Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy

James W. Carey (Columbia University)

Abstract: The well-known roots of Marshall McLuhan's work in the scholarship of Harold Innis and Lewis Mumford are outlined. McLuhan's place within the ferment of the 1960s, developments in the preceding decade in cybernetics, and the earliest support of his work by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters are elaborated as well. Finally, a brief evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of McLuhan's scholarship within the context of his own time is developed.

Résumé: Cet article retrace les origines bien connues de l'oeuvre de Marshall McLuhan dans les écrits d'Harold Innis et de Lewis Mumford. L'article examine aussi la place de McLuhan au milieu de l'effervescence des annés soixante, ainsi que certains développements en cybernétique au cours des dix années précédentes, et l'appui précoce de la part du National Association of Educational Broadcasters ('L'Association nationale de radiodiffuseurs pédagogiquesé). Enfin, l'article développe une brève évaluation des forces et faiblesses de l'oeuvre de McLuhan dans le contexte de sa propre ère.


In the summer of 1960 I was at the University of Illinois writing a dissertation in a field yet to be invented, the economics of communications. Most of my intellectual training had been in economics and I aspired to and sometimes practised the craft of freelance journalism. As is well known, such journalists are paid by the word: a dollar a word on good days, a nickel a word on the bad ones. And every word, from the shortest to the longest, carried the same price. That led to a flirtation with an understanding of the peculiarities of the market for words, and the alienation inevitably involved when one sells one's soul at five cents a "bit." That led me to the work of the only economist who had remotely addressed this issue, the Canadian, Harold Innis. Innis provided a number of clues to the ways in which the telegraph -- for that was the key innovation -- created a market for words and the mechanism for pricing words in that market.

To state the obvious once again, Innis was the most important Canadian intellectual of his era: President of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Economic Association. He chaired or served on many of the most important royal commissions shaping policy in education, communications, and economics. His scholarship was devoted primarily to staples -- codfish, timber, fur, and wood pulp. These commodities shaped both the economy and culture of Canada -- a colonial economy, an outlier country on the Western margin whose fate was tied to the demand for fur hats or dried fish in European capitals. The analysis of wood pulp suggested the powerful role of communications in shaping the political and economic structure of nations and empires. To that study he devoted himself in the years after World War II, producing four books on the subject: The Bias of Communication, Empire and Communications, Political Economy and the Modern State, and Changing Concepts of Time. He was also Dean of the Graduate School as well as Head of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto when, to at last get to the point, Marshall McLuhan arrived there in the autumn of 1946.

McLuhan had been trained in literary criticism at Cambridge University when F. R. Leavis dominated literary studies there and from Leavis had picked up an interest in the consequences of the industrialization of the popular arts for the traditions of high culture. McLuhan had taught at a number of North American universities -- Wisconsin, St. Louis University, Assumption College -- before he landed in Toronto. Actually he landed at the Catholic college within the University of Toronto, St. Michael's. McLuhan had undergone a conversion to Catholicism, influenced by another famous convert, G. K. Chesterton, while at Cambridge. Following his stint at Wisconsin, McLuhan taught in Catholic universities for the rest of his career. This is not an altogether insignificant fact for McLuhan's history of technology is in many ways a secularized version of the basic Christian story of Eden, the Fall, and Redemption. Technology restored the intimate connection to the Godhead sundered in the moment of rational and sinful alienation. The metaphors which lace his work are religious ones as well, drawn, in particular, from a Catholic vocabulary of ritual and sacrament. Finally, though it is not something to be demonstrated here, his understanding of the oral tradition (an understanding quite at odds with that of Innis) is deeply informed by a liturgical sense of chant and memory rather than a political sense of discussion and debate. The preliterate world for which he yearned was a liturgical world rather than a political one.

