This book is the Bible of the mediatic electric age and it has to be read as such, that is to say with a grain of salt from time to time. Marshall McLuhan shows first of all that all inventions, all activities of man are extensions of something in his body: the hand, the arm, the foot, the eye, the nose, the ear, and of course the skin and the central nervous system. He then moves to showing that the mechanical age started with the wheel as the extension of man's feet and legs, when this wheel was plugged onto some mechanical source of energy, be it natural like stream-water, or be it man-made and artificial like the steam-engine or the internal-combustion-engine. But this very mechanical revolution produces the next stage since stream-water or steam are used to make a turbine turn, like a wheel, but this time to produce electricity. And we enter the electrical age, a revolution based on the virtualization of this energy that is no longer attached to a particular action or place: it can be used in hundreds of different tasks and everywhere due to its transportation. This leads to the next revolution: the birth of communication media, hot or cool, but all of them being the message itself. Radio, cinema, TV, camera, sound-recorder, etc..., and McLuhan could not know in 1964 the Internet revolution and virtual reality, the virtualization of all human activities. However, he feels and predicts the changes that were to come. Information can be transformed and transported by machines and the possession and use of knowledge become the real working power of a man. It means clearly that social projects are no longer collective but based on individual potential, competence and activity.Read more ›
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65 of 67 people found the following review helpful
We're still living in itJan. 29 2000
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Although we're just beginning to realize it, the world that Marshall McLuhan foresaw is beginning to take place. When you hear that an insurance company or ad agency is not primarily in the business of producing ads or insurance, but of "putting people in touch" or "communicating," that rhetoric was stolen straight from Mr. McLuhan. Likewise the (slightly misunderstood but still relevant) cliche "global village," was coined back in 1964 when UNDERSTANDING MEDIA first appeared. Most academic books are about ten percent new. Inovative ones are about 20 percent new. McLuhan claimed his was about 40 percent new, which is what makes is such a rough read. It isn't his prose style, which is charming and felicitous. But when introducing a new discipline, there must needs be enough bridges left to the old ones (in this case sociology, history, rhetoric, etc.) that redundancy occurs. That explains why you'll see some repetition in this book, as well as what appears to be disorganiztion. This leads some reader/critics to assume that UNDERSTANDING MEDIA is simply sloppy and poorly edited but far from it: it's a powerful, almost radical way to restructure our view of American (and hence the world's) society. For what it's worth, I was a communications major in college (UVA 1977) with several McLuhan papers to my credit. email@example.com
58 of 61 people found the following review helpful
Modern Mystic?April 8 2003
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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. This is what I mean about process oriented experience, where McLuhan discusses the experience one has by, say watching television, the mode of thought one has, the patterns of thought and behavior created by television. In other words, we become the media that we have been shaped by in our culture and time. The spoken word, the written word and the telegraph, McLuhan noted, has had the largest impact on our society. Not because of their usefulness, or whether they work or not, but because society has patterned themselves after the respective media. Are not we becoming a computerized society? Does this mean we have lots of computers that run things? Or are the people becoming computer like in their behavoir and thinking? The latter expresses more accurately McLuhan's ideas. The second part runs over a select group of specific media and their implications on the human mind. The context in which they were placed in is by far the most important aspect as it predicts when a new media might arise. All media have their logical origins. If one determine the state of the world now, as it is, one can determine the way of the media. McLuhan discusses the written and printed word, automobile, telegraph, aeroplanes, bikes, routes, newspapers, automation, games, weapons, and many others that make for a highly evocative read. Is McLuhan a modern mystic? It might be a heavy title for some. If one reads well enough into his work, they may get the sense he is not talking about media at all. Understanding McLuhan's approach is about upsetting the whole sensory environment. The appeal McLuhan has had on the ages from 1964, when the book was published, is in his aphorism, "Media is the message." This little phrase scratched many heads. Most of McLuhan's writings are like this. It is not about explaining it, but involving the reader to think for himself. To evoke, as in, evocative. So the conclusions must be the readers choice, either by intuition, study, assumption, or first hand experience. One thing is for certain, if you take the time to read the book twice, it will be different than the first read. I can say, "if you only read one book..." but those that read this book are usually of the literate group. But for me, this book has not been an informative text, but a work book, a guide, an insightful prayer book, a reference, a resource, a magical text. I cannot reccomend this book highly enough.
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
You May Finally Discard Your 1967 Paperback VersionApril 5 2008
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At 16 (1977) I discovered the original paperback Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and it changed my world and the way I perceive every aspect of modern culture and technology forever. Throughout college, graduate school and a life of writing I have consistently supported my arguments and theories with ideas and quotes found within these pages. Fortunately I have not been alone, as entire branches of scientific inquiry, schools of academic thought, business models and technological breakthroughs can credit his lucid, vivid and coherent frameworks for their existence.
As an educator I endeavor to impart McLuhan's insights so that students might begin to see how profoundly every new technology changes their world.
This beautiful hardcover now sits at my side and includes historic details of McLuhan, the manuscript and its reception as well as valuable critical insights of W. Terence Gordon, an expert uniquely qualified to organize this edition.
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Feeling numb? Herein lies the power to feel again...Jan. 19 1999
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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.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Cool book (in the McLuhanian sense)March 22 2010
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This is a beautiful edition. And the critical commentary by Terrence Gordon provides a helpful structure for getting your mind around McLuhan's ideas.
Although this may be McLuhan's great work, it is not best place to start. It is long and often incoherent. On page 39, McLuhan introduces a notoriously difficult metaphor that he uses through the book. It concerns hot and cool media. "Hot media are ... low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience." So, he explains, hieroglyphics and photographs are hot, but the phonetic alphabet and cartoons are cool. Radio and movies are hot, but the TV and the telephone are cool.
Does that make any sense? If not, the better place to start is his earlier work, The Gutenberg Galaxy. It is shorter, and the logic is much easier to follow. It lays out the basis of McLuhan's thinking about how changes in media reshape culture. If you are a systematic thinker like me, it is a far better book to get the basics of McLuhan's analytical method and ideas.
Even if you have the basics, UM is a dense, inspiring, and unsettling work. In each of the 33 chapters, McLuhan makes connections that change the way I think about culture. But just as often, he makes some nonsensical analogy or leap of logic and then fails to explain it.
In the end, it helps to stop trying to understand UM and let it inspire you to think.