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Book Reference: ‘Understanding Media’ by Marshall McLuhan

I thought it might be a good idea to start writing about books that are informing my practice. The one that i’ve been reading most recently and has informed my practice for quite some time is Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan. In previous years however, I have read only books that give descriptions about what McLuhan writes about, i’ve never actually sat down to read one of McLuhan’s books myself. In this post I will quote McLuhan where I think his work is either striking or relevant to the things i’m interested in or have become interested in as a result. Here we go.

P.3. ‘We have extended our central nervous system … abolishing both space and time’ Here Mcluhan is talking about the use of electric technology to connect with people across the world, I think this is what he later calls ‘the Global Village’ where Earth is now merely a village, where people cohabit so closely due to the connectedness that ‘electric technology’ provides.

P.3. ‘Rapidly we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.’ I’m still unsure of exactly what he is saying here but from what I can gather, it seems as though McLuhan is saying that technology will inevitably end human consciousness? What i’m more concerned about here is how he says ‘rapidly we approach’ because this was written in 1964! Does that mean we’re already past human consciousness? When looking at the newest developments in AI I think the question becomes most relevant. But what the hell even is human consciousness?

P.4. ‘Any extension, whether of skin, hand or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex’ He does go into a lot of detail around the subject matter later on in this book and it does become more and more clear how this is so incredibly accurate. Any technology we bring into the world imposes itself on our body, mind, and social understanding. We shape the tool and the tool shapes us!

P.4. ‘The need to understand the effects of the extensions of man becomes more urgent by the hour’. This seems like the reason for why McLuhan has written this book; to study the effects of media on humans. That’s the reason why the book exists. Maybe that’s the reason why I will write what I will write; to understand the effects the subject matter has on people / society.

P.5. ‘The aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology.’ But why is this? Maybe it’s because with technology becoming so predominant in our lives, it makes us think we have to catch up with it, to overrule it but we can’t do that so maybe we turn to to what is most organic in the world and what makes us most human to feel exactly that, more human in a world of endless technology.

P.6. Robert Theobald on economic depression – ‘There’s one good thing … a better understanding to help control for the future’ This I think is very important and can help me structure my context report; the need for control and in order to achieve this, it is important to understand the effects, just as McLuhan does with a variety of media forms. By looking at where things have gone wrong in the past and where they might be headed is so valuable when writing about the effects of technology on a human identity, and you can do this, as Theobald points out, by understanding the problem as well as the solution to prepare for the future.

P.6. ‘Examination of the origin and development of the individual extensions of man should be preceded by a look at some general aspects of the media … beginning with the never-explained numbness that each extension brings about in the individual and society’ Numbness. That’s a good word. What do these forms of media make numb? How do we get the sensation back? Maybe that’s something to look at in my practice. Retrieving the sensation?!

P.8. ‘The message of any medium / technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs’ So any form of technology that is introduced to humans changes the discourse of society?

Basketball / brain surgery is the content of electric light therefore the medium = message.

Our visual response to all media is that it’s how it’s used that counts – stupid thing to say

‘The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content’. The content of a movie is a novel / play / opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to it’s program content. the ‘content’ of writing or print is speech but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech’

Washing machines aren’t labour saving, they just mean we all do our own work now instead of getting others to do it.

P.46. ‘Psychologically there are abundant reasons for an extension of ourselves involving us in a state of numbness. All extensions of ourselves in sickness and in health are attempts to maintain equilibrium.’

The nervous system. Body = protector of the nervous system. If we feel shame / embarrassment, we move ourselves out of the situation to protect our nervous system.

Therapy = counter irritant. Pleasure (alcohol) – counter irritant. Comfort = Removal of irritant. Pleasure + comfort = strategies of equilibrium for the central nervous system.

P.47. ‘With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system.’ E.g. when at the dentist, listening to loud violent noises distracts from the pain of the drill. Do we live through our technology? I guess this makes sense when thinking about our online identity… who we are online vs offline, are we different people completely? Does an attack on our online personality affect our organic identity? I’d say it does as it’s still an extension, meaning it’s still a part of ourselves and our bodies.

P.48. ‘The selection of a single sense for intense stimulus, or of a single extended isolated or ‘amputated’ sense in technology, is in part the reason for the numbing effect that technology as such has on it’s makers and users’

P.51. ‘Man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds new ways of modifying his technology’ Again, we shape the tool and the tool shapes us.

P.117. ‘Our mechanical technologies for extending and separating the functions of our physical beings have bought us near to a state of disintegration by putting us out of touch with ourselves.’ I LOVE this quote. Probably the most out of all of the ones I’ve listed so far. Because it’s so relevant probably – we have become out of touch with ourselves because we extend so far. What actually matters to us as humans? Why do people look to religion and astrology to tell them who they are? How do we become one whole being again – unextended and pure -? The question remains, how do we feel more human in a world surrounded by technology?

P.183. Al Capps comic strip: ‘He put in his strip just exactly what he saw around him. But our trained incapacity to relate one situation to another enabled his sardonic realism to be mistaken for humour‘ E.g. real life situations / sound bytes for creature comforts.

P.198. ‘By enormous speed-up of assembly line segments, the movie camera rolls up the real-world on a spool, to be unrolled and translated later onto the screen.’ However, it’s become less about using real things and real situations and more about what we can use instead. Animation, cartoons, even ‘reality’ TV shows aren’t really reality. It’s because , I think, were always on the hunt for something bigger and better, the natural and organic isn’t enough for us anymore.

P.310. ‘In England, the movie theatre was originally called the ‘bioscope’ because of it’s visual presentation of the actual movements of the forms of life’ Maybe we have receded? Animation is just drawings and sounds. Like a comic book with no noise. Drawings and words made cartoons and words which made animations with sounds.

P.310. ‘To set a series of cameras to study animal movement is to merge the mechanical and the organic in a special way’. I also LOVE this quote.

P.310. ‘The movie is the total realisation of the medieval idea of change in the form of an entertaining illusion.’

P.310. ‘On film, the mechanical appears as organic’. Animation isn’t real and does not have to pretend to be. TV does. It has to be authentic and factual.


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