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The Written Word. Source: Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media. This is actually about printed and written words . as well as typed words. McLuhan’s most famous statement is: “The medium is the message.”

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the written word

The Written Word

Source: Marshall McLuhan

Understanding Media

McLuhan’s most famous statement is: “The medium is the message.”
  • This encapsulated his philosophy that media are environments: people change in response to their changes in “environment” so communication innovations cause social change
  • McLuhan was a technological determinist
  • His argument depended on the idea of “rebalancing” of the senses
re balancing the senses
Re-balancing the senses
  • Every communication medium extends the senses in a certain way
  • Analogy: a hammer extends the fist; a pliers extends the fingers; a wheel extends the foot
  • Media too
    • Telephone extends the ear
    • Camera extends the eye
    • Television extends the “active sense of exploratory touch” (why would he say this)
Did you adjust to the change from black writing on a white background to white writing on a black background?
  • Were you aware of adjusting?
  • What if the show had started with white on black?
How was it adjusting to the font on the previous slide?
  • Would you prefer not to have to keepadjusting your perception?
why am i doing this to you
Why am I doing this to you?
  • The process of perceptual adaptation is generally subconscious
  • It takes rather severe and sudden changes in our media to make us aware of it
  • Perception involves the separation of “figure” from “ground” (what might make this difficult?)
rebalancing the senses again
Rebalancing the senses (again)
  • We adapted to the color schemes by recognizing which color was ground and which was figure
  • FIGURE/GROUND contrast is the basis of perception and communication whether we are talking about colors and fonts or more conceptual aspects of message context such as familiar and unfamiliar images.
perception and communication
Perception and Communication
  • Another issue in perception and communication is whether people write with sound signs (an alphabet) or idea signs (pictograms and ideograms)
  • People in an alphabetic culture develop a kind of perception that is different from people’s perception in an ideographic culture
alphabetic writing according to mcluhan
Alphabetic Writing (according to McLuhan)
  • Linear & Sequential (each letter & word has a specific place in a long line, between the first and the last elements in the series)
  • Analytical (breaks down speech into sounds, thought into units)
  • Rational (a function of signs not symbols)
  • Inclusive (understood by most adults)
  • Visual (I’m not so sure of this)
what is an alphabet

What is an alphabet?

A collection of sound signs (very roughly corresponding to the phonemes used in a language)

ideograms according to mcluhan
Ideograms (according to McLuhan)
  • Non-linear (the elements are as important as the order)
  • Mosaic (eye & mind moves in all directions)
  • Magical (“hieroglyph” means sacred writing, words were believed to have powers)
  • Exclusive (understood only by specialists)
  • Aural (auditory) (I’m not so sure of this)
chinese what part is the same what part is different
CHINESEWhat part is the same? What part is different?

Does written English give any indication that monkeys and apes are related and similar animals?

ideograms e g chinese egyptian hieroglyphs aztec
Ideograms (e.g. Chinese, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Aztec)
  • Each word has a unique symbol
  • Shape of symbol is essentially arbitrary, though words of similar meaning may share elements (radicals) in their ideograms
  • Knowing how a word sounds may give you clue to how it is written, but not predictably
  • Knowing how a word is written generally gives you no clue what it sounds like
hieroglyphs pictograms ideograms with sound symbols
HIEROGLYPHS (pictograms + ideograms with sound symbols)


aztec pictograms sound symbols
AZTEC (pictograms + sound symbols)



Perhaps color stands in for the mythical/magical elements that have been lost from communication in an alphabetic format.

shift to alphabetic culture
Shift to alphabetic culture
  • Importance of tribe declines, eventually states emerge
  • Growing emphasis on individuality
  • One is a citizen instead of a subject; more autonomous yet also more self-disciplined
  • Thought, explanation, and logic must be framed in terms of causality whereas before it was framed in terms of overall patterns (e.g. feng shui, astrology)
  • His significance is not really as an inventor
  • The Chinese already had moveable type
  • The role of Gutenberg’s press was to speed the diffusion of books and thereby promote literacy in Europe
  • This in turn shifted power away from the Pope and the monarchies toward popular visions of Christianity and the nation
  • The use of alphabetic writing makes learning to read and write much easier
  • Printing press gives ordinary people access to information and social critiques
  • Reading & writing are no longer arcane skills known only by scribes and elites
  • People who can read and write for themselves can take control of their own information-gathering process, and eventually tend to question authorities in both government and religion
  • The printing press is the first machine for mass production
  • Its elements are interchangeable, which suggests a new way of thinking about things: the idea of components
  • The workers of an industrial society could not be as ignorant as peasants
  • The accelerating flows of capital and investment required daily news, which was only possible with a printing press