“The Truth Shall Make You Free” ~ M. McLuhan


Marshall McLuhan is a famous media determinist who believed in the power of media and technology to impact society.   He spoke against neutralists that do not assign positive or negative characteristics to technology and media and instead focus on the nature of the user and the purpose of using technology.  In his article “Media is the message”, McLuhan argues the approach of David Sarnoff who made the following statement: “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.”  Marshall McLuhan calls this approach somnambulism, a view that completely ignores the fact that medium is the message.   Per McLuhan, it is quite a narcissistic interpretation of someone “hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form”. 

What does McLuhan mean by terms “amputation” and “extension”?   An extension occurs when an individual or society makes or uses something in a way that extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new.  For example, the shovel is an “extension” of our arms, a microscope is an “extension” of our eyes, a car is an extension of our feet etc.  Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions have the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension. The extension of a technology like the automobile “amputates” the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways.

McLuhan believed that mankind has always been fascinated and obsessed with these extensions, but too frequently we choose to ignore or minimize the amputations.

According to techno and media determinists, technological and media processes cause social movements.  There are many critics of techno determinism, however it is worth listening to the concerns of the great scholar McLuhan who warned us about dangers of overextended technology.   In the case of cars, for example, the resulting amputations such as muscle atrophy, smog, and high-speed fatalities increase at a rate that challenges the benefits initially gained. 

On McLuhan’s gravestone are the words “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” We do not have to like or even agree with everything that McLuhan said, but we should nevertheless remember that his life was dedicated to showing men the truth about the world they live in, and the hidden consequences of the technologies he develops.  Per McLuhan, American society is too often preoccupied with external enemies like Stalin and Hitler for example in the World War II era.  At the same time, people failed to notice the threat of electric technology as “uniformity was applied to every level of education, government, industry and social life”. 

McLuhan claims that the real enemy is sometimes invisible and unrecognizable by the people.  Our conventional response to all media (“it depends how it is used”) puts people in a dangerous place according to the author.  Often another medium serving as a “content” makes the impact of the media very strong without consumers of that content even noticing the influence.  “Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for human users”, said McLuhan.  That statement echoes the remark of Liebling in the book “Press”: “A man is not free if he cannot see where he is going even if he has a gun to help him get there”.  McLuhan finishes his article with a notion about slaves quoting C.G. Jung: “Every Roman was surrounded by slaves… Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology.”

In the article Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society, published in 2007 in the International Journal of Communication, Manuel Castels wrote: “Throughout history communication and information have been fundamental sources of power and counter-power, of domination and social change. This is because the fundamental battle being fought in society is the battle over the minds of the people. The way people think determines the fate of norms and values on which societies are constructed. While coercion and fear are critical sources for imposing the will of the dominants over the dominated, few institutional systems can last long if they are predominantly based on sheer repression. Torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds.”  Was McLuhan on to something?   With mass and emerging media penetrating every aspect of our lives constantly, we have to keep asking ourselves:  “How are we being manipulated, to whose benefit?”  We are always to seek the truth to set ourselves free. 




6 thoughts on ““The Truth Shall Make You Free” ~ M. McLuhan”

  1. I had a really hard time reading McLuhan. Fortunately your post is much easier reading! You also do a better job explaining him than McLuhan does himself. I’ll admit that during the first half of his paper, I was somewhat confused. Just when I thought I understood, he threw something else in there that I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around.

    Eventually I figured out most of his main points, especially this one—that he is not concerned about the individual, specifically, being affected by a type of media, but he is interested in how the media affects society as a whole. Like the example of a train used in class, (keeping in mind McLuhan’s tendency to play “fast and loose” with his definition of media), it’s not about the individual who needs the supplies coming on the train to run his farm, it’s about the fact that the train is running in the first place, that affects the entire community—and numerous communities for miles around—and allows society to develop in new ways.

    It was important for me to grasp this concept before I could accept McLuhan’s entire argument. Before that, I was convinced that he had it all wrong, and that the content of the medium was obviously more important. To an individual, it may seem much more important, but to a society, the media that does the conveying has a more profound impact.

