Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death About Marshall McLuhan

Almost any discussion of contemporary media theory begins with Marshall McLuhan. Much as Freud has become emblematic of psychology, Darwin of evolution, or Marx of socialism, so has McLuhan impacted the world of media analysis in an immeasurable way.

Marshall McLuhan was born and educated in Canada before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. at Cambridge University. When he began teaching at the university level, he was fascinated to discover how new media had influenced the way his students saw the world in a distinctly different way than he did. This phenomenon led him to examine how communication shapes our perspectives. His first major work, 1964's Understanding Media, made waves in the counterculture movement of the 1960's, and he became a huge success as a writer and speaker. Perhaps his best-known book is The Medium is the Massage, which he co-wrote as a hybrid of theory book and picture book. Though his work never sold at those levels again, McLuhan remained a popular figure until his death in 1980.

McLuhan's basic theories postulate that the forms of communication are a fundamental part of whatever content that communication delivers. The way an idea is communicated is part of the idea itself. Though these theoretical concepts are at least as old as the Greeks, McLuhan considered them in context of the quick pace of innovation in the 20th century, to explore how technology was in fact an extension of the body, and how the way people learned was directly proportionate to the forms of their media. His work proved prophetic in anticipating how the Internet would almost make communication body-less, not contingent on physical participation. Further, he foresaw the existence of a "global village" linked together by media. While Neil Postman expands on McLuhan's ideas – most notably in suggesting that media is less the message and more the metaphor for a whole society – his theories are inextricably wound with those of McLuhan, who not only posed a framework in which to discuss media theory, but also attracted an audience who would be receptive to those discussions.