McLuhan Meets the Net

By Larry Press

Communications of the ACM, Vol 38, No 7, July, 1995, pp 15-20

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, a classic discussion of media and their effects on society and the individual. Understanding Media helped transform the 52-year old McLuhan from a somewhat obscure English professor at the University of Toronto, to an academic and media star, and industrial consultant. In recognition of the book's importance, it has been reissued by MIT Press with an introduction by Lewis Lapham of Harper's Magazine [10].

McLuhan understood that computers were a communication medium, but did not discuss them in Understanding Media or subsequently, although he lived until 1980 (footnote 1). Regardless, I found this book fascinating and highly relevant today. My copy is now covered with marginal notes, many speculating on how McLuhan would have seen global computer-mediated communication, the Net.

What would McLuhan have thought of the Net? This column consists of quotes taken from Understanding Media (footnote 2), followed by comments on how they might be applied to the Net. (The number following each quote is the page on which it is found). I would not presume to put words in McLuhan's mouth -- these are thoughts that crossed my mind as I read, my marginal notes.

Media -- Extensions of Man (subtitle)

McLuhan defines media in the subtitle of the book -- "The Extensions of Man." His is a broad definition, including more than the familiar communication media like radio and TV. McLuhan's media include the spoken word, the written word, number, clothing, housing, money, the clock, the motorcar, and other extensions of man. (The book has chapters on 26 different media). I think McLuhan would not have seen the Net as one medium, but as a juxtaposition of many. The information on the Net is mostly text, but voice, image, animation, video, executable simulations, and other types of information will become common. Multiplicity of media, goes beyond multiple data types. For example, written words on a monitor are different than words on a magazine page, a book page, or a billboard. Furthermore, on the Net, words are used in different contexts. Words on a listserver are different than words in one-one email, or a scholarly paper retrieved from a server. They are like words used in a conference room, a conversation, or an essay, respectively.

The medium is the message. (7)

This is the title of Chapter 1. When he wrote Understanding Media, McLuhan was Director of the Center for Culture and Technology, which investigated the "psychic and social consequences of technological media." He was not interested in content carried by a medium, but in the psychic and social effects inherent in the way it extended our senses. As he notes, media like the electric light and electric power grid have no content whatsoever, yet they have significant impact.

McLuhan would not have written about the content on the Net -- controversial issues like dirty pictures or businessmen "spamming" us with unwanted advertising. He would have speculated on how the Net would affect our society and our senses, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and values regardless of the content it carried or what part of the Net we used.

We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us (footnote 3)

Media shape both society and individuals. After the fact, the social consequences are relatively obvious. Television transforms consumption, the auto reshapes the city, and the clock synchronizes work and more. The psychic effects are closer, and therefore more difficult to see. Perhaps television shortens our attention span, the auto enhances a feeling of isolation, and the clock accelerates our internal sense of time (thereby shortening our subjective lives). What of the social and psychic affects of the Net?

While the social effects will be profound, I cannot predict them. McLuhan's "global village" may begin to unravel as we withdraw into interest-specific niches of the Net. Local travel may decrease while distant travel increases. Markets may become more perfect, making us more efficient and productive or merely speeding up our lives. Efficient markets may be increase economic equality or the gap between rich and poor. Improved communication facilitates cooperation making organizations with cooperative cultures more efficient, so we may see more cooperative people and organizations [13].

The blinders imposed by our perceptions, preconceptions, language, and values make psychic effects of the Net more difficult to assess, but we can still speculate on them. For example, is there a match between the quick-cut, short attention span of people born after television was pervasive and the hypertext jumps on the Web? Much of the material on the Web drives me nuts. I like to read orderly, linear articles, and know where I am at all times, but many Web documents seem a cacophony of links to tenuously related information -- free association. It may be too late for me to fully adapt to the Web style, while it is easy for those raised on television (particularly after remote channel changers became common).

Post video-game people might be even more comfortable link- hopping on the Net. Baird, et al [2] describes a field study of a public-access tourist information system. The system was tried by about 500 people, and 430 of them were over 20 years old. Of the 52 people who went from passive status of looking at the system, to the active status of using it, 32 came from the under- 20 group. Older people who did use the system proceeded slowly, reading everything on the screen before making a choice, while children were much less focused, sometimes seeming to click randomly.

