McLuhan and the Complexities of Media

Electronic mediaMcLuhan (2013) examines the media (television, radio, phones, movies, computers, etc.) is its role in reshaping communication and society. He explains that the media is an extension of ourselves: “It is the persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed” (Location no. 1285). McLuhan contends that the media is like a human appendage– as in the radio extends our ears, the phone extends our voice, and the computer extends our brain. McLuhan includes language as a medium and highlights its significant role in human development: “Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement” (Location no. 1147).

McLuhan maintains that the total effect of the media is better understood by focusing more on the medium and less on its content. He argues that the “medium is the message” because it “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (Location no. 162). McLuhan notes that some mediums are more successful at conveying an effect or experience. He explains that mediums are either ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ based on context and audience involvement. McLuhan explains that ‘hot medium’ is complete, conveys more information and is low in audience participation (radio). Moreover, a ‘cool medium’ employs multiple senses, is incomplete, has insufficient data, is low definition and has high audience participation (TV).  For example, watching a cooking show like “Chopped” or “Iron Chef” on TV delivers a more enjoyable experience then if you listened to it on the radio. In regard to context, McLuhan reminds us that mediums affect cultures differently: “The hot radio medium used in cool or nonliterate cultures has a violent effect, quite unlike its effect, say in England or America, where radio is felt as entertainment” (Location no. 513-514).

Advances in electronic media have changed how we exchange and store information. The digital age has altered how we exchange information and socialize with others. The internet allows people to interact and share information on a global level. McLuhan explains that new media translates and transforms the human experience as an extension of human consciousness: “In this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness” (Location no. 875). McLuhan argues that we should make a greater effort to examine the media and its effects on our increasingly globalized culture. He explains that increased awareness is vital because “understanding stops action . . . we can moderate the fierceness of this conflict by understanding the media that extend us and raise these wars within and without us” (Location no. 279).

Keeping in mind that the media is an extension of ourselves, I wanted to learn more about internet use and how it affects our brains. I found an article from The Guardian that examines the cognitive and social effects of habitual smartphone use. The author explains that people use smartphones because they can perform multiple functions such as email, phone calls, texting, web browsing, games, camera, etc. with one device. Smartphones are advertised as technology that makes our lives easier. Despite all the tools and resources that smartphones have to offer, Levitin explains that in the past, people hired travel agents to plan vacations and asked salespersons to help them find a product or service. Today, people use the internet to accomplish many tasks themselves. People tend to believe that they are more productive when they multitask. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, found that when people multitask, they are less efficient and spend more time trying to accomplish tasks. This is because our brains need time to refocus when we switch from one task to another. In addition, multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone, cortisol, when individuals make mistakes or take extra time to fulfill as task.

digital-marketing-technology-media-telecom1Furthermore, the article explains that multitasking has a negative effect on our learning abilities. Glen Wilson, a professor of psychology in London found that the “cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot-smoking”. Finally, Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist from Stanford University, found that learning new information while multitasking sends information to the wrong part of the brain. For example, when a student studies and watches TV at the same time, the information goes to the “striatum, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve”. The article suggests that people avoid multitasking and limiting distractions like cell phones, social media websites, and email. Every time we respond to a text or check Facebook, we develop a sense of accomplishment which releases dopamine in our brain. This behavior can become addictive and extremely counterproductive if left unchecked.

It seems as though electronic media can create as many problems as it solves. Has electronic media ever caused you stress or anxiety? How can we educate younger generations on how to handle the distractions and problems caused by new media? Has technology changed the quality of social interaction? Technological advances have expanded our social networks and enhanced our ability to communicate on a frequent basis- does quantity outweigh quality in social interactions?


McLuhan, M. (2013). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from


3 thoughts on “McLuhan and the Complexities of Media

  1. I think one of the biggest problems is that we hold way too much stock in electronic media. Since it has continued to grow so rapidly, it has obviously become a huge part of everyday life. The only problem is that it dominates a lot of people’s lives. For example, some people can’t go more than a few minutes without pulling out their phone and checking their Facebook. I know some who get aggravated if they text someone and that person doesn’t text them almost immediately back. It’s nice to have the ability to communicate at our fingertips, but it can also, as you mentioned, be extremely counterproductive. Instead of focusing on whatever they’re doing, that person is focusing all their attention on their phone, waiting for that text to come in or for the next comment on their status. However, to a point, it’s not really that much different than life outside of technology. It would still hold true if someone was waiting to talk to another person about something important, or if a person had an important speech to give. Whatever issue was providing the anxiety, that would become the dominant focus of that person’s attention, which could also lead to being counterproductive. I guess it’s all about finding some sort of balance, and limiting any distractions, whether it’s electronic media or something else.


  2. This idea of the hidden costs of multitasking is one that definitely concerns me. I often hear people say that they are good at multitasking and quietly think that no one should multitask. The ability to be constantly connected both professionally and socially truly is a blessing and a curse. I often wonder if it does not give us a false sense of importance and irreplaceability. The question about younger users also strikes a chord. Many decisions in education right now are being made to incorporate more access to media and technology. Print textbooks and online textbooks are media saturated and “busier” to try to gain the attention of the students. Educators discuss how young students learn differently; however, the research at Stanford makes me question if these are adaptive learning behaviors as oppose to a learning behaviors that are efficient and longstanding. Will there be a future need to teach people how to cope in a world that is constantly connected and forced into multiple tasks at one time?


  3. I have been struggling with this very task lately. I truly believe multitasking is the killer of productivity. lately, I have wanted to do everything myself and want to ry to do a million things at once. Trying to accomplish many of these projects, I find myself forgetting a lot of the information that I needed in the previous projects. That is what I think the electronic age has done to us. Stated in our earlier readings, they mentioned how the internet has brought rise to individuals who know a little about a lot of things and not a lot about a few things. Technology has kind f cursed in the fact that we can grab all this information and read up on it but we may get distracted by that piece of information because there is something else of a completely different subject that looks interesting.


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