The final theory introduced in this chapter is not really a theory per se, but a set of philosophical probings by Marshall McLuhan. He has been saved for last not because he offers the final word on mass communication theory, but because in some ways he demonstrates how far mass communication theory has evolved and how far it still has to go.
On one level, this Canadian philosopher, who died in early 1981, is a throwback to the turn of the century “grand theorists” whose single-causality perspectives explained away countless variables and leapfrogged over bothersome evidence in order to reach simple conclusions. But on another level, he typifies the latest in a long history of ever-widening perspectives about mass media in society. Indeed, his very breadth may explain why he has been the center of so much academic controversy. And, although many academicians have dismissed him and his work in the past several years, he seems deserving of special mention in this chapter because he reflects so many of the ins’ and problems faced by mass communication scholars throughout this century.
McLuhan saw himself more as a poet and artist than a social scientist, and said his explanations of media and society were less mass communication theory than they were mass communication probes or explorations
McLuhan gained his reputation talking about mass media and society in light of one principle: that human society has been and is being and will continue to be shaped by its means of communication, and not necessarily by the content of that communication. Some have labelled his approach “the principle of informational technological determinism. It He preferred the simpler description: “The medium is the message. ” In either case, it means that the chief technology of communication in a society has a determining effect on everything important in that society not only on politics and economics, but also on the ways in which people’s minds organize their experiences
Whenever we set out to shape our tools of communication, McLuhan argued, these tools end up shaping us. That is to say, a .shift in informational media initiates significant and widespread “social and psychological changes in any human system. McLuhan saw it as profound that today we communicate by electronic media, just as at one time, we communicated with nonverbal languages, then with spoken words, and then with written
Two of McLuhan’s guiding principles should be noted:
1. Because we have only a limited number of senses, we constantly strive to keep those senses in balance. Any time those senses are thrown drastically off kilter, immediate and sometimes equally drastic adjustments are necessary.
2. Because media are extensions of our senses, they extend those senses in one of two ways–by being hot or cool. A hot medium extends one single sense in “high definition,” by filling that sense with a great deal of data or information. This leaves us much less information to fill in or complete, meaning that that medium does not
demand intense audience participation. For example, a high quality coloured photograph is hot, because we know at a glance what it represents. At the opposite pole, however, would be an abstract drawing or a cartoon. It is a cool medium, extending senses in “low definition,” providing little direct data or information. A cool medium
requires us to use other senses and actively participate in completing the information we demand for a satisfactory understanding. (An abstract painting probably tells us more about what is in the head of the artist than what is “our there” in the real world, and it demands involvement on our part to infer the artist’s intentions.)
Prior to the invention of the phonetic alphabet, our ancestors lived in close physical and psychological proximity with one another, in “tribal villages, II to use McLuhan’s term. Face-toface speech was their basic means of communicating their perceptions of the world. Interpersonal contact extended all five basic senses-touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing, with slight over-utilization of hearing. Hearing-auditory discrimination-tends to be less precise than other forms of discrimination, so this interpersonal environment sawall communication stimuli coming and being received at once. A
simultaneous culture resulted. Communication was essentially cool, requiring the maximum amount of participation.
