Cornflakes and Cadillacs

I’ll probably be posting several thoughts on McLuhan’s Understanding Media over the next while, as the McLuhan reading group I’ve joined is just getting underway. I don’t think there’s any forum set up for discussion, and anyway I prefer to post here since I can feed out to platforms like Twitter and FB, allowing for people outside the group to interact.

One of the themes I’m tagging in the margins of my paper copy of the book is Scale. After reading the first two chapters, this seems to me as part of his main thesis – that there’s a higher scale of human psyche that is emerging from an autonomous reaction to an increase of extensions of ourselves through media/technology. (He’s writing 50 years ago, before the digital boom – and even hints at his context being a transition age – so perhaps I should scratch the ‘is emerging’ and write ‘has emerged’?)

Related to this Scaling, is the division between “individual and society”. His narrative, even this early on in the book, certainly presents an unbalance between these two degrees of considering ‘man’, nearly always neglecting the idea that to live as an individual and in a society aren’t mutually exclusive. In his slower, less dramatic moments, it doesn’t seem like he fully believes this need be the case. However, perhaps his point is to warn of the unbalanced power of the emerging, technology induced, collective scale. After all, one of the drawbacks of long popular capitalism is its tendency to alienate the individual. What could be more powerful than a remedy to that?

It was the capitalist inspired line in chapter 1 (titled The Medium is the Message) that jumped out at me:

In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one and other and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out Cornflakes or Cadillacs.

I’ve often actually felt something wrong about the famous line The Medium the Message, and have preferred to think that the Medium has the potential to be the Message. But, here I began to see what he’s trying to say. Translating between scales uses one level’s medium as the destination level’s message. The individual wants breakfast cereal or a car; the society cares not which exact person buys what food or major appliance, but sees the production numbers that have been tallied up for decision making purposes. And, the latter consideration wasn’t nearly as easy to enact 200 years ago as it is today…to state it undramatically.


6 thoughts on “Cornflakes and Cadillacs

  1. Thank you for this post Glen! I will do a weekly aggregation of things happening online and will include this. Did you also tweet this post? I don’t think my #umrg search on Twitter caught it.

    Do you think we need a discussion forum for the group or should comments underneath blog posts be good enough?


  2. Thanks Hans, I did use the hash tag…maybe there’s some lag time. As I mentioned, I prefer the blog/comment style. I think with the small group size, too, there won’t be too many localized discussions that get lost with decentralization.

    I’d encourage you to add some thoughts to it when you get the time (as per your suggestion about Socratic building of discussion).


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  4. Given that a medium’s message is its effects, in other words, the change in scale, pace, or pattern that a medium enables (not “causes” in the usual sense of that word) in human interactions, what McLuhan is likely referring to in his lovely “cornflakes or Cadillacs” comment is the effect of industrial process enabled by the medium of “factory machine.” You’re right that he does not explicitly distinguish between the individual and the society throughout his work, and this makes sense in an interesting sort of way. McLuhan did not have the vocabulary of complexity at his disposal, although the effects he observes and about which he writes are indeed complex and emergent effects. In that sense, the changes – or messages – that act on an individual create perturbations in the social system of which an individual is a member; hence, an effect on an individual potentially ripples through to become transformative effects on a society.


  5. Cheers Marks, thanks for your thoughts. I do think we agree about your first point. Although I also think he’s using the industrial process as an example of a larger theme about milieu of technology and the distinct higher ‘level’ that it creates.

    I wouldn’t say that he doesn’t ever distinguish between individual and society – what do you think of the striking way that he ends the introduction?

    Your last point is great. I wonder how much McLuhan felt he was writing ‘in the middle’ of it all, compared to now where we probably see him more as someone at the very initial stages of the technology and media boom. In a sense, maybe vocabulary and context has caught up with him…and the ideas odf complexity or emergence have become easier to see. This is an interesting theme to also follow.


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