An Overview of Marshall McLuhan


Marshall McLuhan was a 20th century scholar who was prominent in the late sixties and seventies. He was a theorist who zeroed in on communications and culture, and was widely known for his pith resonance in such expressions as “medium is the message” and “global village” (Kennedy, 2011). 

McLuhan was interested in the social and psychic consequences of the advancing electronic technologies of that time, and has been credited with predicting the internet, 30 years before it was invented (Kennedy, 2011). As a result, his observations have earned the regard of prophecy.

Today, in an era we readily refer to as an information age operating in a global village, it’s tempting to want to understand our present media in McLuhan’s terms. Yet, I think it’s more helpful to use McLuhan’s own thinking about past-present-future to conceptualize the trends of our time.

It was McLuhan’s thinking that only a rare few, typically artists, could see the present. Only they could tolerate the tension of “the frontier”, as he called it. Most operate in the past, experiencing the present through a “rearview mirror” to the past (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967).

McLuhan didn’t predict the future; he sagely, artistically, saw the present.

In this paper, I reflect on McLuhan’s contribution as insight into the present of the 1960’s. I will treat McLuhan as artist, capable of seeing the now. I begin by describing McLuhan’s emphasis on the social transformation that is affected by media and explore the transformation of society brought on by television and electronic media.

I conclude, perhaps arrogantly, in an attempt to wear the artist’s hat: I use the foundation McLuhan has given us to offer up a light speculation on the meaning of the internet.


Transformative Effects

McLuhan studied media, popular culture, and communication as transformative forces in Western society. He gave credit to literacy for establishing civilization, and suggested effects of what he termed post-literacy as a result of the information age enabled by electronic technologies (Kennedy, 2011).  

Particularly intrigued by the impact of television and instant transmission of information, McLuhan speculated the emergence of an era in which we were all part of a global village. This meant simultaneous sensory inputs informed audiences everywhere in the world about the happenings of one another (Kennedy, 2011). In this way, he suggested, we become retribalized: involved with and deeply connected to one another, merged in a collective identity that superseded a private one.

 “My theory or concern is with what do these media do to the people who use them. What did writing do to the people who abandoned it and used it, and what do the media of our time do to the people who use it. So mine is a transformation theory: how people are changed by the instruments they employ” (McLuhan, 1974). In the next section, I review the effects of television as McLuhan with a closer look at his concept of retribalization.



McLuhan suggested that before phonetic literacy there was no private identity, only tribal groups (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). Literacy, however, enabled a new self containment because reading could then be done privately and silently. It did not require public assembly, or an aural center, to experience information. This sensory shifting, from primarily auditory to primarily visual, created fragmentation and detachment. As fragmentation, it introduced separated linear sequences that match the processes of distinct focal attention. As detachment, literacy allowed for individual consumption and interpretation of information.

Whereas the book medium represents an extension of the eye, electric circuitry is an extension of the central nervous system (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967), and the TV is the extension of the hand - as it “actively moves through and over objects” (McLuhan, 1967). Further, because light comes from the screen – the screen in television is backlit - the projection is on the viewer, not on the screen.

In this way, McLuhan observes, the “TV viewer feels profoundly part of the world” as they are “wrapped in the light of the television” (McLuhan, 1967). A viewer both hears and feels television, and so the medium is described as audio-tactile. The result has profound effects. “If you live in an intensely auditory and tactile world you learn the habits of empathy and involvement” (McLuhan, 1967).

It’s this involvement that McLuhan describes as retribalization (McLuhan, 1968, Retribalization). It means a world of “total involvement in which everybody is profoundly involved with everybody else” (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). It is an acoustic world, of simultaneous happening, a full integration of time and space. Sensory inputs surround and are not separate from self; everybody is deeply connected to one another in a single merging identity (McLuhan, 1968, Private identity).  

“Literate culture is visual and detached. It creates the civilized man, the detribalized man, the man who is not involved and the effect of the electric revolution is to create once more an involvement that is total” (McLuhan, 1968, From the visual to the electric age).  



Is the prophecy true? It seems we would like to think so. In celebrating the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, video and audio files have emerged all over the internet. In these, we note, how eerie it is that he could predict our Facebook-ing over involvement with one another, our drive to be involved in one another’s business. We cite the ways in which Americans deeply cared about the fates of those in Tahrir Square just a few months ago during their movement to freedom.  