A second stage of communication history, as described by McLuhan, got underway with the widespread utilization of the phonetic alphabet, but really took hold with the invention of the printing press. McLuhan called the printed media the hottest ones there are, as they extend a single sense-sight-In high definition. Reading is a highly individualized and an artificially structured means of learning about ‘or abstracting from reality. Print
changed the communication environment from a simultaneous, indiscrLninate perception to a limited, sequential, linear perception. This habit spread from reading to the entire way of looking at culture. Note reading’s tendency to result in ial alienation, deta chment, individuality. McLuhan is one of several cultural historians who has argued that the invention of the
printing press and subsequent mass literacy brought on a communications revolution known as the Renaissance. The ability
to read and write became essential for anyone expecting to gain and hold power, because much essential knowledge was being
preserved in books rather than being passed along by word of mouth by religious and political elites, as had been the case prior to the invention of the printing press. In essence, the print media detribalized us, McLuhan argued
In his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan maintained that the denationalization became universal due to the linear, progressive way of thinking encouraged by print. Print encouraged people to be logical, to have “expertise” in narrow fields rather than to remain generalists. As this limited expertise grew, it had the effect of fragmenting society. McLuhan also” described print as the line 1 forebear of the assembly line, in which the mass production of things followed the same logical patterns as the mass production of meaning. From t.he assembly line, the industrial revolution, in combination with specialization, haste fled technological advance. Technological acceleration led, in turn,”A to the communications or electronic revolution into which McLuhan saw society entering today, a revolution that has already altered humanity’s relationship to its world as drastically as did the invention of the printing press five centuries earlier.
This current stage got underway with the invention of electronic media, but did not begin to realize its full force until about a generation ago with the widespread adoption of television. Because it involves the senses of 8~ht, so-und,and even touch (McLuhan maintained that we psychologically reach out and fill in the mosaic of dots on the TV screen with our central nervous system), television is an extremely cool medium. Its use has had a widespread and unalterable impact on society and how we perceive ourselves, according to McLuhan. The Canadian philosopher noted the dominance of television on our lives, and particularly its sweeping influence on youth, whose time it commands from early childhood to puberty. The phrase “electronic babysitter” indicates some of the significance of this influence. McLuhan saw television as transferring more information haphazardly, even indiscriminately, to little brains during their most Impressionable years than parental influence, peers, and schooling put together. TV means more than
The coolness of television is reflected in the fashion in which it demands active participation from the viewers. They must mentally fill in the blank spaces in the coarse photographic screen, and, because the messages are continually interrupted by unrelated commercials, they must concentrate intensely and frequently change conscious and unconscious mental gears, according to McLuhan. (Note that many current theoreticians take issue with McLuhan’s conclusions, maintaining instead that television is received by passive viewers who often appear to be in an alpha state or dreamlike trance.
If the medium is the message, then the collage or mosaic of impressions in television has meant the restoration of multi sensory perception, the return to a communal global village in which electronic audiences participate and act rather than withdraw. McLuhan has maintained that the electronic media substitute “all-at-oneness” for print media’s “one-thing-at-meatiness”:
The movement of information at approximately the speed of light has become by far the largest industry in the world. The consumption of this information has become correspondingly the largest consumer function in the world. The globe has become on one hand a community of learning; at the same time, with regard
to the tightness of its interrelationships, the globe has become a tiny village. Patterns of human association based on slower media have become overnight not only irrelevant and obsolete, but a threat to continued existence and sanity
McLuhan argued that television brings a whole world into a person’s life. The young travel vicariously to the far corners of the world and universe. They observe situations known only vaguely, if at all, to their predecessors. They are participants in complex social situations. The depth of their experiences, knowledge, and ability to deal with the complexities they vicariously experience through television is a subject of considerable debate-a debate from which McLuhan largely excused himself because he maintained his job w~s to describe, not prescribe
Critics maintain McLuhan’s methodology was erratic and inconsistent, that many of his conclusions were not based upon
accepted scientific research. He seldom cited journals or scholarly investigations because he considered such evidence to be biased by the same lineality and logic that pervades most print media. That old-fashioned scholarship is inconsistent with the thought processes of the electronic generations, he argued. On another front, McLuhan has been criticized for his loose borrowing of insights from an,thropologist Edmund Carpenter, economic historian Harold Innis, and cybernetics scholar Norbert Weiner. All in all, the intuitive (and/or plagiarized) insights are dreadfully difficult to either refute or accept in whole. Nevertheless, because. of the broad sweep of McLuhan’s scholarly broom, and his impact on many media practitioners.since the 1960s, he takes his place among those who have contributed to the literature of mass communication theory.