    So when you wrote of McLuhan’s disagreement with David Sarnoff’s statements in your first paragraph, I was ready to agree with Sarnoff. Technology should not be used as a scapegoat or an excuse for the bad decisions of certain individuals. But on a societal level, the technology that allows a criminal to commit an offense—a gun, to use one of McLuhan’s own examples—can be shown to have a certain effect on the societies within which such a technology is available. One might compare, say, the levels of gun violence in various countries and cities where guns are more or less readily available than others, perhaps comparing London, to NYC, to cities across Mexico.

    I’d like to think about how McLuhan would respond to mothers concerned that television and video games affect their children. I suppose someone like Sarnoff would tell those mothers that they should choose better programming and more child friendly video games for their kids to enjoy. But McLuhan would probably say that those mothers have a good point, that the very media of television and video gaming affect the way children grow, how their minds develop, how they interact with others, and how they see the world.

    One particular instance of a form of media affecting society that really concerns me is that of “the media” pushing certain news stories over others—and manipulating those stories, feeding consumers fluff stories and superficial television programming, and highlighting every petty second of the lives of celebrities and politicians alike. These actions take place on television, through a billion different internet websites, through print ads, billboards, and magazines, and numerous other media formats. This inundation of meaningless dribble comes at the modern consumer from every angle during nearly every waking moment of his or her life.

    This is what you spoke of in your last paragraph, from Castels’ article, that the “fundamental battle being fought in society is the battle over the minds of the people.” I think you definitely hit the nail on the head with your last few lines. The truth is we ARE being manipulated and the changes in the very fabric of society are the quite visible results that the shrewd and vigilant mind can recognize and should beware.

    1. The video game example is a really good example that demonstrates the complexity of McLuhan’s argument. I think your example regarding “the media” might focus more on the content than the medium, but of course it is very hard to separate the two. Which is one of the drawbacks of Mcluhan’s argument. Great examples that do a nice job responding the original post.

  2. In McLuhan’s essay he treats just about everything as a medium (electric light, AT&T, newspapers railroads, apple pie, movies, Roman slaves) in his efforts to explain his message that people must seek the truth and set themselves free of those who use all manners of mediums to manipulate their minds.

    What seems to matter to McLuhan is that any medium can be used to persuade an unsuspecting populace, and those who dwell in the misguided thinking that the important thing is “how” a medium is used, not that one is used at all. But I have a problem with simply “knowing” that a medium is used and it in itself is the message that must be considered. How is that truth going to set people free of being manipulated by the medium and/or its content?

    For example, a husband used a gun to kill his wife. In following McLuhan, the medium is the gun. Why did the husband use a gun? He could have stabbed his wife. He could have strangled her. He could have poisoned her. He could have drowned her in the bathtub and so on.

    The husband chose the gun for a reason. Maybe it was conveniently handy when he made the decision to kill his wife. Maybe he trusted the gun to accomplish his desired outcome; the death of his wife. Or, maybe it was some other reason that he may or may not provide. What is known is that he used the medium of the gun to kill his wife. But how is “knowing” this truth of information about the gun going to set anyone free? The gun is a weapon, just as any medium can be. But the wife is just as dead, and the husband is still a killer.

    I think the husband’s reason for choosing the gun is as varied and as important as any medium being used to deliver a message and just as elusive. Thus, even if people accept that the medium, apple pie, electric lights, newspapers or guns, is the most important thing, it doesn’t mean people will know any truth beyond the fact that a particular medium was chosen. And without the reason for the selection of the medium, can people really know what the truth of the intended manipulation was and guard against it?

    And, while McLuhan’s gravestone states: The Truth Shall Make You Free, I remember the mantra from the TV show House: Everyone lies.

    1. You write beautifully, Norma. I think the truth that McLuhan would want us to know in the gun example, is not why the gun was chosen, but how the gun has shifted our relation to safety, personal agency, vigilantism, and so on to lead to the moment that the husband chose the gun without even realizing that he was making a choice. The gun would have altered all of these social structures so that the knife, the rope, the poison, and the bathtub don’t seem like viable options. The gun is the only choice because it’s not just about ending his wife’s life, but it’s about power, agency, masculinity, and so on.

  3. You do a nice job connecting McLuhan to Castells. The post plays it a bit safe though. By the end of it, I still don’t know what you think about these ideas. For future posts, focus on taking the next step and letting the reader know what you think of the ideas about which you are writing.

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