As I worked on the problem of the economics of words in July 1960, Marshall McLuhan arrived in Urbana, Illinois, with a disordered, mimeographed manuscript entitled "Understanding Media" under his arm (McLuhan, 1960). It was the damnedest thing I had ever seen. The manuscript did not fit any of the established categories of academic writing I had encountered; it was an exercise in genre bending, indeed genre inventing, performed before we recognized the blurring of genres as one of the distinctive landmarks for navigating postmodern writing. The manuscript was destined for the United States Office of Education which had inadvertently commissioned it. A recurring fantasy of that summer was the bewilderment that would greet its arrival in Washington where it was to become the most unorthodox report ever to be submitted to that staid bureaucracy.1 This was the first draft of the book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man destined for publication as the herald of McLuhan's international celebrity in 1964. The manuscript contained the central ideas of the book but with a much more limited focus. McLuhan was trying to convince the Office of Education that his developing ideas could be the lever of reform in the educational system, moving it from a dependence on classical literature to an engagement with the "new media," the media which formed and carried the real culture of students.

His study, if it can be called that, was commissioned by an organization now defunct, the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. Educational broadcasters, as those in public television were then known, provided the first receptive audience McLuhan found for his speculations concerning media. (The first appearance of McLuhan on television that has survived was on a program from Ohio State University's television station that featured a discussion McLuhan dominated, through a haze of smoke, among educational broadcasters.) Unlike commercial broadcasters, those in education sought an understanding of and a defence and legitimization of television -- a medium they were pioneering in education while trying to preserve a portion of the television spectrum for, broadly, cultural uses. Television was then an object of universal contempt (and secret viewing) among the educated classes. No one with intellectual pretensions took it seriously except as further evidence of the decline of high culture and Western civilization. The literature concerning television that existed during the 1960s was pretty dismal and of two sorts: either a blanket condemnation of the medium or aggressive promotional tracts aimed at exploiting the commercial possibilities of television. McLuhan was the first intellectual not only to take the medium seriously but to see possibilities in it for something more than transmitting high culture or debasing the popular arts.

In 1960 McLuhan was virtually unknown beyond a small coterie and certainly unread and unrecognized among scholars in the humanities and social sciences; there was no hint as yet of the international celebrity that awaited him and no one thought that he would give rise to an ideology -- mcluhanisme. His first book on media, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), was unorthodox in form but, on the surface at least, reasonably conventional in content. The title referred to the intertwined images of violence, sexuality, and death that dominated (and still dominates?) the popular arts, at least in North America. The book did not sell well (a few hundred copies) nor did it bring him much attention. McLuhan's important but short-lived journal, Explorations, in which he pursued his more unorthodox ideas had a tiny circulation and was influential among only a small group of academics. This was four years before the publication of the transmogrified and even more outrageous book version of Understanding Media and five years before Tom Wolfe's article in New York magazine -- "What If He Is Right?" -- that initiated his career as the first celebrity intellectual of the electronic age. During the "Urbana Summer" he was working on The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, a project underway for a decade, though actually written in less than 40 days later that year.

My reaction to McLuhan's work was at first very admiring. I could see the impetus he had picked up from the pioneering scholarship of Harold Innis, though he naturally took that economic analysis in literary and cultural directions. Moreover, he was a wonderful conversationalist and companion, a raconteur with a bottomless well of jokes, stories, and apothegms. As he became a more public figure later in the decade, I became rather more hostile. It must be remembered that his work reached the general public and he became the most important public intellectual in North America during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests. These were the matters that were on our political /intellectual agenda. While he had some intelligent things to say about the role of television in the civil rights movement and the consequences of putting war on television, he took the politics out of these two issues and reduced them to mere matters of technology. (His 1968 book War and Peace in the Global Village did not refer in any detail to the Vietnam War, the first war of the Global Village.) Moreover, we believed -- whomever we were -- that his conservative politics made him indifferent to the outcomes of these two protest movements and that he was in secret sympathy with those resisting the civil rights movement and supporting the extension of the war. On all such matters McLuhan was silent, if not indifferent, and frequently contemptuous. His public style was often, deliberately or not, arrogant and supercilious with those with whom he disagreed. He regularly dismissed his critics as obsolete, as if only he had a purchase on the future. McLuhan was peculiarly disconnected from the politics of his time and was admired by and appealed to those who reduced politics to technology or who sought technological solutions to political dilemmas.