Of course social and psychic effects are related. The individual qualities that sort us into social and economic winners and losers change with time. Footspeed and sharp eyesight were once keys to success, and the importance of memory was diminished by the invention of writing and printing. Linear thinking may not be as important tomorrow as it was yesterday. Perhaps naturally cooperative people and channel surfers will be the winners in the networked world (footnote 4).

As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. (5)

In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin. (47)

McLuhan said the electric media would cause a social and political "implosion," raising "human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree." (5) Television has made us aware of global calamity and injustice, and has allowed mass populations to "know" the same celebrities, and share their ups and downs. The Net is also global, allowing us to find information and people regardless of their location. As Networking pioneer J. C. R. Licklider said, we form communities of common interest, not common location [9].

But interest-based communities are explosive, not implosive. As we spend time with them, we have less time for others. Will agents and filters screen out "irrelevant" information on issues of political responsibility? Time spent on the Net is also time away from our families, neighbors and colleagues down the hall at work. That changes our sensory and emotional balance, and the very concept of "person" becomes more abstract and partial.

We are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. (xx)

Different societies will have different reactions to a new medium. For example, McLuhan says "the effect of the entry of the TV image will vary from culture to culture in accordance with the existing sense ratios in each culture." (xx) Since the 1960s, the U. S. and much of the world has shifted to a broadcast-electronic milieu. Are we now faced with another shift? I may be atypical, but I spend much more time on the Net than watching TV.

Each new impact (technology) shifts the ratios among all the senses. (64)

Our senses are "on" all the time; they are in continuous use, independent of content, but the balance among them may be altered. How might the Net shift the ratios among the senses? One example is in increasing the importance of the tactile sense, which is not usually thought of when speaking of communication and information. Time spent on the Net is time which would otherwise have been spent driving to work, reading from paper, or talking on the phone or in person. Net time is spent typing and reading from a screen -- analytic, tactile work. The physical act of typing is different than speaking and we also revise as we type, but not as we speak. Typing is focused and controlled, involving different muscle and neural systems than speaking, listening or reading. Even the shift from a keyboard to a mouse is significant. The broader mouse gestures are more detached and relaxing than focused typing. As we become more tactile, we have less time and practice with the other senses -- the ratio shifts.

A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being well filled with data. (22)

McLuhan emphasized the distinction between hot and cold media, but I must admit that it is not clear to me. He says a photo is hotter than a cartoon -- that seems to be a matter of bits per frame. He also says a "hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialog." For example, McLuhan considers the telephone a "cool medium of low definition" and radio hot, using the first distinction. However, radio is a monologue and telephone a dialog, so using the second criteria the telephone would be hot. Furthermore, the telephone demands fuller attention than the radio. I must be missing something here, because the distinction was crystal clear to McLuhan. (Most things were -- his style is quite authoritative).

Rather than speculate on whether McLuhan would have seen the Net as hot or cool, we can consider sensory saturation and opportunity for dialog. The Net is outstanding for facilitating dialog. We frequently contact the author of something we have read (on the Net or elsewhere). Individual email is pure dialog, and listservers and news groups fall between dialog and broadcast. This is just the beginning -- we can look forward to many tools supporting collaboration, cooperation, decision making, and conflict resolution on the Net.

As far as sensory saturation goes, the Net focuses us on a dimension that McLuhan did not address -- synchronous vs. asynchronous communication. I may see a high definition (hot) photo on the Web, but if I look at it for a long time, or attend to something else while it is on the screen, does it not cool off? There are questions of presentation rate, synchronicity, and focus of attention as well as bits per frame.

Departmental sovereignties (in universities) have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed. (36)

McLuhan predicted the weakening of national boundaries and university departments, because electricity decentralizes. (He might also have included corporate boundaries which are under attack by email, servers, EDI and other Net-based phenomena). Easy movement of capital has already eroded national sovereignty, and political and lifestyle information crosses national boundaries on the Net and via radio and television.

