Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book “Understanding Media” is a seminal examination of media in the most abstract sense. The book is most famous for coining the term “the medium is the message.” More noteworthy though is McLuhan’s anticipation of a “global village,” or what can be seen today as a shared world culture(see: all thing Internet). The book examines media’s function as an extension of man, first laying out a theory of media’s function, and then applying the theory to past examples of media. McLuhan’s writing is overwhelmingly packed with theories and conjectures, but unfortunately these ideas are too often tossed in without propper explanation. This pattern or buried leads paradoxically seems simultaneously deep and shallow. It often left me wondering if McLuhan just sprayed enough vague ideas to be guaranteed to get some right. Still, the central points were undeniably prescient and the book is consistenly thought provoking, even if unclear.
McLuhan’s central theory is clearly summarized about halfway through the book: “We are confronted here once more with that basic function of media - to store and to expedite information. Plainly, to store is to expedite, since what is stored is also more accessible than what has to be gathered.” The term “information” here is used loosely, as it is used as an umbrella to cover a massive array of things from traditional printed text to the earliest human activities. His point though is that media packages up content easing its distribution and proliferation. Different forms of media, or mediums, make this possible for different types of information. This pattern compounds when you realize that mediums often contain other earlier mediums, combining them to make a new form of content. As content becomes more managable through its packaging, it becomes easier to extend its reach; it is no longer a question of what to deliver, that has been contained, the problem is limited to what is needed and how to get it there.
If it sounds confusing, it is, and this is why I found the theory part of the book really frustrating. It felt like vague hand wavings that offered nothing concrete to support its grandiosity. The majority of the book is made up of part two, which is an examination of many examples. While this helped clarify the madness, it also opened up its own unanswered questions.
Tracing a couple examples through is a helpful way to demonstrate how these build on each other, for instance humans communicating information. Human communication began with a rudimentary language; the information contained with gestures and grunts standardized around language, most commonly spoken. Spoken language was then packaged into the reproducible and preservable written word. Written word was then made more accessible with the advent of print, making it not just written, but repeatable. From there repeatability becomes a tool itself that proliferated across many mediums, where like a specific character on a page, it may not hold meaning but taken in context when packaged with more characters form words and ideas. This pattern of repeatbility forms the basis for many new mediums, for instance pixels on a TV which hold no meaning individually but packaged together can contain multitudes. Looking at it now, it seems clear how mediums continued to combine and accelerate information sharing to where we are today, seamlessly distributing the same video all over the world billions of times.
It is this packaging up, or containerization, that really enables the new levels of innovation. I believe that it is this reframing of ideas past that enables much of the innovation of the world. To recognize something new, and build on the past, it is often necessary to abstract on previous knowledge and ideas. A simple demonstration of this efficiency in action is the emergence of new words, both in common language and even in small groups. Only after a pattern is recognized is a name given to it, often just to save energy instead of explaining “when A does B and results in C” we summarize with a new word so that the idea can be clearly referred to. This defining moment is the first step in abstracting and building upon our new concept.
Once a new concept is standardized it can be more clearly recognized in other places too. Once it is recognized it can also be measured, which is where a lot of the efficiencies come in. To pull a quote from Peter Drucker, “what gets measured gets managed.” Once content is convientently packaged up it becomes much easier to measure and thus manage it. Controlling and distributing content becomes easier as it becomes more widely recognized, as tools for doing so are often built on top of standards. On the flip side lack of standardization allows for custom modifications and vendor lock-in. I think this a big reason why open standards are such a big deal, they allow for tools to be built on top of emerging technologies, and assumptions to be safely made when moving forward.
I often think of this packaging of content as “containerization,” a term that is common in software development today but really epitomized by Marc Levinson’s The Box. The book is a history of the shipping container, and it is a single in depth dive into a medium and how the standardiztion of content comes with great efficiencies that paradoxically allow for a greater variety of outcomes. It is a great companion piece to Understanding Media, as it sits on the opposite end of the spectrum: it is meticulously researched, with so much detail to the point that it gets a little dry. I’d reccomend The Box to more people than I would Understanding Media, as I found it both inspirational and enlightneing for how globalization evolves with the practical concerns of the world. At the end of the day the real fun of both books is projecting these ideas and patterns forward with the new mediums are emerging today(see: blockchains and the packaging and distribution of trust).
Throughout Understand Media McLuhan stretches the term “medium” to just about everything under the sun. From light, to cars, weapons and automation, all are mediums in McLuhan’s eyes, and come with some interesting insights. Light for instance is not something I had considered a medium(short of the limited utility of James Turell’s work), but McLuhan posits that it is. Making it possible to control its presence, via a stick on fire, a lantern, or an elecric street lamp, the taming of light expanded the range of human activity. Before if you wanted to read or play baseball, you were limited to the hours when the sun was up, and with the invention of reproducibe light, the reach of human activity was greatly expanded. (Really, where would we be without night reading?)
It’s this stretching of ideas that both gives the book its power, and is ultimately its downfall. For every one idea that is head of its time and lasting, there are probably four more that would be better served trimmed out of a revised edition of the book. While this treasure hunt is rewarding, it is demanding. The ideas are regularly vague and poorly supported, figuring out what is being said and applying it to today takes a lot of effort. If nothing else, the book is good target practice for critical thinking. Is filling a reader with doubt a bad thing, especially unintentionally? I don’t think so, as long as the piece itself is at least thought provoking, as engagement with media is in many ways more rewarding than simple consumption. (McLuhan actually identifies this distinction of high vs low participation and talks about it as hot vs cool. But, the dicotohmy of hot/cold media has many more concepts and characterizations attached to it, and I’ll sidestep it, simply putting it at the top of my list of poorly conflated ideas in the book.)
The wild speculation and conjecture only begin to show the age of the book. From the numerous stereotypings of Russians that betray the cold war mentality from which this book was written, to the repeated leanings on Freud, many aspects of the book do not age well. It’s expected that new ideas put forward will be disproven, and the time they last is a decent proxy for measuring the strength of those ideas. Many of McLuhan’s ideas are still alive today, and I don’t want to discount that, the book was in many ways prophetic. But a more pertinent question is, is this book worth reading today? And as with so many questions the answer is, it depends. Rarely in academic reading to I get the sense that the author was using a “spray and pray” technique, but I can’t help but wonder hear. Further, it seems like lack of clarity is almost intentional so that ideas could be defended and argued over at dinner parties. Or maybe I just didn’t appreciate the depth of thought. Maybe I’m the guy pontificating in line at the movie theater who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Still, I think that guy was onto something, and as time passes I think I understand this media more and more: