Marshall McLuhan is widely considered as one of the most important intellectual figure of 20th century and widely noted for his contribution on media culture and philosophy of media studies. McLuhan rose to international fame in 1960s when his work on mass media and its effect on social and individual behavior was published. . His remarkable observations on nature of simple things those have central importance in defining the cultural and behavioral outlook of society.
In predicting the role of media, especially through modern revolution of electronic revolution and use of computers, views of McLuhan adopted futuristic tone in stating the extended role of medium itself as the message, from its earlier perception of just being a carrier of the message. He realized the importance of electrical processes in shaping and defining the reality of world, views that have been validated especially after computer revolution and increasing integration of world through internet as chief medium of communication and medium of message
Medium as Message
As a prelude to understanding the media as the extension of man, McLuhan puts particular emphasis on the importance of medium itself that is generally regarded as just a carrier of messages or information as playing the role of message. This implies that the medium through which the messages are being communicated is not an inert entity, rather it participates in the process by extending the role of man and contributes by adding further dimension in affairs with help of technology.
In the context, McLuhan uses his famous example that dwells on nature and role of electric light. Light, as McLuhan points out, is not just a medium of information, but also complete information in itself. Although the general and common view puts actual significance on the content of the message that light visibly carries and ignores the role of light itself, the fact remains that it is the medium itself that defines the scale and nature of human association with the information (McLuhan, 151). McLuhan illustrates this by signaling out major corporations such as IBM, GE and AT&T who took time to realize the fact they are not in the business of producing machines and equipments but in the business of channeling information.
McLuhan argues that media also similar and defining effect on social and cultural psyche of people. Notwithstanding the content that it carries, it’s the media that has transforming powers on the society and people. Thus McLuhan dispenses with the notion that media as a medium can be treated as a passive entity, unresponsive and non-participative in the entire process of information processing that it is facilitating in its capacity as a medium. A television, radio, or telephone engage people irrespective of the content that they deliver and thus extends the role of man through their technological inputs.
Before the advent of electrical age, the age of computing and information technology there was ambiguity over the role of medium as the message. But with the instant speed and extent that electricity has provided, media as a medium has certainly become as the message and it contains the potential to institute change, alter the paradigms and establish new cults irrespective of the nature of the content that it carries and delivers. Assisted and buoyed by technology, media extends the role of man.
Media as extension of Man
Technology plays a central role in McLuhan’s theory of media as extension of man. The extension, as it is apparent, is the extension of the mental faculties, knowledge, approach and culture of the man in the changing world. The electric technology has helped man to grow his conscience and mental capacity to attempt to comprehend things on a far greater scale than ever possible. In words of McLuhan, the stimulation provided by electronic technology represents the final extension in role of man where creativity, knowledge, and consciousness will collectively grow and extend over entire humanity in affecting the extension of man.
The role of technology is evident in the process as it’s the diligent pursuance of technology that has brought transformation of world into a global village. People are interacting with each other on changed scales and electric speed, by causing a rapid contraction of social and political forces to create an implosion that increases people’s sense of responsibility and acts on different groups of people to alter their previous positions and integrate them in the new order of things.
Commenting on the expanding field of human desire of knowledge, McLuhan says that electric speed and reach has made concept of partial and incomplete knowledge an obsolete thing. Mankind now vie for wholeness, completeness and depth of knowledge, in conformation with the changing form of electric age over its pervious mechanical world. There is a renewed sense of finding out the world once again, armed by newly realized power of electric and computer technology and in its new extension, mankind doesn’t want to accept things in their previous forms. Rather it aims to overthrow imposed patterns and declare the individuality of things and events in totality (McLuhan, 149).
The role of new technology in media has always created conflicts and challenges in the society until finally it extends the role of man and then overtaken by new emergent technology. McLuhan presents two strong instances of this fact (McLuhan, ). First when he quotes Alexis De Tocqueville, who was first to master the understanding of print and typography technology, to inform that De Tocqueville had predicted rise of America and relegation of England from their approach and reaction towards the new technology of print in media. England, burdened with its tradition of oral laws, did not fully accept the new technology of print and as such choose to ignore the power of new media.