McLuhan was a professor, and had strong opinions on education. He saw the electronic media eroding disciplinary boundaries, and felt the university must change or disappear. It should not be enlarged, but we should "create numerous groups of autonomous colleges in place of our centralized university plant that grew up on the lines of European government and nineteenth-century industry." (71) He warns that if it does not adapt, the university will disappear as the oral Schools did when they did not create a synthesis with the Gutenberg technology.

Perhaps we are seeing the start already. Public funding for universities is dropping, and a Certified Netware Engineer certificate from Novell is worth more in many markets than a humanities BA. Institutions like Mind Extension University and Walden University seem to be establishing footholds on the Net. Current universities have the advantages of being well established distribution channels and of accreditation, of having the right to confer degrees, but these could disappear rapidly.

The Net will also slow the intellectual "brain drain." Students who come to Europe or North America from developing nations are more likely to return home after finishing their studies. The mobility of capital has set the stage for this trend, by creating jobs and higher living standards for trained people in developing nations. The Net facilitates decentralization of economic activity, and allows professionals stay in touch after returning home. Capital and Information want to be free, and the Net increases entropy.

The U. S. and Europe will lose educational "market share." As good universities become available in "developing" nations, students will go to them. Think how competitive Cuban medical schools may be one day.

These impacts are social, but McLuhan would also have us look at the psychic impact. Universities are primarily linear/verbal places. We have course syllabi, outlines, reading lists, and prerequisites. Yet, many of our students are post-MTV, channel- surfing, video-game players, not used to listening or reading for an hour, not used to knowing where they are in the outline, or even that there is an outline (footnote 5). Media like the Net, hypertext, and the Web, may allow us to evolve a style of instruction better matched to the cognitive style of these students, just as the oral Schoolmen might have adapted to print. I am not sure I am ready for that (footnote 6).

The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. (9)

If only a few people use a technology, it cannot transform them or society. When it becomes pervasive and taken for granted, its work is done. The slate and pencil and paper shifted our education system toward literacy. The blackboard nudged us in the direction of lecture, away from reading. When personal computers and the Net achieve the same penetration levels, education will have changed dramatically.

Medium centralization has at least four dimensions -- centralization of access, capital formation for distribution, capital formation for terminal equipment, and intelligence. For example, access to TV is centralized since a few people decide what is broadcast, distribution is centralized since cable companies and broadcast stations pay for the infrastructure, the purchase of terminals (TV sets) is decentralized, and intelligence is centralized since the TV set is just a viewing device. Couch-potato media like clothing, radio, newspapers, magazines, and movies follow similar patterns.

The Net, like fax, telephone, auto, money, and other media, is decentralized in every sense. Users decide when to send mail, post queries, or establish servers. Since the Net grows from the edges, like a Tinkertoy model, users and their organizations fund their share of switching and access costs, and funding of PCs and workstations, is also decentralized. Decentralization of the Net, combined with falling communication cost and increased terminal (computer) intelligence, points to eventual pervasiveness, and therefore a radical impact. [17]

Instead of saving work, (electrical "labor-saving") devices permit everybody to do his own work. What the nineteenth century had delegated to servants and housemaids we now do for ourselves (footnote 7). (36)

When I began programming, I wrote on coding sheets, which were keypunched, verified and taken to the machine by operators. Now I key my own programs. System programmers maintained the operating system, and customer engineers repaired the hardware, but today I share those responsibilities. I used to dictate or write long hand, and a secretary took it from there. With word processors and desktop publishing I began keying, and doing some typography and layout work. Now the Net gives me more control, but I am a mini-publisher, maintaining a Web home page, an FTP archive, several listservers, and publicizing them. This is not pure progress.

And a technological extension of our bodies designed to alleviate physical stress can bring on psychic stress that may be much worse. (67)

An Indian is the servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock. (46)

Being a servomechanism can be seen in a positive or negative light. If we take on more responsibility and become stressed, craft and peaceful, proper work will be impeded. Repetitive stressful jobs like data entry are also made possible by information processing technology. As we shift our workplace from real world to the Net, what of physical and emotional fitness? While this is a bleak picture, others are more optimistic, seeing us as "servomechanisms" in a machine of emerging high purpose. For example, the French theologian and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin coined the term "noosphere" -- an evolving network of human culture, connection, knowledge and interdependence [16]. He saw the earth as a positively evolving organism, and might have seen the Net as the birth of the Gaian nervous system, with you and I and Web servers as neurons, as processing, switching and storage devices. McLuhan saw the "electric media" as "extensions of our nervous system."

