can, in effect, be programmed visually, using such data, and these programmed spaces have an impact on socio-political and cultural ideas concerning how we cohabit the planet.   With our nervous systems outerred and orbiting our planet, we can’t help but engage in ecological thinking.  These orbiting extensions of ourselves have reconfigured and transformed our relationship to our planet and to one another.



Marshall McLuhan. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Marshall McLuhan.  (1969) Counter-Blast. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Marshall McLuhan. (1977) “The Rise and Fall of Nature.” Journal of Communication, 27, 80-81.



Innis’ Cloud Chamber

Innis’ Cloud Chamber

In his 1964 introduction to the first reprinting of Innis’ The Bias of Communication, McLuhan revels in the mosaic structure that he associates with Innis’ later writing style, and draws comparisons between Innis’ approach to social historical writing on communications and the artistic strategies of artists to modern culture, particularly artists associated with symbolism like Baudelaire and Mallarmé.   According to McLuhan, this mosaic approach emerged later in Innis’ career and it allowed him to move away from a conventional, academic point of view to a more dynamic form of analysis that worked to reveal interface relationships, or dynamic interplay between different elements.  For McLuhan, this rhetorical style of “juxtaposing without connectives” is highly generative of new insights, in part because it mimics a form of communication that is closer to dialogue than written exposition but also because it directly involves readers in a series of tests concerning the characteristics of technology and its influence upon different social and historical contexts.  McLuhan likens Innis’ approach to that of a physicist using a cloud chamber: “By bouncing the unknown form against known forms, he discovered the nature of the new or little known form” (9).  The trails made by Innis’ experimental probes outline the cultural disturbances he associated with sudden extensions of communication.  Through these tests, Innis teaches us, as McLuhan sees it “ how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research.  By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures” (11).

McLuhan explored similar ground in a letter he wrote to Innis in 1951.  In that letter, McLuhan provides more details about the importance he sees in the symbolist perception. 

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences. … Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction (221).

Such retracings or reconstructions are evident in several of the essays collected in The Bias of Communication as well as in Empire and Communication and, indeed, this same technique can be seen in McLuhan’s work in the early 1960’s, particularly with The Gutenberg Galaxy a book that McLuhan refers to as a “footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing” (8). 

An intriguing characteristic that emerges in McLuhan’s introduction is just how much seems to have changed in the media landscape in the thirteen years between the first publication of Innis’ book and the publication of the second edition, particularly with respect to electronic communications.  McLuhan draws attention to what he considers to be examples of Innis failing to be true to his own mosaic method when he analyzes electronic media, particularly radio and television and goes far to say that this “technological blindness” in Innis is a form of “the nemesis of creativity” (12).   For McLuhan, Innis did not quite manage to recognize the emerging electronic space as a new space rather than merely an extension of mechanized communications media.  This limited perspective is also evident in Innis’ “Appendix 1: A Note on Communication and Electromagnetic Resources in North America”, where Innis gets so caught up in calculating the amount of space that radio stations can broadcast across that he doesn’t notice that space is collapsed and decentralized by the advent of multiple sites of communication.  As was discussed in our class, a significant shift in centre/margin relationships comes about with these new extensions of communication technologies.  The resulting cultural disruptions would be more significant than any of the changes documented by Innis in his earlier works on the cod fisheries or the fur trade and, perhaps, as significant as that brought about by print technologies. 



Marshall McLuhan. (2005). “Introduction to: The Bias of Communication” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M., Molinaro, M., McLuhan, C., & Toye, W. (1987). Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada.