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Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [Paperback]

Marshall McLuhan
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 24 1994 0262631598 978-0262631594 REV

with a new introduction by Lewis H. Lapham This reissue of Understanding Media marks the thirtieth anniversary (1964-1994) of Marshall McLuhan's classic expose on the state of the then emerging phenomenon of mass media. Terms and phrases such as "the global village" and "the medium is the message" are now part of the lexicon, and McLuhan's theories continue to challenge our sensibilities and our assumptions about how and what we communicate.There has been a notable resurgence of interest in McLuhan's work in the last few years, fueled by the recent and continuing conjunctions between the cable companies and the regional phone companies, the appearance of magazines such as WiRed, and the development of new media models and information ecologies, many of which were spawned from MIT's Media Lab. In effect, media now begs to be redefined. In a new introduction to this edition of Understanding Media, Harper's editor Lewis Lapham reevaluates McLuhan's work in the light of the technological as well as the political and social changes that have occurred in the last part of this century.

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Though he was once proclaimed "the oracle of the electronic age," perhaps the world was not quite ready for Marshall McLuhan when he came to prominence in the 1960s. With the advent of digital technology, the Internet, and the global economy, however, there can be little doubt that he is relevant now. Understanding Media is one of McLuhan's most popular books, offering some of his more pungent and provocative insights on our need to adapt from a relatively slow, fragmented mechanical age to a high-speed, highly integrated electronic one. McLuhan's formidable intelligence and imagination make it both enlightening and fun to read. Northrop Frye, McLuhan's colleague at the University of Toronto, once identified "the use of paradox and the pretence of naïveté" as the two primary tactics of teaching. From his own bag of tricks McLuhan adds obscurity ("Our world has become compressional by dramatic reversal"); hyperbole ("We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time"); tautology ("TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments"); and the occasional dash of absurdist whimsy ("As extension of man the chair is a specialist ablation of the posterior, a sort of ablative absolute of backside, whereas the couch extends the integral being"). McLuhan also has a flare for the catchy phrase, and in Understanding Media the reader will find his famous dictum "the medium is the message" as well as the distinction between "hot" and "cool" media discussed at length.

After setting forth a few general principles, Understanding Media conjures a fly's-eye view of late-20th-century culture, with short sections on writing, speech, comics, telephones, television, money, movies, weapons, and much more. And while the discussion is rippling with uncanny, sometimes visionary, insight, its author remains an earnest humanist at heart. "The aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness," McLuhan says, "is a natural adjunct of electronic technology.… There is a deep faith to be found in this new attitude." --Russell Prather


"...the most brilliant marketing mind of all belonged to Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media is a timeless analysis of how language, speech and technology shape human behavior in the era of mass communication. The book is a cautionary tale for marketers today who hear the Web's siren call and ignore the power of the spoken word." Wall Street Journal

