A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Marshall McLuhan’s Flaws of Media

Marshall (November 17, 1976, age 65).  This will show them

Sir Karl Popper says that Science is what can be disproved but is not.  Took me two years of looking, reading, asking people the question, what is science? to get this gem. Finally I found the answer in Popper’s Objective Knowledge.

Now, Eric and I were talking and we came up with three laws of media pretty fast – things all media do –  laws that put to the test cannot be disproved, and then after much thinking a fourth.  Here they are:  (1) all media are extensions of us, enhancing, extending or amplifying our minds, bodies, or spirits in some way; (2) in coming into being all media displace or make obsolescent some old condition, situation or thing; (3) at the same time as they displace they also retrieve some previously displaced condition, situation, or thing; (4) at the same time all media when pushed to the limit reverse, shifting 180 degrees in their defining characters or qualities.  (For some reason the third law was the hardest to discover.  Took me three weeks.  The other three took half a day.)  Here’s the kicker, I bet you can’t disprove even one of them.  In fact I challenge anyone to disprove any of them.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Whatever they are McLuhan’s laws aren’t science

The problem with Marshall McLuhan’s Laws of Media is that they cannot be disproved because they’re not disprovable.  They’re definitions pretending to be laws.

Newton’s laws of motion can be tested.  McLuhan’s laws of media cannot be tested.  The laws of media are descriptive.  To be testable a law must be written in such a way that you can imagine a situation in which it does not hold.  For example, water boiling at 99 degrees centigrade at sea level, or apples falling at 33 feet per second squared in a vacuum.  But McLuhan’s laws cannot be imagined failing in the sense that if you observed “this” then you could say “that” did not happen.

The laws of media are like Monty Python’s theory of dinosaurs – small at one end, big in the middle, and small at the other end.

With the laws of media you cannot test their truth, they are true by definition.  No extension? No medium.  But  you can  ask are they useful.

Are McLuhan’s laws useful?  If so what are they useful for?  What part of Mcluhan’s thinking is testable?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan. Ed. Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart. Scarborough Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1996, p. 188.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, December 1st, 2009
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 2 Comments

2 Comments to Marshall McLuhan’s Flaws of Media

  • Don Lindstrom says:

    Great opening paragraph containing the truth.

  • Tim Good says:

    I agree that there is no test that can disprove McLuhan’s “laws”, but it is interesting that in looking at different media, the four laws that McLuhan suggests always seem to be useful and true. Which I guess was what he was going for it attempting to dissect the effects that media have.

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