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Analyzing the Theories of Marshall McLuhan

Analyzing the Theories of Marshall McLuhan

***The following is the final term paper I wrote and submitted last week (May 3, 2017) for an undergraduate communications course titled "The Cultural Impact of Media Technology" in which the theories presented in scholar Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media (including some of their applications to modern-day forms of media) are discussed.***


Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, an acclaimed book that has become a cornerstone in media theory since its publication in 1964, examines humans’ relationships to the different types of media to which they are exposed on a daily basis, and considers how meaning is derived from one’s interactions with these various mediums. In other words, meaning does not lie within the form of media itself or its content, but in the information people gather from their experience with it. In his book, McLuhan analyzes traditional forms of media, such as film, radio, print books, and television, but also analyzes platforms that might be considered less orthodox forms of media, such as games, houses, money, clocks, and automobiles, arguing that nearly any object with which man interacts (especially various forms of technology) shapes how he perceives the world, and, in turn how he communicates with others. While McLuhan’s idea that the content of the medium is not nearly as important as the meaning that is derived from it (varying, of course, among different cultures, individuals, etc.) might be considered problematic by some, such a rejection of how media is conventionally viewed allows him to make connections in Understanding Media between a wide range of platforms.

Perhaps McLuhan’s best known and most commonly studied theory is that of “hot” and “cool” media. In the context of this theory, the terms “hot” and “cool” refer to the degree of interaction between the user, reader, or interpreter of the medium (audience participation). Hot media includes film, print media, radio, photographs, and even the phonetic alphabet, all of which possess a certain “rigidity” (for lack of a better word) in the sense that viewers have to interact with the medium less and do not have to derive their own meaning from it to the same extent that they would with cool media (McLuhan 23). For instance, when an audience is shown a film or a photograph, they passively experience what is being presented to them; hardly any action is required at all as they can experience the medium in full without interacting with it on a deeper level. McLuhan states in Understanding Media, “Any 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 dialogue…our own time is crowded with examples of the principle that the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes (23). Therefore, hot media can be thought of as any medium in which the audience plays a passive (or, at least, not very active) role, exercising little control over the information that is being consumed.

Cool media, on the other hand, includes television, comics, cartoons, speech, and hieroglyphic writing, in which picture symbols (as opposed to letters and words) are used. When interacting with these types of media, audiences play a more active role. Someone watching cartoons, for example, must make his own inferences as to what is being presented in the relatively simplistic drawings (i.e., a straight line could represent a person’s entire body in a stick figure), and must “fill in the gaps” on his own in order to make sense of the message that is being conveyed. Therefore, more work must be done on the part of the viewer in order to achieve the same goal as he would if passively observing a photograph or watching a (live-action) film. Though it might seem counterintuitive, McLuhan considers television to be a cool medium, mostly due in part to the viewer’s constant ability to change the channel at will, to leave the room, to not watch commercials or certain parts of a show, to focus on other activities while watching it, etc., essentially creating his own viewing experience: a customized television program and, overall, form of entertainment.

In keeping with the apparent overlap between “hot” and “cool” forms of media, however, it is not surprising that McLuhan’s theory has long been controversial, and has been subject to criticism for its lack of clarity. For instance, when a film (a hot medium) is animated (cartoons are a cool medium), one might find it difficult to classify the work as belonging to one category versus the other. However, one must also take into consideration that McLuhan’s definitions of “hot” and “cool” media are dynamic and not nearly as strictly defined as one might expect. The audience does not adapt to the definitions set forth by McLuhan’s theory, but rather the theory adapts to how the audience interacts with the medium. To better explain this phenomenon, McLuhan refers to the “reversal of the overheated medium” (the title of the third chapter of Understanding Media), in which he refers not only to the aforementioned adaptation of the definition, but also considers the timeliness and historical factors surrounding media usage. McLuhan refers to the blending of media in correlation with changes and technological advancements in societies, observing, "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 the talkies)…printing from movable type was, itself, the major break boundary in the history of phonetic literacy, just as the phonetic alphabet had been the break boundary between tribal and invidualist man" (39).

