Laws of Media: The New Science

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University of Toronto Press, 1988 - Communication - 252 pages
Marshall McLuhan has been described as Canada's most exciting and original thinker, a member of the small company of intellectual geniuses this country has produced. Works such as The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride , From Cliche to Archetype , and Understanding Media have established his reputation throughout the world and have profoundly influenced our understanding of contemporary communication. In his later years McLuhan was working on a 'unified field' theory of human culture, an effort in which he collaborated with and was assisted by his son, Eric McLuhan. This book is the result of that collaboration. The McLuhans are retrieving another way of understanding our world, a way known to some ancient Greeks (but not Aristotle), to medieval thinkers, to Francis Bacon and Giambattista Vico, and to T.S. Eliot and James Joyce in this century. It is based on the use of words and the conseuqent power of the 'logos' to shape all the elements of culture - media - with which we surround ourselves. The authors explain how the invention of the alphabet led to the dominance of visual-space conceptualizations over those of acoustic space and its creative words (and word-plays). They consider the differences between the left- and right-hand sides of our brains, and use Gestalt theories of figure and ground to explore the underlying principles that define media. 'Media,' the word so closely connected with Marshall McLuhan's thought, is here explored in its broadest meaning, encompassing all that has been created by humans: artifacts, information, ideas - every example of human innovation, from computer program to a tea cup, from musical arrangement to the formula for a cold remedy, from an X-ray machine to the sentence you're reading right now. All these are media to whcih can be applied the laws the McLuhans have developed. The laws are based on a set of four questions - a tetrad - that can be applied to any artefact or idea: What does it enhance or intensify? What does it render obsolete or displace? What does it retrieve that was previoulsy obsolesced? What does it produce or become when pressed to an extreme? Inherent in every human innovation is an answer to each of the questions of this tetrad; anything that does not contain answers to these four questions is not the product of human creation. The laws identified by the McLuhans constitute a new scientific basis for media studies, testable, and able to allow for prediction. It takes in all human activities and speech; it breaks down barriers and reconsiders them as mere intervals. In the McLuhan tradition, this New Science offers a while new understanding of human creation, and a vision that could reshape our future. -- ‡c From publisher's description.

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Contents

Chapter
8
Visual Space in Use
22
PostEuclidean Acoustic Space
39
Copyright

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About the author (1988)

A poetry professor turned media theorist---or media guru, as some in the press called him at the time---Marshall McLuhan startled television watchers during the 1960's with the notion that the medium they were enthralled by was doing more than transmitting messages---it was the message: Its rapid-fire format, mixing programs and advertisements, conveyed as much as---or more than---any single broadcast element. McLuhan grew up in the prairie country of the Canadian West and studied English at the University of Manitoba and Cambridge University. As television entered a period of huge growth during the 1950's, McLuhan, then a college professor, became interested in advertising. He thought of it as something to be taken seriously as a new culture form, beyond its obvious capability of selling products. That interest led to his increasing speculation about what media did to audiences. In his unpredictable modern poetry classes at the University of Toronto, he spoke more and more of media. The students he taught were the television generation, the first to grow up with the medium. Many were fascinated by McLuhan's provocative observations that a medium of communication radically alters the experience being communicated. A society, he said, is shaped more by the style than by the content of its media. Thus, the linear, sequential style of printing established a linear, sequential style of thinking, in which one thing is considered after another in orderly fashion: it shaped a culture in which (objective) reason predominated and experience was isolated, compartmentalized, and repeatable. In contrast, the low-density images of television, composed of a mosaic of light and dark dots, established a style of response in which it is necessary to unconsciously reconfigure the dots immediately in order to derive meaning from them. It has shaped a culture in which (subjective) emotion predominates and experience is holistic and unrepeatable. Since television (and the other electronic media) transcends space and time, the world is becoming a global village---a community in which distance and isolation are overcome. McLuhan was crisp and assured in his pronouncements and impatient with those who failed to grasp their import. McLuhan's most famous saying, "the medium is the message," was explicated in the first chapter of his most successful book, "Understanding Media," published in 1966 and still in print. It sold very well for a rather abstruse book and brought McLuhan widespread attention in intellectual circles. The media industry responded by seeking his advice and enthusiastically disseminating his ideas in magazines and on television. These ideas caused people to perceive their environment, particularly their media environment, in radically new ways. It was an unsettling experience for some, liberating for others. Though McLuhan produced some useful insights, he was given to wild generalizations and flagrant exaggerations. Some thought him a charlatan, and he always felt himself an outcast at the university, at least partly because of his disdain for print culture and opposition to academic conventions. He never seemed quite as energetic after an operation in 1967 to remove a huge brain tumor, but he continued to work and teach until he suffered a stroke in 1979. He died a year later. Though today his writings are not discussed as much by the general public, his thesis is still considered valid and his ideas have become widely accepted.

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