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful! June 1 2001
Reading Understanding Media brings to mind the old line that Shakespeare's plays are nothing but a bunch of clichés. McLuhan's 1964 look at the impact of technology and communications on society is laced with phrases that have become fixtures of modern language, like 'Global Village', 'Age of Information' and 'The medium is the message'. The book seeks to tie together big themes like art, culture, and social and economic history. While often successful at drawing these sweeping connections, McLuhan in certain chapters wanders into what sound like self-indulgent lectures. His analysis of television as a "cool" or low-resolution medium is dated. Phrases like "dig it" and too-numerous references to "the bomb," Mad magazine and skin-divers clearly belong to the early 1960s. But this book is valuable for its prophetic analyses. McLuhan's prediction of an emerging information-based economy and a global integration facilitated by the Internet and digital technologies is stunningly accurate. We [...] recommend Understanding Media to executives working in media, telecommunications and technology, all of whom should have at least a passing knowledge of this classic.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Provocative Book, but a little difficult Feb. 24 2001
By A Customer
I'd give it 5 stars, but it's a bit dense and a little difficult. I think a lot of people have a problem with McLuhan because he didn't develop a cut and dry, easily accessible theory or body of work. I put him in a category of provocative essayists like Freud. After absorbing McCluhan, I see the world differently in a way that makes more sense. His subject matter is media, and not its content, so it is difficult to pin down. I understand why some dismiss this as a bunch of 60's twaddle, but it's not. Just read with an open mind. I found his little book "The Medium is the Massage" a fun little intro. Even though I've read a lot of McLuhan, I feel I understand about 5-10% of what he said.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Modern Mystic? April 8 2003
Marshall McLuhan is perhaps one of the most influential authors I have read along with Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and Eliphas Levi. What McLuhan does like the authors stated is not explain in descriptive terms the media, but process oriented direction of experience. I will explain that momentarily.
This book, "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" is by far McLuhan's greatest book. It is set up like any useful text with the first part being the theory, while the second part contains the practice. He explains in the theoretical part that media is the extension of man. That all things created by man have come from man's own experience. This is like a dream, in one sense, where one must determine at some point that they are creators of the dream, and therefore, all content of the dream must apply to the dreamer's existence, and no one elses. Likewise, all inventions and discoveries are aspects of human dimensions that have been created by man, and therefore must come from man's inner experiences. These inventions are ultimately what McLuhan calls extensions, as they extend our human capacity for that movement or experience. The foot can travel so fast, while the tire is the extension of the foot, and therefore can move at a much higher rate of speed than the foot.
It seems that the most confusing aspect of McLuhan's theories is the idea of content versus context. The assumption of media study is to psychologize advertisments or the like. This way of approach is far from his point. He says, "My own way of approaching the media is perceptual not conceptual." What he is saying is that he uses his senses to gain understanding of the media, not theoretical concepts.
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By A. Ort
I found this book in a second-hand bookstore for under one dollar. Had never heard of it, had never heard of him but I am fascinated by the media, specifically advertising. I wore this book out and replaced it with the new edition from MIT Press. I love this book. I still can't understand it in places (this makes me study it even more to try and understand where he is coming from) but it definitely changed the way I view the media and my place within it. We are definitely beyond being influenced by the media; the media has become the ground from which we operate.
The book is challenging and it is scattered and chaotic but there is a cohesiveness to it. I suppose that style of writing was supposed to be symbolic of the way the world is (or is becoming). This book will help you to regain your ability to reintegrate yourself with the real world and stop living life as if you have "autoamputated" your true self only to watch it live on television.
While many of the analogies are "out there," most are poignant and relevent. One example is McLuhan's interpretation of the Narcissus myth from Greek mythology. Narcissus did not fall in love with his own reflection. Narcissus had no idea that the reflection he saw was himself; he thought that what he saw was something other than himself. He became transfixed by the image; it was not love, it was numbness. The television screen is our reflection; we are not separate from it -- it is merely what is inside of us extended to the outside for us to look at, thus the subtitle, The Extensions of Man. We have become Narcissus; the media is the reflection we see and, instead of falling in love with the reflection, we have become numb, forgetting (or not aware) that what we are seeing is really us. Tell me that is not relevant today.
(P.S. This is an old review from an old email address. Trying to consolidate them to my reviews file. Two years later, I it still holds well).
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
At first I didn't get what McLuhan was on about. But once I cottoned on to the full implications of white light being pure information without content, it all made sense. Read more
Published on Jan. 14 2003
1.0 out of 5 stars This book won't help you understand much.
Become more confused by reading it is more like it. Marshall McLuhan has lots of ideas and very little back-up. Read more
Published on Aug. 13 2002 by "repeatonceagain"
5.0 out of 5 stars How can intelligence survive or be revived?
Marshall McLuhan introduces us to the world of the media through history and how these media have dominated our life for centuries, from the very beginning of humanity. Read more
Published on Oct. 4 2001 by Jacques COULARDEAU
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding McLuhan
McLuhan, who served as the Director for the Center for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto in the mid 1960s, wrote four major works focusing focus on media's impact... Read more
Published on July 25 2001 by William Gawthrop
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading in History of Ideas...
UNDERSTANDING MEDIA is the Marshall McLuhan "bible". He is regarded as Information Age guru so there is onus in becoming familiar with his ideas even when they are... Read more
Published on July 19 2001 by Arthur F. McVarish
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Text
A Triple A Triptych for those of us that are clueless about the new fandangled.
Published on March 3 2001 by Dennis E. Hill
5.0 out of 5 stars If it were nonsense, it wouldn't have come true
I believe many forget this book was written in 1964, before your personal computer and cable television. Read more
Published on June 11 2000 by zemian82@yahoo.com
5.0 out of 5 stars If it were nonsense, it wouldn't have came true
I believe many forget this book was written in 1964, before your personal computer and cable television. Read more
Published on June 11 2000 by zemian82@yahoo.com
5.0 out of 5 stars We're still living in it
Although we're just beginning to realize it, the world that Marshall McLuhan foresaw is beginning to take place. Read more
Published on Jan. 29 2000 by Allen Smalling
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