America on the other hand embraced the new technology and hence was benefited immensely by the uniformity and continuity that new technology of print culture had to offer thereby extending their role in the contemporary world. Taking this argument further, McLuhan theory can be stretched to further dimensions that a similar transition is taking place with the advent of new electronic mediums of computer and information technology. In fact, McLuhan himself states that to many people in the contemporary literate world the new media technology would appear as unsettling as the technology of print would appear to tribal natives of remote Africa.
Thus the new electric technology guiding media in forms of television, computers, movies, information technology, Internet and mobile phones demands a similar extension of man over rudiments of past age of mechanical technology, detribalizing society senses through its blinding speed and seemingly infinite capacity to channel and process information.
In a very pertinent analysis of the new emergent media, riding on electric and communication technology, McLuhan states the new media presents a possibility to completely overrule the cognitive, analytical and cultural traits of the societies it affects because this medium is made much more strong by having its content as another medium which is usually print or speech. The new media gives the power of vision, voice and interaction to an already potent media of print that it integrates in its own design, and in the combined synergy it overpowers the viewers who are left numb and awestruck (McLuhan, 114).
The nature of the modern media also plays a very important role in extending the role of human mind and consequentially the whole society. McLuhan presents his important and famous demarcation of mediums as ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ mediums. A hot medium as defined by McLuhan is one that involves high definition, high data processing, and requires little imagination on the part of viewer. On the other side a cool medium is one that is not high definition, has low amount of data and users have to apply considerable imagination and their own creativity to comprehend the whole picture. Thus categorizing media in these two categories, McLuhan points out that by this definition a radio is a hot medium and a telephone is a cool medium, a movie is a hot medium and TV is cool medium, a photograph is a hot medium and a cartoon is a cool medium.
A very important feature of the hot and cool medium emerges by virtue of their definition. A hot medium demands little participation by viewers, in the sense that it is so complete in information that it leaves little for imagination. Similarly, the cool medium is involves a higher participation by people because it leaves many gaps to be filled by audience. Hot and cool media play very different role in affecting the psyche and culture of the society where they unfold.
In this context McLuhan states that developed countries having specialized themselves with mechanical technology of past age face the fear of retribalizing by the new electric media whereas the less developed nations that encounter the new technology extend their role by detribalizing themselves. Thus the less developed countries in themselves cool medium, while the developed and highly urbanized western countries are hot medium.
The role of media has extended the role of man by changing his very perception of world. While the preceding mechanical age was focused with expanding the horizons of world, rediscovering and redrawing the limits of human knowledge and hence affecting a cultural and knowledge ‘explosion’, the modern technology pushing ahead media has reversed the process by bringing everything together, thus affecting a kind of implosion where entire world practically faces itself through the media. People, willingly or unwillingly, have been clubbed together, sharing the same space with more and more people. The electric media, it can be safely said, thrown every one is every one’s else life.
In what can be surely reckoned today as one of the most prophetic statements, McLuhan clearly said that the new electric media has a remarkable capacity to decentralize the functioning of society, a fact that is more than evident in our modern world. But writing in 1960s, McLuhan had predicted that whereas mechanical system requires some fixed centers of operation and hence lead to development of great urban centers, electric power would decentralize the social-cultural space by providing equal opportunity to every place and hence as any place, equipped by power of electric media can act as center.
This change and extension of social roles is almost complete today as we can see that through a combination of electric mediums of computer, telephones, video conferencing, Internet, and electric power any room or place can act as the center of large operations. This is the power of new media that is implicit in McLuhan’s writing, transforming every one’s earlier role and nature of functioning.
The nature of modern media, acting through computers, Internet and information technology, is all encompassing and sweeping, just in lines of its predecessor forms of media. The theatre, when it emerged took over written form of drama; movies took over all the novels and written work and TV took over the movies. Today computers are perfectly poised over to take over all the forms of media. Radios, Televisions and gramophones helped many hitherto obscured persons for example poets, artists, speakers, and writers to gain recognition world over.
Today the power of information technology expands this role further by bringing further convergence of world as we see it. In affecting this convergence it is simultaneously delegating new roles to people that has the responsibility to interact and evolve in much closer proximity of every body else.