Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is a seminal work largely because it argues that media scholars misperceive what ought to be the primary target of their studies. Instead of focusing on the content of a medium, McLuhan argues, one ought to be focusing on the medium itself, because the fundamental nature of the medium is the source of the effect it has on human civilization. This hypothesis has radical consequences not just for media studies, but for philosophy and our understanding of human history as well. This argument is underpinned by a redefinition of media itself, one that moves quite far from a conventional understanding of what media is.
In the first few lines of the Introduction, McLuhan writes “During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space…we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man…” (McLuhan 3). Almost immediately a conception of media as simply extensions of our bodies emerges. McLuhan captures of the broadness of this definition by using electric light as his ultimate example. “The electric light is pure information,” he writes, “It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name” (McLuhan 8). Because the electric light expands human space by allowing us to act in the dark, it is a medium, and one that does not have an immediately identifiable content in that way that television or cinema does. Since the electric light allows us to read, to write, to watch, and to communicate with others, its content is simply other media, which is also the fundamental truth behind all other mediums (McLuhan 8).
The greatest consequence of McLuhan’s thesis is that it forces us to reassess the history of technological development; McLuhan seems to suggest that technological change is merely the emergence of new media forms out of previous ones. But McLuhan quotes Hume and warns us that a sequence does not imply causality, citing the instantaneousness of electricity as the destroyer of that notion. “Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs,” he writes (McLuhan 12). Therefore, the development of media forms (for example, from daguerreotype to photography to film) obscures the fact that the vicissitudes of the history of media originate from the impulse to expand human space. To analogize the ‘chicken and egg’ problem to human history, media evolution sparks changes in human thought and thus civilization, which in turn leads to the creation of new media forms.
For much of “The Medium is the Message”, McLuhan re-illustrates human history as a narrative that is shaped by technological development. It then follows that if the development of media forms is the constant expansion of mankind’s capacities, then the evolution of media has a tremendous, structural impact on history. He points to simultaneous developments in culture and science (one example is the emergence of cinema, cubism, and number theory at the same point in time) as evidence that the advent of the electric age has shifted our focus from ‘content’ in a generalized sense to structural thinking. But here it often seems that McLuhan himself falls prey to the “chicken or the egg” conundrum. His analysis of Cubism is one example; while Cubism forces us to think about the nature of painting by showing us multiple points of view, its existence (or that of cinema, number theory, or any example that McLuhan uses, for that matter) does not cause us to think structurally, lead us “into the world of growth and organic interrelation” (McLuhan 12). It is as likely that the development of nonlinear, interrelated conceptions in various fields affected the development of cinema or cubism as it is the other way around.
McLuhan argues that the primary effect of the electronic age will be to alter our modes of thinking, the way mass literacy had transformed Western societies before. For him, history is shaped not by empires or nations or natural disasters, but by the evolution of media. But by doing so, McLuhan implies that media emerges from other forms organically, while simultaneously suggesting that the human drive for expansion is the ultimate catalyst for change.