Marshall McLuhan: Old Versus New Assumptions

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), for those unfamiliar with him, rocketed from an unknown academic to rockstar with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. The core of the book is a phrase many of us are familiar with: “The medium is the message.

But long before those famous words were ever spoken, McLuhan offered advice on the evolving media landscape. This interview from 1960 offers as much wisdom today as it did then.

When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.

Let's think about this for a second. “When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can't help that. … We're just trying to fit the old things into the new form.”

We do this with knowledge as well. Generalists are largely a thing of the past. To get a job we have to know a niche and we have to know it well. This process of specialization, however, comes with high cost. We fail to learn about the dynamic world in which we operate. Over years and decades, we come to fit the world into our knowledge. Rather than see things as an interconnected holistic system we fall into what Daniel Kahneman calls “What You See Is All There Is” (WYSIATI). The way out of this, of course, is to arm yourself with the great models of the world.