However, McLuhan was also known to say that once we begin talking about it, the it has already passed. “The content of the medium is never the message because the content is always the old medium” (McLuhan in Kennedy, 2011). If we can see our global village in the information age, our retribalization, it’s not a result of being able to view the present.

Over the last 50 years, it’s true that cognitive, social, political, informational domains have experienced dramatic transformations. The effects of retribalization are pervasive in the way we relate to one another, both physically and electronically. Our need for involvement is seen in the participatory way in which we engage our latest new medium: the internet.

I venture to speculate that as the car is the extension of the foot, clothes the extension of the skin, electronic connectivity the extension of the nervous system – that the internet is the extension of memory.

Phone numbers, pictures, documents, home movies, music, books, reference libraries, calendars all reside within clicks. They are with me wherever I go, on my phone. At times, they alert me. I do not need to remember much. I’ve also noticed, I choose not to.

Our status updates, tweets, and uploads are artifacts of self. They represent how and who we would like to be remembered, both while living and afterwards. We are both individual and collective. Data analysis can show what “we” once cared about.

And of course, there’s that restaurant-I-liked-so-much-that-one-time-because-it-served-the –you know – the food I like. For that, I can search Google. For anything I need to recall, I can search Google. And Google is always with me.


Kennedy, P. (Host). (2011, July 21). At the feet of the master [Radio broadcast]. In Ideas [Radio series]. Toronto, Canada: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is massage. San Francisco: HardWired.

McLuhan, M. (1967). A Recording of Marshall McLuhan teaching a class at Fordham University circa 1967. [Audio file]. In A Marshall McLuhan Centenary Symposium [web page]. Retrieved from

McLuhan, M. (1968). From the visual to the electric age. [Video file]. In Marshall McLuhan speaks, Centennial 2011 [web page]. Retrieved from

McLuhan, M. (1968). Private identity [Video file]. In Marshall McLuhan speaks, Centennial 2011 [web page]. Retrieved from

McLuhan, M. (1974). Transformation theory of communication [Video file]. In Marshall McLuhan speaks, Centennial 2011 [web page]. Retrieved from

McLuhan's Laws of Media and the Tetrad


Technological advancement attracts both enthusiasm and scrutiny. It has done so for centuries. From the printing press, to the train, the car, electricity, television, and – in our time – the early proliferation of the internet, fans and detractors have worked to understand the impact of each new intrusion on our normal way of doing things. Renowned media and technology explorers Marshall and Eric McLuhan created an elegant model for entertaining these assessments: the tetrad (Ohler, 2010).  These Laws of Media postulate that four things happen inevitably and universally to all media and technological advancement (Bennett, 2011).  

In that spirit, I endeavor to apply McLuhan’s tetrad to a media form that has captured much of my day to day attention. It is both a device I use, and a device whose usage I study: the smartphone. In the treatment that follows, I will examine the impact and evolution of the smartphone using the four movements of the tetrad: enhance, obsolesce, retrieve, and reverse.




Each medium enlarges, amplifies or intensifies an existing form (Ohler, 2010).

The smartphone accelerates the internet with portability, accessibility, and speed. Smaller than the laptop computer, or tablet, the smartphone is constantly with us. It is more accessible than a computer, in its affordability and universality. Additionally, wireless transmission speeds have accelerated to broadband speeds, with the launch of 4G and LTE radio networks.

This is important because the internet is an extension of memory. As the car is an extension of the foot, and clothing an extension of skin (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967), the internet is an extension of memory. Betsy Sparrow has done a number of interesting and convincing studies on the nature of the internet as “an enormous collective act of transactive memory” (Bohannon, 2011). Findings suggest we do delegate memory demands to our devices.

Popular smartphone applications, alongside sample memory questions, include:

·         Shazam: that tune is so familiar, what’s it called?

·         IMDB: that actress – what else has she been in?

·         Navigator:  how do I get there?

·         Calendar: am I supposed to be somewhere?

·         Wikipedia: when was the Magna Carta signed?

