Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian communications theorist and educator. He taught in Canada and the U.S. He gained fame in the 1960s with his proposal that the electric media had a greater influence on the people than the information itself. This man who examined the electronic media, and the emergence of a “Global village,” was also the man who spent most of his life studying the power of rhetoric in relation to those ideas. Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911. He is a figure in twentieth century history that has influenced the minds of many. His work included the idea of the world creating a global village where we are going back to our tribal senses, the ones that the printing press abridged us from.
Marshall McLuhan’s studies included his classifications of the media into hot and cool divisions, where the medium of communication has different type of interactions with its audience. He implied that the medium of communication had a negative effect on society, and said that we must be careful with the new technologies that the world has come up with. Our lives have came from tribal societies, and then transformed into societies where sight was more important than verbal abilities. We are, however, gradually going back tribal ideals with the invention of new media.
McLuhan has defined existence into four eras. His first era, the Pre-Literate Tribal Society was a “face-to-face” (lecture 4/14) medium of communication. There was a greater balance of the senses, and because there was no phonetic alphabet, an emphasis was put on hearing and speech. This society required more local forms of communication, which were spontaneous and inconstant. This was because the medium of those forms of communication had nothing written down. There was no keeping a consistent form of interpretation if the medium was always changing. McLuhan believed this “tribal state” of life to be the normal human condition
With the development of the phonetic alphabet and written down manuals, McLuhan developed a new stage for the world, the Manuscript era. According to McLuhan only a few had access to manuscripts, but more and more people were learning the alphabet, and the medium of communication was changing from ear to eye. As one sense gains supremacy, the other is de-emphasized.
The development of the printing press lead the world into a new era. This era, The Gutenberg Galaxy was the time where the eye basically cut all the other senses off. McLuhan states, “?the Western world has become devoted to a visual orientation of reality.” (Marchand 155.) Principles of rhetoric were de-emphasized in this era. Rhetoric relies on speech and hearing to get its point across. As those senses disappear, so does the value of rhetoric, and McLuhan was deeply concerned with this. McLuhan describes his concern in his, A McLuhan Mosaic, as an “?upheaval [that] generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformation caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-inducing subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.” (Sanderson and Macdonald 1).
McLuhan developed his Masters thesis about the study of rhetoric and was intrigued with the subject. Although the majority of his life was spent trying to convince the world of the changing media of society, he was also fascinated with this affect on rhetoric. The emergence of the Gutenberg Galaxy emphasized a group system because the printing press had untied the people, logic was a result of this. He says that because people now had the ability to read at leisure, and scanning lines of print affected thought processes. “People don’t actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath.” (http://www.mcluhanmedia.com/index.html).
McLuhan also believed that nations could not exist until this era. Print adapted a sense of uniformity and individualism. Individualism because books gave feelings of privacy and emotion that helped form a sense a self. Uniformity because nations could get ideas across to its citizens, print allowed everyone to have access to materials of world and national issues.
The Electronic Era changed this world system completely. The actual message of idea was no longer the important factor, it now became the medium in which one receives that message. “The medium is the message,” one of McLuhan’s most famous quotes, emphasized the increasing misusing of technological advances. Marshall McLuhan explained how the world was developing a short attention span that cannot concentrate on any one image. Basically, we are expecting these technologies to do everything for us. Basically we are becoming one with technology. Our bodies don’t exist when using these electronic devices because they are the devices transmitting the message, not you. As McLuhan says, “When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body.” (http://www.mcluhanmedia.com/index.html.) He despised technological advances, because he felt that they were making the world increasingly lazy. He told Playboy in an interview, “I would prefer a stable, changeless environment of modest services and human scale,” (Marchand 130) and said “I wish none of these technologies every happened.” (Marchand 131).
In keeping with his own style of dialogue (which favored gnomic utterances, brief sayings, wordplay, and indicative language instead of literal statements and straightforward display of speech) McLuhan offered the concepts of “hot” and “cool” to be fitted metaphors describing media. The terms had definable meanings and have proven to be highly useful in identifying the effects of different types of media. The classifications are based upon how high the level of interaction with the receiver is. Hot media requires very low levels of interaction, and is high definition. It is a more complete form of media. Cool media transmits partial messages, and is low definition. Cool media requires filling in by the receiver, and demands a high level of interaction. Although McLuhan’s time was before the development of the WEB, his cool media theory directly applies to the internet community.