In the 1960s McLuhan's work drove one to face an intractable problem. For all the cultural creativity and innovation associated with the technology of printing, the medium had an inescapable dark side. Printing was indissolubly wed to the rise of the nation state, colonialism, and empire; to the domination of the bourgeois class; and to the worldwide extension of capitalism. If that is true, then what about the institutional power and political implications of electronic communication? Did the growth of electrical communication from the telegraph through television, and the evolution of electronics from simple servomechanisms through advanced computer information utilities, reverse the general developments associated with printing or did they merely modify and intensify what Lewis Mumford called the "pentagon of power," the "gods" of modernity: political power, profit, property, productivity, and publicity?

There is no easy answer to this question but around it have whirled virtually all the conceptual and ideological debates concerning the relations of communications technology to culture. Mumford, who was McLuhan's most immediate predecessor, argued from the mid-1940s forward that electronics intensified the most destructive and power-oriented tendencies of the "age of print," whereas McLuhan, who was, in a certain sense, the first postmodernist, prophesied a new postmodern, postindustrial age in which electronics would produce a qualitative change in the nature of social organization and cultural life. There were and still are large intellectual and political stakes in the resolution of this argument for its outcome will shape ideological discourse and social policy in the arena of communications in the decades ahead. Globalization, the Internet, and computer communications are all underdetermined by technology and history. The final destination of these new forms is one prepared by politics.

The ideological hinge of Understanding Media was recognized by some of the more acute of his earliest reviewers. Harold Rosenberg (1967) noted, for example, that "while McLuhan is an aesthete he is also an ideologue -- one ready to spin out his metaphor of the `extensions' until its web covers the universe.... [T]he drama of history is a crude pageant whose inner meaning is man's metamorphosis through the media" (p. 202). Actually, Understanding Media is a book very much in the American grain, one that explicitly and implicitly drew on some of the deeper political myths of the culture. The central term of that myth, the "communications revolution," was first used, as best I can determine, by the American historian Robert Albion (1933). He used it to describe the projects of communication and transportation (they were then taken to be identical processes) undertaken under the slogan of "internal improvements," planned by Jefferson's administration to unite the country north and south, east and west: an ambitious plan of road, canal, and, later, telegraph and railroad building -- all instruments of communication in nineteenth-century terms. While such improvements greatly enhanced the scope, power, and size of the country, they were hardly revolutionary; they merely extended the geography of the nation, while keeping in place its central principles of both politics and communication.

But the notion of the United States as a permanent communications revolution is in fact the hardiest plant in the North American mental hothouse. The ideological side of Understanding Media replayed certain ideas that entered American life in the decades after the Civil War (1865 forward) when electricity as fact and symbol seized hold of the native imagination and envisioned a new form of communication as the architecture of a new form of civilization.

This is the tradition of thought McLuhan seized upon in Understanding Media in projecting a technological utopia then aborning through the irresistible impulses of electrical communication. McLuhan lifted hyperbole to metaphor, transforming the body into a metaphor for technology, and assigning a characteristic quality to each of the senses; he assigned sound and participation to the ear, taste and discrimination to the tongue, vision and privatization to the eye. He gave a biological and technological root to Eliot's notion of the disassociation of sensibility. And, in the critical move, he assigned to electrical communication the capacity for the reassociation of sensibility: the restoration of psychic life in a balanced sensorium and of social life in a global village. By such metaphors, aesthetics, biology, and technology were converted into ideology. There is a kind of liberation theology contained in his formulation, though it is rather different than what was encountered in Latin America.