Under electronic technology the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing. ... The problem of discovering occupations or employment may prove as difficult as wealth is easy (footnote 8). (58)

This sounds like good news for professors and technologists, but these predictions also remind us of the persistent unemployment of poorly educated people. If the Net increases productivity by helping organizations share information and improving market information and the consumer's ability to process it, employment problems may be exacerbated, and we may see further spreads in income distribution.

As Drucker points out [4], there have been massive shifts from farming and domestic service to manufacturing employment during this century. I recently attended a conference on technology in the travel industry, and a speaker from Thomas Cook stated that they had sold their business travel division, because they foresaw its demise. The Net may lead to massive employment shifts from retail and distribution industries during the coming century. But, shifts to where?

It is the poets and painters who react instantly to a new medium like radio or TV." (53)

The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. (65)

Perception and worldview changes are subconscious and difficult to recognize and make explicit. If artists are more sensitive than the rest of us, we can expect them to first feel, then find ways to communicate these changes. McLuhan and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith recommended that businessmen study new art. Since technology is moving so fast, the artist's role becomes more important, tending to move from "the ivory tower to the control tower." (xx) McLuhan, a professor of English, was more an artist than a social scientist.

McLuhan felt many of our best artists work in advertising, and noted that the cost of one magazine or TV ad exceeded the annual income of most writers. Commercial artists and advertising agencies are being drawn to the Net. For example, Chiat Day,, is an international advertising agency which has done away with permanent offices, converting all employees to telecommuters. Chiat Day is well established, but new Net-based advertising companies are being born daily. Many fine and commercial artists and art galleries are already on the Net, allowing businessmen to track art without leaving their chairs.

Radio changed the form of the news story as much as it altered the film image in talkies. (53)

New media effect the old media -- they change the system of media. Thus "the effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory." (64) We can expect the Net to alter other media, and the first step is cross-reference. Many newspapers, magazines, radio and television programs now have email addresses and Web servers, but we can expect their styles to change as the role of the Net expands. For example, Omni Magazine has just announced a Net-based version and a concomitant conversion of the print version from monthly to quarterly.

The crossings or hybridizations of the media release great new force and energy as by fission or fusion. (48)

The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. ... The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses. (55)

McLuhan often focuses on the interaction between old and new media. He quotes the saying that "to the blind all things are sudden," and states that "one of the most common causes of breaks in any system is the cross-fertilization with another system, such as happened to print with the steam press, or with radio and movies (that yielded talkies)." (39)

The Net seems an ideal place for creative hybridization. It brings together many media -- old and new -- and provides the opportunity for people from different worlds to find each other and each other's work, and to communicate once they do. I believe McLuhan would expect considerable innovation.


1. On page 43 of Understanding Media, he refers to "the media of communication from speech to the computer," but there is no chapter on computers. Robert Appel of Project McLuhan assured me that McLuhan never did write on computers or networks [1].

2. The quotes are all from Part 1, in which McLuhan sets forth his views and theories. Part 2 consists of 26 chapters, each on a different medium, but none on computers.

3. Networking pioneer Doug Englebart clearly understood the coevolution of us and our tools [5], and his research methodology stressed study of the way his group used the tools they produced.

4. People will not decide to be more cooperative or to have shorter attention spans, they will just feel like it.

5. Of course only a subset of the population was ever linear and literate, and part of the shift we observe is due to an increase in the percent of people attending the university.

6. In public, McLuhan held back his own value judgments regarding the changes he predicted, but in private, for example in an April, 1970 letter to Jonathan Miller, he wrote: "Value judgments create smog in our culture and distract attention from process. My personal bias is entirely pro-print and all of its effects." [11]

7. Of course some of "us" were servants and housemaids.

8. To some extent, McLuhan was caught up in the hubris of the 1960s, where many thought industrial productivity would rise indefinitely, and strong AI results were just around the corner.


