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Though he was once proclaimed "the oracle of the electronic age," perhaps the world was not quite ready for Marshall McLuhan when he came to prominence in the 1960s. With the advent of digital technology, the Internet, and the global economy, however, there can be little doubt that he is relevant now. Understanding Media is one of McLuhan's most popular books, offering some of his more pungent and provocative insights on our need to adapt from a relatively slow, fragmented mechanical age to a high-speed, highly integrated electronic one. McLuhan's formidable intelligence and imagination make it both enlightening and fun to read. Northrop Frye, McLuhan's colleague at the University of Toronto, once identified "the use of paradox and the pretence of na´vetÚ" as the two primary tactics of teaching. From his own bag of tricks McLuhan adds obscurity ("Our world has become compressional by dramatic reversal"); hyperbole ("We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time"); tautology ("TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments"); and the occasional dash of absurdist whimsy ("As extension of man the chair is a specialist ablation of the posterior, a sort of ablative absolute of backside, whereas the couch extends the integral being"). McLuhan also has a flare for the catchy phrase, and in Understanding Media the reader will find his famous dictum "the medium is the message" as well as the distinction between "hot" and "cool" media discussed at length.
After setting forth a few general principles, Understanding Media conjures a fly's-eye view of late-20th-century culture, with short sections on writing, speech, comics, telephones, television, money, movies, weapons, and much more. And while the discussion is rippling with uncanny, sometimes visionary, insight, its author remains an earnest humanist at heart. "The aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness," McLuhan says, "is a natural adjunct of electronic technology.& There is a deep faith to be found in this new attitude." --Russell Prather [via]