As I said earlier, Understanding Media entered both a political and intellectual atmosphere and brought them together. McLuhan seemed to suggest that the spread of television would heal the racial animosities that had perennially scarred "the American dream." And he inspired and supported, however unwittingly, political policies playing out in Southeast Asia. There was no more obvious example of the errors reinforced by the ideology than the Vietnam conflict. In the Pentagon and the State Department, the technical approach -- in complete contrast to the politics of diplomacy -- could not perceive basic factors of nationalism, ethnic and regional differences, and historical forces that could not be overcome simply by computer planning, electronic surveillance of hostile elements, and electrification of rural areas and the Mekong basin. The "pacification" and "strategic hamlet" programs were evaluated by computers that could not simulate the entire Vietnamese experience. One Defense Department spokesman complained at the time that there was an "inundation" of data that actually operated against sensible decisions. Vietnam was also an attempt to test what General William Westmoreland called "the automation of war." The "electronic barrier" across the demilitarized zone projected by Robert McNamara to stop infiltration did not succeed, and military officers complained that it tied U.S. forces down during a mobile, shifting war. Further, Lyndon Johnson expected that his co-optation of a proposal to electrify the Mekong Valley like an Asian Tennessee Valley Authority and to install "security lights" in villages under the auspices of the Rural Electrification Commission would both win the sympathy of the Vietnamese masses and stop Vietcong night operations. Indeed, the rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson and his administration on these issues reveals a complete mesmerization by the mystique of computers, hydroelectric turbines, and electronic eyes, which led to terrible and tragic commitments.


That was the downside of Understanding Media, the constellation of politics, ideology, and intellect that led me to react negatively to the project of the book. But there was an upside and 30 years later it is appropriate to recognize it. McLuhan's work represented a genuine and multifaceted intellectual advance that has become part of our inheritance and the more enduring legacy of his work. I cannot here give the full dimensions of that tribute but a place to begin a brief exposition is with the announcement of a recent conference on Medieval Studies at Pennsylvania State University. It read:

Although still only in its initial stages, the current revolution in information and communication technologies has brought profound changes to the ways in which people live and interact in modern society. Understanding the complex political, social and cultural implications of this phenomenon requires that we place it in its proper historical perspective, particularly in terms of earlier, equally significant communications revolutions in Western history.

After briefly noting the bookends of the two dimensions of the revolution of the Middle Ages -- Carolingian minuscule text in the sixth century and the Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth -- and parallel changes in the role of aural, iconographic, and numeric representation, the announcement continues that these medieval developments can be employed to "place the present-day revolution in information technologies within an historical context."

There are three aspects of that introduction that are deeply problematic but that could not have been lucidly stated as problems until McLuhan's scholarship created an intelligible context. First, one could not see a useful connection between Carolingian script and, say, the computerization of the social, between the expansion of satellite broadcasting and the "broadcasting" of messages facilitated by the invention of printing, until McLuhan generalized the term "media" in such a way as to call forth the intrinsic family resemblance of these technologies. Second, by placing printed, iconographic, aural, numeric, and scribal representation in the same envelope, McLuhan led us to think not just of media but of media ecologies: the dense synchronic and diachronic relations among forms of representation. He suggested that we might understand the revolution in modern communications by comparing it with a similar revolution in the Middle Ages and, conversely and more radically, we might understand the revolution of the Middle Ages better by comparing it with changes in modern communications technology. Moreover, these diachronic slices could be better comprehended if we recognized the ways in which modalities of communication -- words and numbers, sights and sounds, icons and ideographs -- formed constellations of perceptive capacities which collectively defined the nature of subjectivity. In short, McLuhan taught us to see new relations between the medieval and the modern world and new relations among our apprehensive capacities and their extension in technological form.

Third, McLuhan taught us to see the "problem of communications" as a historical one, a problem that could not be understood simply by a universal and mathematical theory of communications such as proposed by Norbert Weiner (1948), Claude Shannon & Warren Weaver (1949), and others who pioneered cybernetics and information theory. The latter group understood communications solely as a problem of transmission. McLuhan's decisive advance, though he was not alone in this, was to argue that communication has three interlarded dimensions: transmission, creation, and retention. The problem of communications was not to be analyzed solely as the speed and capacity with which a given medium can disseminate "bits" of information. Rather, McLuhan analyzed the varying but interrelated capacities of different media to transmit or disseminate, to retrieve or store, and to create or produce an entire culture. Media were not only things with which messages were sent but, in addition and more importantly, things with which to think and with which to shape collective memory. As was his playful manner, he often threw away this insight in a slogan: "the medium is the message" or it is "culture retrieved rather than received that counts." But by enlarging the generally accepted understanding of communication, he was able to direct attention away from the "revolutions" in materials (iron, copper, brass) or forms of economic organization (mercantilism, industrialism, capitalism, socialism) or politics (the divine right of kings, the social contract, the dictatorship of the proletariat) and onto revolutions in communications (from speech to script to print to electronics). Again, these latter "revolutions" were not merely extensions of the speed and distance of communications, as important as such variations were, but alterations in the apparatus through which the world could be "thought" and retrieved in "memory."