Of course, there are also the memories we make and share with others, as seen on Facebook and YouTube. Lastly, the cloud stores music, documents and reference material that would otherwise be localized to a specific device. For example, the PowerPoint I created on my laptop is now also available on my smartphone, and easily retrievable there.



Each medium renders an existing technology or media form to a less relevant status (Ohler, 2010).

The smartphone makes the home printer obsolete. My “papers” are accessible to me wherever I roam. There is no need to print out directions, coupons, boarding passes, letters/emails, schedules, shopping lists, public transportation schedules, to-do lists, or office material. It will all display on my screen, and can be carried with me, wherever I go, in my back pocket.



Each medium recovers something which had lost prominence (Ohler, 2010).

The smartphone retrieves the book.  In some cases, this is literally true. Kindle book sales have outpaced traditional book sales this year. During the early part of the year, Kindle books outsold hardback books by three to one (Pereson, 2011). Additionally the Kindle smartphone app is consistently one of the top downloaded items across smartphone device types.  

However, by suggesting the smartphone is the retrieval of the book, what I really mean to indicate is the posture of interaction. When using the smartphone, people are crouched over in private consumption. This is primarily true when the device is used for accessing the internet, its most popular purpose. Smartphone usage favors internet access, text/picture messaging, and is used less for actual phone calls, showing declines in voice usage over time.

This crouching position emphasizes the book-like qualities of fragmentation, detachment, and linear focal attention McLuhan described as detribalized (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). It is a decidedly singularized and sometimes insulated interaction –as when the phone is used with earphones.



Each medium transforms into something new, as an evolution that grows from overdevelopment of its enhancement (Ohler, 2010).

When reversed, the smartphone becomes a broadcast device

As an enhancement, smartphones extend memory by accelerating the internet. Recall, if you will, has been offloaded to a machine. By way of the smartphone, the internet becomes a living, egalitarian museum. By this I mean it changes constantly. Additionally, in a reversal of the historical concept of museum, it is populated by the populace rather than the private collections of wealthy individuals or city-states.

Smart phones accelerate internet proliferation by offering wider access via wireless networks, affordable hardware, and lightweight portability. This enhanced access to the internet leads to an even wider, more equalized participation. We are all curators, as well as consumers. We offer our knowledge to Wikipedia, alongside our goofy family videos and the best of what we did this weekend. In our tweets and Google searches we offer the Best Of lists of our times, the topic swarms and trends that embody our collectivity. Smartphones not only increase the data sets, but also democratize access.

The flip happens when we turn our access from private to communal. We see this happening over YouTube and Facebook already. Home videos we create for family become hits like “David After Dentist” – or political ammunition, as we saw happen with the George Allen macaca video.  The snap-on laser projector for smart phones has already debuted, and holographic projection is already in design.

This reversal changes the posture of interaction from private, detached and fragmented to one of sharing.  Instead of collectors – and recollectors, we become creators and distributors.



When I was a little girl, I remember becoming very sad one day thinking that all the world’s exploration had been completed before me. There was no call for a new Columbus or Magellan. Even Lewis and Clark’s work was complete. The world was mapped. Discovery seemed moot.

While it’s somewhat different from setting out upon the open seas, the spirit of discovery lives on in our time. Technological advancement leaves some feeling disoriented. As we strive to make meaning of change, interpretations vary madly from the uniformly frightful to the blithely utopian. The McLuhan team has given us a model for exploration of technology. Using their tetrad, we can place ourselves in an organizational structure that offers context for the change. It normalizes the changes in our continuing evolution, allowing us to look back to past discovery and to bravely predict what may come next.

McLuhan’s tetrad is a method for discovery. In my work, it offers me the framework to more fully understand the technological achievements of our time, and to speculate about what new technologies might emerge. Given this agile suite of charting tools, I emerge as explorer, after all.



Bennet, S. (n.d.) McLuhan’s laws of media. Horton Ednet. Retrieved September 21, 2011 from

Bohannon, J. (July 15, 2011). Searching for the Google effect on people’s memory. Science Magazine. Retrieved online from

McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the massage. San Francisco, CA: Hardwired.

Ohler, J. (2010). Digital community, digital citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Perenson, M. (January 27, 2011). Amazon Kindle Book Sales Soar. PC World Magazine. Retrieved from