McLuhan felt that all media was extensions of human senses, and particularly global electronics networks were extensions of our central nervous system, a single unified field of experience. He saw the sensory realm as informing all of our interactions with the world and with language itself, and it is language which mediates our established awareness of the world. Computers, stated in his book, Understanding media: The Extensions of Man, are extra-rhetorical and “point…the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatever. Such a state of collective awareness may have been the preverbal condition of men” (http://www.ualberta.ca/~cguertin/gesture.htm). The internet is bringing us back to our tribal life. McLuhan states, “We are creating a planet of persona” (www.beauliuehome.com/McLuhan/mcweb.html). Although it is an electronic village, it is uniting the world, and will eventually draw us back to our roots in a tribal society. However, it would be an electronic tribal society. He also proclaimed, “We look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future.” (http://www.mcluhanmedia.com/index.html)
“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies into space. Today, after more than a century of electronic technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself into 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-the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media”
-Marshall McLuhan. (.www.beauliuehome.com/McLuhan/mcweb.html).
Marshall McLuhan’s analysis of the media correlated with the study of classical Ciceronian rhetoric. Rhetoric is a mode of establishing a medium between the material and the audience. Therefore, McLuhan felt that rhetoric directly applied to his study of the media. McLuhan states in a letter to author Tom Wolfe, “Cicero? in the Roman world kept alive and flourishing the idea of language as an inclusive traditional consciousness? taught it [rhetoric] as a key to the mysteries of being and of power.” (Molinero, McLuhan, and Toye 327.) In classical rhetoric, there are five parts: inventio (discovery), disposito (arrangement), memoria (memory), elocutio (embellishment), and pronunciato (delivery). Rhetoric is not as much concerned with the content of the material, but how it is presented. As a camera takes a picture, and freezes a moment of time on paper, a rhetorician takes a subject and discusses what they want the audience to see. Rhetoricians also placed great emphasis on the context of the message, with the main contextual concerns being the purpose of the message and the place in which it was to be heard or seen.
According to this design, the speaker acts as the originator or sender of a message (either spoken or written). To be effective, this message must be designed to suit a particular audience, a particular place, and a particular purpose. In the classical era, and even more so today, an important consideration in message design is where the communication will take place, and how it is given. Speakers need to know what sort of location they will be speaking in. Similarly, writers need to know where their message will be appearing: in a magazine? an academic journal? on a computer screen? The point is, the social and cultural context in which a message appears has an effect on its style, content, presentation, and perception.
Marshall McLuhan believed in technological determinism. If the content of the subject matter is changed by how it is presented, what we say is not as important as how we say it. Rhetoric is the medium. With the adaptation of technological advances into our society, rhetoric took on a new form. As people tried to use the media to manipulate their audience, the media can manipulate the source right back. The message one might receive from a radio could be completely different from that of a television. Therefore, as the rhetorician might try to convey a certain message out of a theory, the medium in which one receives this message, could be different from what the rhetorician was initially trying to send.
Rhetoric was extremely fascinating to Marshall McLuhan, in the beginning of his career, starting with his thesis paper for his Masters, and then again later in his life. He saw rhetoric in everything. “The five-part division was everywhere.” (Gordon 273). Marshall McLuhan saw the link between rhetoric and the media as a solution to the mystery that life seemed to inhabit. He stated in a letter to his friend, professor of philosophy Thomas Langan, “I am looking into the supposed context which have been attributed to the pre-Socratics, and I suspect that they are non-existent.” ((Molinero, McLuhan, and Toye 451). McLuhan’s mind was always open to the existence of new awareness in his study of rhetoric.
His unorthodox theories on communications came from his ideas that the electronic media (especially television) have an impact that is more important than the material communicated. He also stressed the need to be aware of the changes in society by these media. Although he felt that books would soon become extinct, he wrote several, including; Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and The Medium Is the Message: An Inventory of Effects (1967).
Marshall McLuhan argued that forms of communication such as writing, speech, printing, and broadcasting should not be viewed as neutral instruments carrying independent meaning. He actually proposed that these forms be considered technologies of the intellectual, active people in a process where the mind is formed, and after that, forms its own ideas out of that. His argument opened a new “street” of study which rephrased a large set of questions that had been in inquisition throughout history.
Students of the arts were more likely to examine communication differently than that by social scientists. Art is usually correlated with one’s own distinct taste. McLuhan recognized that the new means available for producing and reproducing art would demand to create an entirely new way to analyze new art. He sensed that society was operated not at a level of learned information or even circumstances. The media of communication affected society by changing the dominant instruments used in taste and feeling, by altering their forms into electronic devices.
Marshall McLuhan is such an interesting figure of this century because he tried to explain the unexplainable. As he did this, he came up with new ideas that would influence human life for a long time. McLuhan’s philosophy can be summed up with his statement, “For the historian of culture the matter of significance is not so much to determine the precise content of this teaching as to note how it functioned in the relation to the principles of grammar and rhetoric.” (Gordon 109)