McLuhan's advance has led to a distinguished body of scholarship on literacy, printing, the evolution of mind, and the nature of electronics. There is not space to review that work here, except to state a general outline and a few specifics of his own accomplishment. In the intervening years, there has developed a convention in historical writing about communications to partition time into three distinct phrases, each governed by a defining technology and master symbol: the oral tradition, the printing press, and the television screen. This is the story of social evolution, Lamarckian or not, as the evolution of communication. The narrative is organized around a series of decisive breaks or revolutions: from the voice to the printing press to the television screen; from speech to print to electronics; from the performer or orator to the printer or typographer to the programmer or producer; from the forming of sounds to the casting of letters to the production of narrative images. Other words would do: Performance, Print, and Program as objects; Speaking, Printing, and Programming as actions; or Speaker, Typographer, and Programmer as social types. While much work in recent years has concentrated on the transition from speech to print, from a society in which speaking and performing are primary to a society in which reading and writing are primary, the larger objective is to understand the presumed communications revolution of our own time: the movement beyond literacy, beyond the printed word, to something quite new and problematic -- visual literacy, computer literacy, the information society -- a world in which the computer is the master trope.

McLuhan, in making this advance, defined technology rather artlessly as "extensions of man," extensions which form a feedback loop. The instruments we use become extensions of our bodies. In order to operate these instruments skillfully, we must internalize aspects of them in the form of kinesthetic and perceptual habits. In that sense at least, such instruments become literally part of us, modify us, and alter the basis of our relationship to ourselves. One would further expect us to more intensely cathect instruments that couple directly to our own intellectual, cognitive, and emotive functions than to those machines that merely extend the power of our muscles. This point has been made forcefully by Lewis Mumford in a quote I stitch together from several different essays:

... the organic has become visible again even within the mechanical complex. Some of our most characteristic mechanical instruments -- the telephone, the phonograph, the motion picture -- have grown out of our interest in the human voice and human ear and out of knowledge of their physiology and anatomy.... In back of the development of tools and machines lies the attempt to modify the environment in such a way as to fortify and sustain the human organism: the effort is either to extend the powers of the otherwise unarmed organism or to manufacture outside the body a set of conditions more favorable toward manufacturing its equilibrium and ensuring its survival.... [T]he investigation of the world of life opened up new possibilities for the machine itself: vital interests, ancient human wishes influence the development of new inventions. Flight, telephonic communication, the phonograph, the motion picture all arose out of the more scientific study of living organisms.... [T]his interest in living organisms does not stop short with machines that stimulate eye and ear.... [T]he perfected forms begin to hold human interest even apart from practical performances: they tend to produce that inner composure and equilibrium, that sense of balance between the inner impulse and the outer environment, which is one of the marks of a work of art. The machines, even when they are not works of art, underlie our art -- that is, our organized perceptions and feeling -- in the way that Nature underlies them, extending the basis upon which we operate and confirming our own impulse to order. (Mumford, 1934, pp. 6, 10, 356)

Tools, then, are pedagogical instruments, part of the stuff with which we fashion our imaginative reconstructions of the world. Tools are not merely instruments nor only signs of human imagination and creative reach. They also symbolize the activities they enable and act as models for their own reproduction and as scripts for the re-enactment of the skills they represent. That is the sense in which media are pedagogic instruments, vehicles for instructing men and women in other times and places in culturally acquired modes of thought and action. The tool as symbol in all these respects thus transcends its role as a symbolic recreation of our world. It must inevitably enter into the imaginative calculus that constantly constructs the world (Weizenbaum, 1976). In that sense, then, the tool is much more than a mere device; it is an agent for change. This is the sense in which the medium is the message: the complex of habits, dispositions, extensions, metaphorical, and imaginative reproductions it creates and the secondary service background or industry it creates around it.

