Instructional Technology/Herbert Marshall McLuhan

Life of Marshall McLuhan


On July 21, 1911 Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born to Herbert, a real estate agent, and Elsie, an actress, in Edmonton, Alberta (Marchand, 1998). The McLuhan family, which also included Marshall’s younger brother Maurice, made Winnipeg, Manitoba home. McLuhan was not a good student in grade school. But, later McLuhan earned a BA and MA in English at the University of Manitoba and won a University gold metal in arts and science (Marchand, 1998).

McLuhan was raised a Protestant and converted to Roman Catholicism which influenced his life and career (Morrison, 2001). In 1937, McLuhan began his professional career teaching at Catholic institutions staring at St. Louis University, a well respected Jesuit institution (Wolfe, 2004). In 1944, he began teaching at Assumption College, Windsor, Ontario. Finally in 1946, he taught at St. Michael's College, a catholic college in the University of Toronto (Wolfe, 2004). In 1952 he was appoint full professor and retired from teaching in 1979 (McLuhan Associates, ND).

In 1939, McLuhan married Corinne Lewis while he was working on his doctorial dissertation on the work of Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts (Morrison, 2001). The McLuhan’s had six children Eric, Mary, Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth and Michael (Marchand, 1998). In 1965, his son Eric became his assistant and coauthored the book Media: The New Science published in 1988. (McLuhan Associates, 1986).

McLuhan’s Views and Research


McLuhan was an instructor of English who later became interested in communication technologies. His work involved linking media and technology to the human body (Kroker, 1995). McLuhan’s work and readings are very difficult because he jumped around and introduced new terminology to explain different concepts (Katz and Katz, 2001). McLuhan’s work influenced him to be a critic of popular culture. Katz and Katz (2001) summarize McLuhan’s views on technology as “…technology (also) works indirectly on society by affecting the ways in which the brain processes information from each new medium, how the mode of processing affects the senses and thus personality, and how personality, in turn, affects social organization” (paragraph 9). This synopsis of McLuhan’s view on technology is consistent with deep and complex thinking McLuhan brings to the field of communication technologies. McLuhan’s concern is how the technology or medium eventual affects society.

The coined phrase “the medium is the message” is McLuhan’s interperation of technology in a few words. The phrase refers to McLuhan’s view that more attention should be given to the medium or technology and less emphasis or focus should be on the content of the medium (Katz and Katz, 2001). Thus the medium is a roadmap on how to rather than what to think (Katz and Katz, 2001). The underlying meaning is the medium has more influence on society than the content of the medium. As a note McLuhan’s book published in 1967 was titled "The Medium is the Massage” in which message was spelled wrong (massage), by the typesetter (McLuhan Associates, 1986). But McLuhan asked the publisher not to correct the mistake because massage or broken down “Mass Age” was on target (McLuhan Associates, 1986).

McLuhan defines media as technologies that create an extension of the human body (Munday, 2003). McLuhan uses the notion of extension to signify anything, like technology, that extends or uses the human body or mind in a different way (Kappelman, 2001). For example, a shovel is an extension of our hands to dig the earth. With the term extension McLuhan uses the term amputation. Amputation refers to the loss of other extensions due to the new technology (Munday, 2003). For instance the introduction of PowerPoint presentations amputates the use of the chalkboard in the classroom. The concern McLuhan had with the notion of extension and amputation is the fact that most humans are excited about extensions while amputations are ignored or not thought of (Munday, 2003). An example of ignoring the amputations is the use of fuel to power our vehicles (the technology) is taken for granted, while depleting natural resources (amputation) and potentially harming the environment is not thought at the gas pump.

McLuhan also expressed views on the notion of a “global village”. According to McLuhan's son Eric, the term “global village” was used to describe how the technology of radio in the 1920 brought society closer together through the medium (McLuhan, 1996). McLuhan authored a book entitled "War and Peace in the Global Village" published in 1968 to discuss the “global village”.

Driedger and Redekop, (1998) explain McLuhan’s meaning of “global village: as “…media, and television in particular, serve to bring previously marginal groups out of their local villages, and directly in touch with the mainstream of society into a global village characterized by a heightened awareness and sense of collection responsibility” (p. 44). Thus the notion of the global village is the extent that technology has on the society and the demands that users of the medium had on other aspects of life (McIlwraith, 1994). For example, if television were the medium than those who viewed television would require the same level of involvement in different social situations (McIlwraith, 1994).

In addition, to the “global village” McLuhan also discussed the notion of “hot” and “cool” medium. The concept of “hot” and “cool” medium deals with the level of involvement or intensity the medium requires of the participant (Katz and Katz, 2001). Katz and Katz (2001) compare print and television mediom as an example of “hot” and “cool” medium:

“The more intense and unrelenting the stimulus, the less involvement on the part of the audience, [McLuhan] says, classifying print medium …as ``hot because of their technological single-mindedness, and speech and television as ``cool.” [because] McLuhan argued that the television viewer is required to subconsciously connect the dots on his television screen in order to complete the picture, and hence is more involved, more participatory (paragraph 12). Thus the notion of “hot” and “cool” medium deals with the requirements of the technology and not the content. This is consistant with McLuhan’s point of view. In addition, “hot” and “cool” medium are relative to comparing two mediums inferring one medium is “hotter than” another (Katz and Katz, 2001). Thus in the example above print medium is hotter then television medium. McLuhan’s work eventually led to a tetrad of questions that basically summed up McLuhan’s work. The four questions in McLuhan’s tetrad are: what does it (the medium or technology) extend?, what does it make obsolete?, what is retrieved?, and what does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended? (Kappelman, 2001). The questions posed provide a framework to analysis the medium or technology and the affects on society. McLuhan’s tetrad of questions is as relevant today as, and probably more relevant, then in the past. The fact is that the fast paced technology driven world we live in today does apply to the rhetoric of McLuhan. If alive today, McLuhan would have had an appealing response and probably would be overloaded with the speed and quantity of technology that is touching ever facet of society.



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Kappelman, T. (2001). Marshall McLuhan: "The Medium is the Message". Retrieved October 28, 2006, from Leadership University Web site:

Kroker, A. (1995). Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan. Ctheory. 5th June. Retrieved October 21. 2006 from:

Marchand, P. (1998). Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, a Biography. Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

McIlwraith, R.D. (1994). Marshall McLuhan and the psychology of television. Canadian Psychology, 35, 331-350.

McLuhan Associates. (1986). Herbert Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message 1911-1980. Retrieved on October 28, 2006 from: A website produced by the Estate of Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan, E. (1996). The Source of the Term, 'Global Village'. McLuhan Studies, 2. Retrieved October 28. 2006 from:

Morrison, J. C. (2001). The place of Marshall McLuhan in the learning of his time. Counterblast: e-Journal of Culture and Communication, 1(1). Retrieved October 28. 2006 from:

Mullen, M. (2006). Coming to terms with the future he foresaw: Marshall Mcluhan's understanding media. Technology and Culture, 47, 373 – 380.

Munday, R. (2003). Marshall McLuhan declared that “the medium is the message.” What did he mean and does this notion have any value? Retrieved October 28. 2006 from:

Wolfe, T. (2004). McLuhan’s new world. The Wilson Quarterly, 28(2), 18-25.