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January 21, 2009

Forgotten Classics

Understanding Media: THE EXTENSIONS OF MAN

(By Marshall McLuhan. First published in 1964.)

What better time than the present to trot out this prescient study from nearly a half-century ago? Canadian Marshall McLuhan was the first intellectual to examine writing as a technology and the ways in which literacy, the printed word and printed books changed people’s behavior and ways of thinking.

It was in “Understanding Media” that McLuhan introduced the phrase (now an aphorism whose source often goes unrecognized): “The medium is the message.” The author analyzes how technology — from the wheel and the alphabet to the telegraph, airplane, typewriter and television — changed social relations and private attitudes.

McLuhan, in addition to making a real-life cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” also coined the phrase “global village” to explain the ways electronic technology would decentralize power and information, allowing people to live in smaller clusters far from major urban centers, all having the same access to the same information.

He was the first to forecast that new media would break the tyranny of print culture — with its emphasis on rational, linear thinking. A decade after his death (in 1980), McLuhan was named the Patron Saint of Wired Magazine. One can only wonder what the good professor would have made of this particular canonization — or whom he would consider the true tyrant now. —Mary Welp