1. Appel, Robert, personal communication, March, 1995.

2. Baird, P., MacMorrow, N., and Hardman, L, "Cognitive Aspects of Constructing Non-Linear Documents: HyperCard and Glasgow Online," Proc. Online Information 88, London, UK, 6-8 December, 1988, pp 207-218.

3. Bolter, Jay David, "Writing Space," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, 1991.

4. Drucker, Peter, The Age of Social Transformation, Atlantic Monthly, V0l. 274, No. 5, November, 1994, pp 53-80.

5. Englebart, Doug C., "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," Research Report AFOSR-3223, Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, CA 94025, October, 1962.

6. Forster, E. M., The Machine Stops, in "The Eternal Moment and Other Stories," Harcourt Brace and World, New York, 1928.

7. Illich, Ivan, "In the Vineyard of the Text," University of Chicago Press, 1993.

8. Lewis, Dutton, New York, xx.

9. Licklider, J. C. R. and Taylor, Robert W, "The Computer as a Communication Device," Science and Technology, April, 1968, 21- 31.

10. McLuhan, Marshall, "Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man," MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 02142.

11. Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan and Toye, William, editors, "The Letters of Marshall McLuhan," Oxford University Press, New York, 1987.

12. Mumford, Lewis, "Technics and Civilization," New York, Harcourt Brace and World, 1963.

13. Press, L., "Systems for Finding People," Journal of Organizational Computing, 2(3&4), 303-314 (1992).

14. Sacks, Oliver, "Seeing Voices," Harper Collins, New York, 1990.

15. Strangelove, Michael, "How to Advertise on the Internet,", or in print, Strangelove Internet Enterprises,

16. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, "The Phenomenon of Man," Harper and Row, New York, 1955.

17. Weiser, Mark, "The Computer for the 21st Century," Scientific American, September, 1991, pp 94-104.


McLuhan's style, the structure of his book, and this column seem suited to a non-linear hypertext, so I will set up a Web page with links for each quote in this column and for each of the 26 media-specific chapters in Understanding Media. You are free to contribute to this document by sending me an email message.

Much of McLuhan has a decidedly dystopian ring to it. My favorite dystopian depiction of what the Net may become is E. M Forster's 1928 science fiction story, The Machine Stops, which foretells many of McLuhan's dark psychic and social implications. This story is a great antidote to my enthusiasm for the Net, so I assign it to my classes. Net aficionados should not ignore the risks, so I will set up a server for cautionary fiction and commentary, and start the ball rolling by posting Forster's story. I hope readers will submit further material.

The Machine Stops was reprinted in an excellent anthology of positive and negative fictional depictions of technology [6].

If Forster depresses you, Howard Reihngold has written a mostly optimistic book on Net-based communities concerned with human topics like child rearing and local politics. He shows ways the Net may serve to reinforce local relationships and political involvement. The book, published in print by Addison-Wesley, is online at The communities Reihngold describes are found on a venerable community Net, the Well. The ten-year old Well is now on the Internet, and you can become a member.

Project McLuhan has a mandate to update and revitalize McLuhan's work, and to develop insight into and predict the interface between culture and technology. You may join their e-list by sending a message saying "subscribe mcluhan-list" to

McLuhan's writing style is aphoristic and non-linear, anticipating hypertext and the Web. For an excellent discussion of hypertext and its implications and of the history of writing, see [3].

Ivan Illich, a most thoughtful student of the effects of technology (and education), has written a detailed commentary on the twelfth-century Didascalicon, the first book on the art of reading [7]. The Didascalicon marked "the beginning of the epoch of bookishness which is now closing." Illich shows that the invention of the book format -- titles, spaces between words, pages, indices, contents pages, upper-lower case, and so forth -- and its impact on society and individuals began well before Gutenberg.

For a another enlightening treatment of the effects of technology, for example, clocks, on society and individuals see Lewis Mumford's Technic and Civilization [12].

For a moving and highly informative introduction to the language (Sign) and culture of the deaf, see [14], a terrific treatment of the psychic effects of language.

If you are interested in emerging forms of advertising and marketing on the Net, join the inet-marketing list by sending a message saying "subscribe" to For an excellent "how-to" on advertising using the Net, and a harbinger of things to come, see [15].

For Net-based art see Yahoo.