January 6, 2017

Book review: Understanding Media

This week I’ve been reviewing the books I read over Christmas. So far, we’ve looked at The Advertising Solution And Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man.

Next in the list is Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan.

Understanding Media

First published in 1964, Understanding Media is the original source of the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. The premise of the book is that man is the only creature who systematically leverages his own influence using tools, technology, or media.

Tools of all descriptions have always been pivotal to human survival, and the tools we use ultimately shape who we become. First we shape our tools. Then our tools shape us. Nowhere is this more clear than on Facebook, where millions of people across the world are addicted to endless meaningless notifications.

The idea that we are shaped by our tools holds across all tools, not just Facebook. If you use Infusionsoft for long enough it kind of embeds itself in your psyche, and becomes a part of who you are. Whenever you are presented with a problem, you end up thinking, “I wonder how I’d build that in campaign builder…”

McLuhan’s book takes a wide stab at the known media of 1964, and remarkably his conclusions are more relevant today than they were then. Without naming it, McLuhan practically predicts the coming of the internet 30 years before the actual event.

Understanding Media is not an easy read. I’ve had it on my bookshelf for a few years, and I feel I’m only just beginning to grasp what McLuhan was trying to say.

McLuhan argues that for 400 years after Gutenberg created his printing press, man was a ‘typographic man’, where media tended to expand time and space. Typography allows for central administration and the dissemination of knowledge, pushing back borders and collective identity.

In more recent times, McLuhan argues that modern electronic media has imploded space and time, leading to a ‘graphic man’. In effect, it has become desperately easy to become absorbed in your own world. Electronic media, especially social media, require commitment and participation regardless of any point of view. This has led to an age of anxiety, where people feel anxious if they haven’t posted to Facebook in a three hour window. To quote McLuhan:

“Typographic man assumed that A follows B, that people who made things – whether cities, ideas, families, or works of art – measured their victories (usually Phyrric) over periods of time longer than those sold to the buyers of beer commercials. Graphic man imagines himself living in the enchanted garden of the eternal now…”

Remember, McLuhan was writing before the internet, which fosters the sense of eternal now more than any other media. In some respects I believe McLuhan was writing way ahead of his time.

A key idea in the book is that McLuhan distinguishes between ‘hot media’ and ‘cold media’. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in high definition. Photographs are a hot medium, whereas cartoons are a cold medium. A cartoon provides less definition, allowing more space for the viewer to form their own interpretation.

The same distinction applies to movies and novels. Movies are a competitor of the novel, because both seek to create a stream of images in the mind. Movies are a ‘hotter’ medium, being delivered in surround-sound high definition. At the movies, little is left to the imagination. As a member of the audience you are a mere observer.

A novel on the other hand only describes the broad strokes, and asks your imagination to fill in the gaps. The ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ definition helps to explain why the movie is forcing the format of the novel to change. All new mediums exert pressure on the old, forcing them to find new roles.

Understanding Media is a frustrating read, because at first pass it’s 15% untrue (50 years have unstuck some of McLuhan’s arguments), 70% unintelligible, and 15% genius. I thought about giving up multiple times, just before stumbling across some golden insight. Even 50 years on, some of the trends McLuhan describes are only just coming into existence.

I have a lot more I want to say about Understanding Media, much more than I can cover in this short review. I’m planning to write a much longer review. If you’d like to receive it when it’s ready, you need to be subscribed to my Marketing Clarity letter.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.