In tracing the evolution of oral and written communication, for instance, McLuhan notes the “boundary” that is passed based on advancements, as previously mentioned. Yet, McLuhan also indicates how forms of media either evolve over time from cool to hot (or vice versa) or how they are replaced by newly developed forms of media (per the above quote). One might, again, consider television in this light, especially since the way in which audiences interact with the medium has changed significantly since its becoming a household staple in the 1950s. While television is still considered a cool medium due to viewers’ ability to interact with it on a level of more control than they would a film screening or a radio broadcast, it has become increasingly “hot” with the rise of high-definition signals and sharper, more realistic on-screen images on larger monitors (as opposed to fuzzy, black and white images on a nineteen-inch screen). Therefore, audience participation in watching television has become more passive in the sense that there are fewer “gaps” to close and interpret. Though television in the 21st Century is far from being indistinguishable from real life, modern-day viewers perhaps feel more connected to the medium due to the advancements; a “boundary” has been reached in which the medium has a much different effect on audiences that it once did, mostly owing to advancements in technology, as well as sociocultural changes throughout history. While it is difficult to discern at this point whether or not the relatively new television medium has reached the point of “overheating,” to use McLuhan’s term, it is still important to note how its development has contributed to both its centrality in (American) society and how its influence on the masses and the effects of audience interaction with it have changed over the years.

Email also comes to mind when considering McLuhan’s theory of “overheated” media, especially in considering the concept of “cross-hybridization.” Email has the literacy component of a letter or memorandum, the immediacy of a telephone call or fax, and the visual component of a television show or video game. Emails can be edited, sent, resent, replied to, deleted, etc., and those who interact with the medium exercise a significant amount of control over what gets sent, the content messages contain, who sees the messages, and what happens to it. Therefore, it is through this unique combination of traits– the blending of more archaic mediums into a single contemporary one– that makes email a medium in its own right, exemplifying the “hybrid energy” that McLuhan refers to as the rise of new forms of media in the mainstream.

Though McLuhan’s Understanding Media was published in 1964, his ideas and theories are still quite relevant in the 21st Century world, especially with the rise of the internet, as alluded to in the previous paragraph. McLuhan refers to electronic and digital technology as extensions of the human nervous system (unlike in literate cultures in which the eye was extended), and, in the introduction to Understanding Media, states, "Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extension of man— the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and nerves by the various media," perhaps indicating that the disconnect between man and media was becoming narrower, and that people were beginning to interact more with different forms of media, integrating their use into their daily lives and exerting power over these forms of media in the sense that they could manipulate them to their content (within the medium’s limits) (3). Though McLuhan did not live to see the “Dot-Com Boom” of the early 1990s, his theory that technological mediums act as an extension of the human nervous system is especially applicable to the modern-day internet. The internet is a hybrid in possibly the most extreme sense of the word– it is a conglomerate of multi-media, featuring everything from videos to books, from streaming live television to images, games, communication methods, etc., and audience participation is the driving force. One must interact with the user interface by clicking on links and engaging with other forms of media on the web that allow them to achieve their desired goal and travel throughout cyberspace. There is even a physical component involved in which users have to physically operate a mouse button or touch a screen, the latter of which has become more and more popular in recent years with the rise of tablets and smartphones. With forms of media such as the internet and new electronic technologies, the disconnect between audiences and the platform becomes blurred, allowing users to interact with the medium on a deeper, more intimate level, causing (and allowing) the medium to essentially become an extension of themselves, especially when interacting with “cool” media which involves more participation from the user, anyway.

McLuhan’s theories are deep, inspired, and highly original, causing them to perhaps sound obtuse, or even illogical. While some scholars, as mentioned earlier, might find his theories to be controversial, one cannot doubt how influential they still have been on the development of media technology in the 21st Century. Perhaps what is most convenient about McLuhan’s theories is that (as with the loose definitions of “hot” and “cool” media) they are not rigid, but dynamic, and can be adjusted to better describe media in the context of the culture and the age in which it exists and can easily be applied to newly developed forms of media. Thus, McLuhan’s ideas and theories will likely be relevant to media studies for several years to come.


McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002. Print.

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