From his Renaissance studies McLuhan absorbed Bacon's dictum that nature was a book to be read, although for the pioneers of modern science it was a text composed in obscure mathematical characters. McLuhan argued that social life could also be viewed as a book, a text, something composed, though written in the far more accessible characters of sound, gesture, and word. Consequently, technology did not have to be treated as a purely physical force but could also be viewed as a text. Technology was both an extension and embodiment of mind and therefore contained and manifested meaning. It could be read, then, in an exegetical sense; its meaning could be unearthed from its material form in ways parallel to the treatment critics accorded literary texts. McLuhan's methodological advance, then, came through his attempt to break through the constraints of conventional North American social and communication theory with a new hermeneutic, a hermeneutic of technology and social life.

Intellectually, that advance was contained in two remarkable insights which McLuhan pressed with the outrageous daring necessary to arrest the attention of modern audiences. First, he argued that forms of communication such as writing, speech, printing, and broadcasting should not be viewed as neutral vessels carrying given and independently determined meaning. Rather, he proposed that these forms be considered technologies of the intellect, active participants in the process by which the mind is formed and in turn forms ideas. To put the matter differently, he argued that all technical forms were extensions of mind and embodiments of meaning. Technologies of communication were principally things to think with, moulders of mind, shapers of thought: the medium was the message. In pressing this argument he opened a new avenue of historical scholarship and rephrased a large set of questions that had vexed scholars.

The second advance McLuhan pioneered and which set certain constraints upon his critics grew directly out of his literary studies. Students of the arts are likely to examine communication with quite a different bias than that advanced by social scientists. The question of the appeal of art is essentially a question of taste, broadly of aesthetics. McLuhan recognized, earlier than most, that the new means available for producing and reproducing art would demand and create an entirely new aesthetic. He sensed that cultural forms operated not at the level of cognition or information or even effect. The media of communication affect society principally by changing the dominant structures of taste and feeling, by altering the desired forms of experience.

The new and proliferating means of recording experience meant that the monopoly enjoyed by print was to be exploded and that no one means of experiencing the world would dominate as printing had among educated classes for centuries. The new means of reproducing reality also meant that the historic barriers between the arts and between the arts and other departments of life -- art and science, work and leisure -- would be driven down. Electronic communication would jumble experience and creatively juxtapose ideas, forms, and experiences previously disseminated in different and isolated ways. In turn this would create new patterns of knowledge and awareness, a new hunger for experience, in much the same way that printing, by assembling the sacred and the profane, the new and the traditional, the exotic and the mundane, the practical and the fanciful in the same printer's workshop led to a decisive alteration in modern taste.

This erosion of barriers between the arts meant as well the erosion of barriers between the audiences. The division of culture into high and low; folk and popular; mass and elite; highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow -- barriers and distinctions that were themselves the product of printing -- would have to be discarded under the impact of new forms of communication which simply did not recognize these distinctions. The high arts were now as often pirating mass and folk culture, and mass culture in turn was leaching the traditional arts. Thus, the ability to make things more widely available in graphic form, to reproduce at will sacred texts and treasured painting, to make reality itself in the drama of film and television, to record and freeze the most mundane of persons, scenes, and slices of reality that were historically conveyed in different and isolated ways, signaled the existence of a new hunger for experience and a new means to realize it, and both of these demanded a new theory of aesthetics.

But what was critical in this argument is McLuhan's realization, a realization he shared with Walter Benjamin and derived from James Joyce and the symbolists, that the new desires realized in the impractical objects of art would be demanded as well in the practical objects of everyday life. McLuhan erased the distinction between art and utility, between aesthetic action and practical form. Everyday objects -- cars, clothes, and light bulbs -- were governed less by utility than by aesthetics: their meaning was to be sought in a principle of taste rather than a principle of interest and action. Specifically, communications media were to be read less in terms of their potential to transmit information or to service the practical needs of persuasion and governance and more in terms of their insinuation of a desire to aesthetically realize experience in altered form.

Changes in technology, he came to conclude, offered the potential for redefining the aesthetic -- that is, for altering taste and style and, through that alteration, for redesigning the basic structures of social life. Technology does this at the most abstract level by offering the potential for re-experiencing time and space. Differing technologies of communication have the capacity to expand or contract space and to expand or contract time, changing the meaning of the fundamental co-ordinates of thought. This notion was obviously tied to Innis' earlier discovery of the spatial and temporal bias of media, though, again, McLuhan's discovery was not situated in the domain of practical action but at the level of aesthetic experience. His important argument about printing was not merely that it changed the dominant conception of space, but that it altered what we took to be an aesthetically satisfying pattern of spatial arrangement, whether this was the arrangement of a page, a city, a house, or a theory. Similarly, while printing altered our conception of time, it more importantly changed the dominantly pleasing patterns of rhythm. McLuhan was basically correct, then, in directing our consideration to the possibility that the new media of communication might be cultivating a taste for open rather than closed spaces, rimmed rather than axial patterns, historical and geologically modelled time rather than mechanical syncopation, or more generally a preference, in Mary Douglas' (1970) phrase, for "group over grid."

The importance of the questions McLuhan asked lay in his implicit attempt to apply hermeneutic insights to material objects, his stress on the new combinations and juxtapositions of experience created by modern technology, and his emphasis on the central place of aesthetic experience in all human action. I am opposed, as previously indicated, to McLuhan's notion that techology is autonomous, operating independently of human will and intention. Nonetheless, machines, once constructed, do operate over long periods of time entirely on the basis of their own internal realities.

McLuhan was a person of irresistible charm in intimate circles and I felt then, and feel now, that he was a critical figure in the evolution of our understanding of culture, media, and communication. He did not spring from a platonic conception of himself, however. He wrote within a tradition and borrowed heavily from other scholars pursuing parallel lines of inquiry. But his contribution to that collective effort and achievement -- ambiguous at best and on which no firm judgment is yet possible -- has been decisive.


The shorthand title of the undertaking was "Project 69" and McLuhan described it as follows in the statement of purpose: "Project 69 in Understanding Media proposed to provide an approach to media and a syllabus for teaching the nature and effects of media in secondary schools.... My objectives were: (a) to explain the character of a dozen media, illustrating the dynamic symmetries of their operation on man and society, (b) to do this in a syllabus usable in secondary schools. (Secondary schools were chosen as offering students who had not in their own lives become aware of any vested interest in acquired knowledge. They have very great experience of media, but no habits of observation or critical awareness. Yet they are the best teachers of media to teachers, who are otherwise unreachable)" (McLuhan, 1960, pp. l, 4).


Albion, Robert. (1933, September). The communications revolution: 1760-1933. Mechanical Engineering, 55, 531-535, 573.

Douglas, Mary. (1970). Natural symbols. New York: Pantheon Books.

Innis, Harold. (1949). Political economy and the modern state. Toronto: Ryerson Press.

Innis, Harold. (1950). Empire and communications. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Innis, Harold. (1951). The bias of communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Innis, Harold. (1952). Changing concepts of time. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1951). The mechanical bride: Folklore of industrial man. New York: Vanguard Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1960). Report on project in understanding new media. Urbana, IL: National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1962). The Gutenburg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, Marshall, with Fiore, Quentin, & Agel, Jerome. (1968). War and peace in the global village. New York: Bantam.

Mumford, Lewis. (1934). Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Rosenberg, Harold. (1967). "He is a belated Whitman singing the body electric with Thomas Edison as accompanist." In Gerald E. Stearn (Ed.), McLuhan: Hot and cool (pp. 194-203). New York: Dial Press. (Originally published in the New Yorker as "Philosophy in a Pop Key")

Shannon, Claude, & Weaver, Warren. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Weiner, Norbert. (1948). Cybernetics; or, control and communication in the animal and the machine. New York: John Wiley and Son.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. (1976). Computer power and human reason. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.

Wolfe, Tom. (1968). What if he is right? In The pump house gang. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Originally published in New York, November 1965)

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